A Conversation With Chris Lay, Manager of UCSC’s New Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History

June 25, 2015

By Sarah Rabkin 

Chris Lay with a peregrine falcon, a specimen from the UCSC’s new Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History. Photo Credit: Lin Weyers

On a typical workday, Chris Lay might teach a class about campus wildflowers, assist student interns curating a local bee collection, help set up specimens for an ornithology lab, respond to a Santa Cruz community member calling about an unidentified mammal sighting in her back yard, and plan a week-long class trip to the Mojave desert.

Lay has been the curator of the UCSC Natural History Museum since 2008, when he stepped into the position formerly held by Tonya Haff and before her by Jeff Davis. For the past six years, he has been managing the campus’s natural history collections, which comprise roughly 130,000 specimens of animal, plant, and fungal species found mainly in the local central coast region of California.

He also teaches classes on environmental education, UCSC campus natural history, and museum curation, as well as the department’s renowned Natural History Field Quarter—a traveling ten-week hands-on immersion course in the study of California habitats and ecosystems.

Lay’s job became even more interesting in March, 2014, with the success of an ambitious grant proposal he and some colleagues had worked on for several years. The two-million-dollar gift they won from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation provides for two endowments honoring the legacy of the late Kenneth S. Norris (1924-1998), UCSC’s pioneering professor of natural history.

Norris—who created the Natural History Field Quarter and set the tone for its joy-infused, intellectually challenging field-based educational approach—was internationally renowned as a cetacean biologist and desert ecologist, celebrated throughout the University of California for inaugurating its statewide system of protected natural reserves, and beloved on the UCSC campus as a brilliant researcher and dedicated teacher.

The Packard grant provides financial support for Field Quarter and establishes a competitive grants program to support undergraduate natural history research projects. It also allocates funds to create the Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History, which Lay will serve as center manager and ENVS professor Karen Holl as faculty director. Following in Dr. Norris’ footsteps, the new center will work with other campus faculty to bring more natural history and field learning opportunities to the UCSC and broader Santa Cruz community.

In October, Chris Lay talked to ENVS environmental writing instructor Sarah Rabkin about his passion for natural history education and his goals for the new Norris Center.

SJR: How do you understand “natural history” as a pursuit, and what originally drew you to this field?

CML: Natural history is the direct observation and interpretation of the natural world. Really, anyone who spends time outside observing the “more-than-human” world is practicing natural history. Certainly, many scientists engage in this practice, but so do teachers, artists, writers, musicians, and many others.

I love being outside and I love teaching others outside.  I’ve known this about myself since I was about 15 years old, when I first started leading backpacking trips for the younger kids in my Boy Scout troop. I’ve basically been doing this same thing ever since.

SJR: What were some of your own most memorable or formative natural history learning experiences?

CML: Boy, there are many! Learning about medicinal plants from a Lakota elder when I was very young; making an insect collection in my 9th-grade biology class; watching a snake sneak up on and catch a lizard; seeing a big avalanche for the first time; finding a Rosy Finch nest way up high in the alpine zone; watching dolphins bow-ride next to our boat in the Monterey Bay; sitting quietly in a snowstorm amidst a herd of Bighorn sheep; contemplating fresh grizzly bear tracks on top of my own tracks made just hours earlier…!

SJR: How is natural history study different from other, related courses of study—e.g. ecology or biology?

CML: Let’s start with how they’re similar. Like all good field scientists, naturalists (those who practice natural history) must develop their skills of observation and inquiry. After this, a scientist uses her observations and questions to devise and rigorously test a specific hypothesis. Some naturalists might do this too (many scientists are also naturalists), but others might use these same observations to write field guides, reflect in a personal field journal, compose a poem or song, create a piece of artwork, develop a lesson plan for a class, or contribute to a citizen science project.

SJR: What brought you to UC Santa Cruz as a student…and eventually to your current position?

CML: I came to UCSC first as an undergraduate in 1991, in part because I had heard about UCSC’s Environmental Studies program. I was actually on track to graduate as an ENVS/Math double major, but in the end I dropped ENVS so I could finish in four years. I went back to school later to get a master’s in Conservation Biology. After I’d taught high school biology for several years, my current position opened up and I applied. I feel very blessed (and lucky) to have gotten the job.

SJR: Tell me about some of your most challenging and rewarding moments teaching students about natural history.

