I Am My Relationships with Human and Non-Human Life: An Exploration of the Edge Zone between NVC and Permaculture via Foraging 

I Am My Relationships with Human and Non-Human Life: An Exploration of the Edge Zone between NVC and Permaculture via Foraging 

A week or so ago in late October, here in the garden of the house we are staying in, on the outskirts of a town in the north of Glasgow, I was harvesting nettle seeds and hawthorn berries, and relating  with the plants in ways I will describe shortly. As I did this, I was struck in a more visceral and clear way than I have experienced previously that NVC, and likely other human-experience focussed practices, too, is completely focused on the needs of humans. Yes, within NVC there is an acknowledgement of expressions of life related to a longing for connection and communion with the non-human world, and still, the focus here is on the human experience. In this piece I am taking an initial dive into the question of “what might be possible, if we engage NVC from the perspective of more than human needs?” 

To give some context, I am currently engaging with NVC certification and the Permaculture Diploma, both within the context of the Vision Mobilisation Framework. One of my goals within my Permaculture Diploma is harvesting the yield of the edge created by the meeting of these three frameworks within me, and creating a synthesis that increases the potential power of all of them. Part of my focus within this 5-month period of being in Scotland, to support movement towards this goal, is about nurturing my natural affinity with the non-human world, within which I remember being for much of my time as a child. The particular shape this nurturance is taking at present is foraging. It is from within this particular foraging lens, and what I am discovering there, that what I want to explore in my question above is situated. 

As I go about diving into this exploration, I want to acknowledge to myself, so that I can more easily trust in what comes and not need to have a sense of completion with it all, that this is a pretty huge thing to be exploring and that this post will likely only be an initial scratch of the surface.

We meet our needs in interdependent relationships

In general, I am trying to engage with as many plants around me as possible, and especially with ones that are edible or medicinal and to experience picking them, storing them, processing them in various ways, and consuming or using them. I am doing this as a way to fully experience being in relationship with as much of my surroundings as is doable for me, and to increase my sense of possibility and knowledge about how to engage. 

I approached the hawthorn for the purpose of picking the bright red berries. I find them  really quite spectacular, standing out vibrantly against the background of green across the field. As I usually do, I told them who I was and why I was there — “I have come because I wanted to pick your berries so that I can experience making ketchup”… I experienced what I perceived as a “non-response”, the life energy of the plants remained what I experienced as “still”. I noticed other plants, the holly, and the brambles. I looked inside again. I realised within me that this wasn’t the deeper reason why I went there and I spoke again — “Since I was small, I have learned that hawthorns are poisonous, they are there for the birds, not humans.

Now I have discovered that is not so if you know not to eat too many of the seeds, and now that I know that, I want to discover relationship with you and I am called to do that through discovering what I can make to eat, so that your fruits can live on through what I and we are bringing into being in the world.”  I experienced what I perceived as an “opening”. Whether this was from the plant or from within me as I connected to the deeper levels of aliveness within me, I don’t think it matters. What’s important to me is that I moved into action, and took my cue to start picking the berries,  from a place of connection to aliveness within this meeting of me and the plant. 

I pulled down branches heavy with berries and also realised that there were far fewer than previously. I heard within me a voice, which arose from the same place that I experienced the “opening” in me, and which is the same place from where I also generally experience intuition expressing, that said, “remember the birds”. Heeding this, I left some on each branch, never clearing a whole one.

As I did this I realised that this was not coming from a sense of “I should leave some for the birds”, but out of honouring and trusting this voice. As I continued to pick, and wondered whether I was leaving enough for the birds, I remembered that there had been some I had picked that had dried out. Some I had separated out as they were still usable, and some were more dried out and shrivelled than I wanted. I was going to put them into the compost.

Then, with this voice in mind, I saw that what I wanted to do was to soak these and give them to the birds in the little bird feeder I had made and where I also put nuts and seeds that we are not going to use. I saw the web of relationships that I had allowed myself to enter into by listening to this voice. I became more viscerally aware of the relationship between the birds and the hawthorn, within that of my relationship with the birds, and of my place in the web of beings where my choices directly influence the resources that are available to other beings for their thriving.  
From an NVC perspective I can say that this experience met my needs for communion and connection with the non-human world, for a sense of oneness, and to wonder at what is possible when I trust in my intuition, which is true, it did. And there is something missing for me that points to the aliveness that arose within the relationship. There is something that opens when allowing trust in my intuition to move through me without inhibition, and I experience that as beyond what can be named within the limits of human experiencing as we know it; beyond an experience of oneness and into experiencing oneness within the reality that we attend to our needs within interdependent relationships, all of us, human and non-human.

As I have been observing the birds and the berries over the following days, I found myself watching the berries and thinking about how the birds had not taken them and maybe I could have taken more. I realised what a ridiculous notion this was; the birds are not taking the berries and going to store them somewhere, accumulating them as humans do (and also some other animals store food away, but not to the extent that humans do, and not based on fear of there not being enough, they too store based on need). The birds are living from trust in life that there will be what they need to live, or not. They take the berries when they need them.

The difference between trust in life, and taking only what we need, and accumulating, out of fear of there not being enough, was stark. When we take more than we need, it is not there for others. I discovered at a more visceral level how meeting our needs within interdependent relationships requires trust in life. Meeting our needs within interdependent relationships requires opening to, developing, and trusting our relationships with the birds and the plants, and the other beings – not only with humans. It requires trusting them, and our orientation to their needs to the extent that we can guess and sense them, to guide us, and having the humility to listen and to trust and follow what arises when we do. 

