Nature: From Identification to Emotion.

Our efforts to engage people with nature are often based on knowledge and identification. A national paper last weekend gave a couple of good examples – watching birds had 6 pages on identification, while going to the local woods was about ticking off 10 species, including goshawk and pine martin! This is raising expectations of what might be seen, but also our current research suggests it’s not the way to get people connected to nature.

Of the 10 woodland species listed, I’ve seen none of them in my local woodland, but I always enjoy my time there. On Friday, my son and I watched 6 moorhen chicks attempt to return up a modest waterfall to their parents. An hour went by, with little purpose, but still of great value – and the fact they were moorhen didn’t matter.

To normalise the value of nature, we should focus on the everyday nature about us. And this focus should not be to know and to identify. We’re driven to know, to understand, be smarter, to walk further, to run faster, to climb, to cross, to conquer, to progress – and to consume. Whereas the remedies for our current disconnection with nature are in less purposeful activities, simple contact with nature involving emotion.

Gregory Bateson highlighted the ecological dangers of our linear, purposeful thinking and predicted the solutions in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before the current environmental movement developed. Bateson argued that our conscious purpose is damaging to the wider ecology as it separates us from it – “We are not outside the ecology for which we plan”. He saw remedies in the arts, aesthetics, love and contact with the natural world.

A beautiful bird

A beautiful bird

So rather than describe what a blackbird looks like, highlight the joy in listening to its song. Rather than explain how to identify a tree by its leaves, prompt people to watch how the breeze moves them. Rather than recording and ticking off species, watch them going about their lives. Rather than conquering the outdoors, find awe and wonder being there. Make contact, reflect and experience emotion, meaning and the beauty of nature – pause – joy in the perception of the world. It can be done, my local museum has done it in their new nature gallery – it was great to see their vision become reality.

There is no need to shy away from framing nature in this way. When we asked people to notice three good things in nature each day for five days, the things people noticed weren’t based on linear purpose or taxonomy, the differences between birds or how many they’d seen. Rather the good things in nature were the sensations, feelings, beauty, wonder and changes over time. In pausing and taking a moment to notice nature people became more connected to nature and felt better too. And if a connection leads to a thirst for knowledge and identification, then great, as long as less purposeful engagement is not lost.

It may seem difficult at first to promote activities that inherently have no purpose, but of course they do, to reconnect. And we all need some time bypassing the selective attention of our conscious purpose. So guides and interpretation panels should help do that – in addition to telling us the labels we’ve given to what we might see, let them remind us of what we can feel.


Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. University of Chicago Press.

Guddemi, P. (2011). Conscious purpose in 2010: Bateson’s prescient warning. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 28(5), 465-475.

Richardson, M., Hallam, J. & Lumber, R. (in press). One thousand good things in nature: The aspects of nature that lead to increased nature connectedness. Environmental Values.

Richardson, M., & Sheffield, D. (in press). Reflective self-attention: A more stable predictor of connection to nature than mindful attention. Ecopsychology.



About Miles

Applied psychologist researching our connection with nature and ways to improve it. Good for nature, good for you.
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9 Responses to Nature: From Identification to Emotion.

  1. I’ve always felt a little embarassed throughout my career that I never felt as driven as others I’ve been working with to identify everything I see and film. It’s wonderful to hear how good that perspective is and that it’s been the right approach for my own personal wildlife documentaries.

  2. Kate Gold says:

    Very interesting blog. I don’t think it’s a question of either beauty/feelings or identification, both are equally valid ways of connecting with nature. And one often leads to the other. I spent time recently listening to aspen leaves, and I love how the Latin name perfectly captures their movement. Re the ‘One thousand good things in nature’ paper, is it surprising that people noted sensations, beauty and feelings rather than numbers, id’s etc if the task guidance stated that the “things you can list can be the beauty of small things at any one moment or wider aspects that arise from attending to the diversity and wonder of the natural world around you…”?

    • Miles says:

      Thank you. Not sure there’s any research evidence that identification alone is a pathway to nature connection, yet activities to engage people with nature often have that basis – blog is about encouraging a different, evidence based, approach.

      Re – 1000 good things, yep, that point is covered in the paper, the framing will influence, but other themes did emerge – the blog is shorter and more straightforward.

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  4. Lewis says:

    Thanks – a really interesting post. I couldn’t agree more about a blended approach to instrumental understanding and an affective connection. In fact I think one leads to the other. ‘Staying True to Trees’ by Christian Diehm is an interesting philosophical read on this matter. Arguing the an anthropocentric ‘ID book’ engagement with nature can, and offten does, lead to a deeper more intrinsic value basis for a relationship with the non-human world.

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