Laura Hecox Naturalist Award

Recently, the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History honored me with the Laura Hecox Naturalist Award. The museum established this award in 2016 in honor of the museum's founder, Laura Hecox, to recognize Santa Cruz community members who exemplify the museum’s mission to connect people with nature and science in ways that help others to appreciate, understand, and protect the wonders of the natural world. Recipients generously and enthusiastically share their knowledge and love of natural history and inspire others to do the same.

Below are the remarks I made when I accepted the award at a Patron’s reception on May 17.

I’d like to thank the Board and the Museum staff for honoring me with this award.

When Marisa called me to tell me about this award, I was not sure I was really the right candidate. I don’t often think of myself as a naturalist. Like many people, I think of naturalists as purely scientists - people who participate in academic research and give Latin names to the creatures they study.

But as I learned more about Laura Hecox, I realized I had fallen into that trap of allowing a narrow vision to define something that is infinitely more complex. Laura Hecox probably didn’t start out thinking of herself as a naturalist and she almost certainly faced some serious skepticism or outright rejection from the scientific community in her time. But she built her collection and dedicated her life to sharing her knowledge with others.

Learning about Laura Hecox also got me thinking about women like Maria Sibylla Merian who was both an artist and scientist. Without any formal scientific training, Maria contributed significantly to our understanding of insect metamorphosis. She produced incredible etchings and paintings that document her observations. I’ve also been thinking about Mary Oliver, who I think of as the Poet Laureate / Patron Saint of naturalists. And I think about the many, many men and women who are the original stewards of these lands - the Amah Mutsun, Rumsen, and Ohlone people -  and all of the knowledge they have contributed to our understanding of this place. All of them have done so much, in such different ways, to help connect each of us to our place in the world. What is a naturalist if not someone who makes careful observations and shares them with others?

So though I forget more Latin names than I learn and I rely on research far more than I contribute to it, I do know how to pay attention. And I know how to share what I witness through paintings and drawings. Wild places in particular are an endless source of inspiration for the work I do. I aspire to honor the beauty and complexity of this place. And more than anything, I hope that my work inspires others to observe more carefully and engage more deeply with the world we share.

I know that this kind of inspiration starts in places like this museum. It certainly did for me and I continue to rely on the resources here to help me understand the world around me. One of the most profound offerings this museum can make is to invite anyone and everyone to engage in observation, in learning, and in connection. By engaging a broad swath of the community - especially those who may not traditionally show up in a space like this - the museum has the potential to spark curiosity and wonder in ways that are critical to our shared future.

We are on the precipice of profound and potentially catastrophic changes in our climate and our ecosystems. In order to address the challenges that lie ahead, we need to inspire each other to

  • Find connection to place

  • Seek out multiple perspectives

  • Appreciate the complexity of biological systems

  • Understand what it takes to take care of our world

  • Become stewards of our natural resources

I am encouraged by what the museum has done thus far and how far outside the walls of this building its influence extends. I look forward to being part of the future efforts of the museum.