Words Are Windows Or They Are Doors 

When we moved into this house, back in August, I was determined to use the time we have here, even with it being only 5 months, to experiment with putting into practice the Permaculture design process. I wanted to do this as a way to integrate the principles, processes, and ethics as thinking tools “on the ground”. I decided to do this by creating a simple 3x3m patch in which to experiment with growing some vegetables for us to eat. As part of creating this patch, I created raised vegetable beds, to support drainage, give some wind cover, and bring added nutrients. This consisted of a thick mulch of layers of stinging nettles, cardboard, horse shit from a neighbour’s horse, and wood chips.  

A month or so later, I returned to the nettles to collect seeds. Again, I introduced myself and let them know that I was coming back to pick the seeds, especially to support a friend of mine who has a condition that nettle seeds are considered helpful with. I let them know that I intended that the energy that they had caught and now stored in their seeds would go on and again be stored, in a jar, to support the wellbeing of my friend and all that she brings to the world through her being. As I was about to start picking, I saw the nettles had grown a brand new patch of young leaves. I wondered why this had happened *now* when before it was a big yet contained patch of clearly well seasoned, tough plants?

I remembered that when I created the vegetable patch I had cut the nettles and laid them here on the grass. They must have dropped some seeds then, and by now they had grown! I saw again the relationship between my actions and the furthering of the nettles. I added an acknowledgement of this flow to my intention for picking, and a blessing, “may our actions support our mutual thriving”, which again connected me to the openness I described before and guided my entrance to the picking. 

In a previous time of picking the nettles, i had done it without gloves on and my hands were tingling and covered in little dimples for two days after, this time I had decided to wear gloves. Though it protected my hands, they are also a tiny bit too big for me which leads to less dexterity.

The seeds gather in heavy clumps, like long streamers from party-poppers, out from under each nodule where the leaves meet the stems. It’s not so easy to get to them without damaging the plant, breaking the stem or pulling off leaves. I tried it in one way, holding the leaves to one side and then another to expose and pick the seeds from underneath them. I did this for a while and then I “heard” an intuition that said “run your hand up the stalk and take all the leaves and seeds in one”. I felt weary about that, as previously I had been trying to be careful and do exactly not what this voice within me was saying, and nevertheless I did it, holding the stalk of the plant i ran my gloved fingers up the hairy stem, stripping off the leaves and the seeds all the way up to the tip. I did this for another 3-4 plants, then another voice said to go back to the other way, which I did. I had a sense I was being “tested”, especially after being shown a quicker way to do it, to see if I followed this voice. Or, what feels more accurate; like I was being invited more deeply into attunement to the whisperings of life moving within me as part of this intimate relating.

I played with following or not following this voice. What I discovered was that the more I followed it the more it came and the more I discovered within the relationship. When I stop following it, it stops and what I experience is again that stillness that I mentioned in relation to the Hawthorn. I see this sort of attunement as another expression of Marshall Rosenberg’s saying that “words are windows or they are doors”. The more we follow the whisperings of intuition within us, the more openings can emerge through which more aliveness becomes visible and possible. The more we ignore the whisperings of intuition, the more we stifle and silence that flow of life and possibility.

Humans (and other beings, too) enjoy giving

I got a sense from listening and engaging like this, taking seeds where I sensed this openness, fully trusting and leaving the ones where I did not, that many of the seeds are not needed to reproduce new plants. I saw that by engaging like this, continuing the flow and carrying the gift of these seeds with reverent holding, I create an opening of new possibility within relationship.

Whether they go into my jar to be eaten and that energy expresses through us and the work that we do, or onto the ground where they will express again in the form of nettle plants, a new possibility exists that didn’t before through our interaction. Movement of energy in this way, movement based in giving that is free of coercion and that is in as much flow with life as we can connect with, generates energy that supports mutual and collective thriving.

Returning again to my question at the start, “what might be possible, if we engage NVC from the perspective of more than human needs?”, I am seeing, as anticipated, that this is a vast exploration and one that I am only scratching the surface of. 

Some things that stand out to me are:

~*~ Engaging with non-human beings in a way that trusts our own intuition and orients towards attuning to their needs, as unique elements within an alive web of interconnected beings, opens deeper access to life wisdom; wisdom that lives within the intentional relational field between humans and other beings that we live with.

~*~ Focusing our attention on our environment in this way, as practitioners of NVC, has the potential of opening further our perceptive field and increasing our access to creativity and possible strategies to attend to needs.

~*~ Focusing our attention on trusting our intuition in this way, as Permaculture designers, integrates ourselves and our human experiencing into the design process, shifting us from designing “for” to designing “with” the land and other beings, supporting deeper layers of attunement in our design process to emerge. 

~*~ Increasing our awareness of and attunement to more of the needs that are on the table in our surrounding environment potentially increases our trust in life; seeing that we too are a part of this web, and that the more we can release into that trust, the more openings for creativity emerge for more needs to be attended to. 

I am ending this piece with an extended question I want to come back to and explore: “what might be possible in the crossover between NVC and Permaculture; deeply including ourselves within the process of our designs and engaging the perspective of more than human needs?”

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Emma Quayle - Embedding Nonviolence. Resourcing for Change.