An Experiment with a Bird

Over the past few years the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby has been focussed on delivering several research projects. Over the summer we found a moment to pause, update our pathways guidance (see below) and plan a team photo. For a group photo we wanted an image that prompted reflection on human-nature relationships, but was also a bit of fun. We could have gone out into nature, but our research shows contact and connection are different – independent and additive. Moving beyond contact to a close relationship with nature is important for human wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours.

Our new group photo was inspired by Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. At first sight this can seem like an odd choice. There are three reasons, two are simple, and the third requires a little more discussion. Firstly, Joseph Wright was from Derby, so is the group. Second, it’s more interesting (and enjoyable to be a part of!) than a standard group photo – it’s an experiment with a wooden bird. Third, in many ways the painting is about the human relationship with nature.

Members of the Nature Connectedness Research Group

Joseph Wright was from Derby, working at a time of scientific enlightenment – a period marked by an emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism. The reductionist scientific method focuses on minute and quantifiable factors with straightforward explanations of the data being sought. While it is an objective and informative approach, it should be remembered that it can miss dynamic and complex connections present in natural systems – we can’t measure and control every variable in a complex system. Some argue that the enlightenment and reductionist scientific method led to a separation of humanity from nature. Further, the painting was completed in 1768 towards the start of the Industrial Revolution, the start of unprecedented use of natural resources and fossil fuels. It is a time of increasing urbanicity and key changes to the human relationship with nature.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump shows people gathered to observe an air pump experiment into the nature of air and its ability to support life. The painting shows a cockatiel panicking, perhaps dying, as the air is the pump withdraws the air from the vessel. The witnesses display various emotions, from understandable distress to fascination. The painting reflects a certain type of relationship with nature and the natural world. A relationship of enquiry and knowledge where scientific curiosity overcomes concern for the bird – nature.

The nature of our planet’s atmosphere and impact on all life is a key concern now, a new relationship with nature is needed for a sustainable future. The Nature Connectedness Research Group studies our emotional connection to nature and the benefits to wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. We have replaced the bird with an artistic representation of nature, the type of pursuit that can help build a connection with nature, for the artist or the viewer. The photograph also includes one of our main research tools, a laptop, which adopts a natural symbol for its brand, just one way that the meaning of nature has changed in our lives and a symbol of the technology that defines us more and more. You might also spot some of the applications of our research, such as the National Trust 50 Things leaflet.

Our new pathways postcard – Let nature be your story

There are many types of relationship with nature, both sustainable and not, and we’ve recently refreshed the guidance on the positive types of relationship identified in our pathways to nature connectedness research in a new postcard (PDF). We’ve also produced a short video to help explain and illustrate the pathways. These help explain the types of activity to foster to improve nature connectedness. They provide an applied framework for those designing programmes, or places, to improve human-nature connectedness – bringing about the benefits to wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours.

For the Nature Connectedness Research Group our story is nature, let nature be your story.




Thank you to Geoffrey Shek and Jay Lawrence for the photography, and to the Dolphin Inn in Derby for the room.

About Miles

Professor of Human Factors & Nature Connectedness - improving connection to (the rest of) nature to unite human & nature’s wellbeing.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to An Experiment with a Bird

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s