CML: In the classroom, where I taught high school biology and environmental science for six years, it was often very challenging to communicate my love for the natural world to my students. Still—I tried! I brought flowers, snakes, turtles, huge pine cones, animal skulls, and animal-track casts to class. And of course I took the students on field trips to the beach or camping trips to the local state park.

But even when you’re outside all the time, it can still be challenging.  For many years prior to teaching high school, I worked as an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), which offers 30-day wilderness trips in some of the most remote places left on Earth. While there were many opportunities to teach natural history on those courses, I would often get trumped by other aspects of the NOLS curriculum, or by mother nature herself, with multi-day snowstorms and that sort of thing.

Here at UCSC, I’ve found a wonderful balance between the best aspects of these two past jobs, with countless rewarding experiences. One that comes to mind is getting a class of 30 students quiet and observant enough to tiptoe in to the forests of campus to see an owl asleep in the branches above us.

SJR: How have budget limitations constrained natural history education at UCSC in the recent past, and how will the Packard grant address those problems?

CML: Just three years ago, the Environmental Studies Department lost the permanent funding for my position, and we were really having to scramble to cobble together enough funding just to keep my position afloat. We were denied several grants because there was no guarantee of permanency to my job in the natural history museum. With the new Packard endowment, my job (and thus the museum) has a permanently stable foundation. This will open up many future grant opportunities.  The endowment, along with support from multiple departments and divisions on campus, as well as other private donors, gives us the opportunity to develop and pursue a vision for expanding natural history teaching, collections, and research at UCSC.

SJR: What do you see as the essence of Ken Norris’s legacy for natural history education, and how do you hope the Norris Center will honor that legacy over the long term?

CML: Get outside, slow down, use all your senses, observe! Ask questions—lots of them. Remember that “the animal is the authority”: always return to direct observation, record your observations in a field journal, reflect and don’t be afraid to develop deep emotional connections with all things. Empower people to develop and share their own unique expertise with one another. Model humility and informed stewardship. And, my goodness, don’t forget to have fun!

It is my honor and privilege to carry Ken’s legacy into the future. With the new Norris Center, we are taking Ken’s vision to a broader, community-wide level. I intend it to be a place where students, faculty, staff, and the greater community can come together to continue learning about, celebrating, and ultimately protecting the greater world in the same way that Ken did when he was here.

SJR: What’s in store for the Center’s immediate future?

CML: Several senior ENVS interns are helping me create the new Norris Center within the space in Natural Sciences 2 where the all the natural history museum collections used to be stored. We’ve moved all the collections into another room. We’re creating a multi-purpose place: part workspace, library, meeting area, and a small display museum with exhibits about Ken Norris and the museum’s collections. Eventually, I want this to be open and available to everyone at UCSC and to all people in the broader Santa Cruz community who are interested in pursuing an interest in natural history.

SJR: How does this new era for UCSC relate to the climate of support for natural history education at a national scale? Do you know of similar developments at other institutions? Is natural history making a comeback in academia?

CML: Natural history is certainly making a comeback here at UCSC! Under the leadership of faculty in ENVS, the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department, and UCSC Natural Reserves, we’re staking out our position as THE UC campus to come to for field natural history opportunities. Beyond UCSC, the recently created California Naturalist Program is creating excellent naturalist training opportunities statewide, with one of their programs being hosted here at the UCSC Arboretum.

SJR: Why should UCSC students, faculty, staff and administrators care about field-based natural history education? And how can they get involved in the new Norris Center and access its resources?

CML: Finding common ground and collaborating with diverse groups of people to solve complex problems is our biggest challenge right now. Natural history is one area of study that brings many disciplines together because of their shared love of the natural world.

For scientists especially, I believe that we can use natural history as a tool to connect more citizens to the important research being done here and at other universities worldwide. In the words of environmental educator Freeman Tilden, “Through interpretation [of nature], understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.” 

Finally, the simple act of getting outside and observing nature away from the many distractions of our modern lives is good medicine for us all!

The best way to get involved at the new Norris Center is to contact me via email or phone: cml@ucsc.edu or 831-459-4763. Very soon, we’ll have our new website up and running which will contain details on how to be involved with the UCSC natural history community and support our work. If you would like to support us in the form of a donation, please click here.

 Sarah Rabkin joined the UCSC's Writing Program faculty in 1985 and moved to ENVS in 1999, offering a variety of courses in science  and environmental writing. She will teach Nature Literature (ENVS 159) in Winter 2015.