Exploring Botanical Empathy

In 2020, Artist Laura Donkers invited me to run a reconnection exercise in one of the workshops that she had organised in collaboration with the Kaipātiki Project in New Zealand.


Kaipātiki Project is an Auckland based group that specialises in bush restoration and environmental education. They started in 1998, with a small group of volunteers that weeded a local reserve preventing it to degrade further. Today, they run a plant nursery that supplies eco-sourced native plants for community restoration projects.


Laura Donkers is an ecological arts professional that explores mutuality, like-mindedness, and kinship, in a process-led praxis that connects the environment, communities, and place. She had organised an Eco-Art Workshop where she would use lithography to foster connection to nature. Each participant would join a guided walk through the Eskdale Bush Reserve and, after learning about native plants, they would choose one tree to make make bark rubbings (using a frottage technique), in order to turn their patterns into fine art prints.



My role in this workshop was to try to externalise (make visible) the emotions and feelings that each participant would experience in these activities. So my Design Challenge was to create a tool to foster empathy between people and plants. We knew that in this workshop participants would gain cognitive knowledge about native plants, and they would feel them (see, smell and touch them) in order to make art. This made us assume that they will have an emotional connection to the natural realm.


But how could we help people bring these experiences into a conscious, reflective level? The level that enables a shift in behaviour, that fosters active environmental conservation... Well, we needed to explore the realm of Botanical Empathy.



The Kaipātiki experience


After introducing the workshop activities, the tools, the facilitators and participants, we set out for the guided walk. But just as we arrived at a small clearing in the bush, we all prepared to experience the walk to its fullest through the D4C Mindfulness opening exercise.


Participants were asked to sit on the ground forming a circle, hold hands and participate in a short meditation. This Reconnection ritual had the aim to voluntarily (or involuntarily) take us back to the essence of life. "By experimenting this connection, we could feel how we share the same essence with other human beings, other non-human beings and every element of this planet and universe. By focusing on the things in common, not on the differences, we reach the deeper layers of our natural living systems. When experimenting the essential level, we feel connected, we feel whole, we feel one." (G. Baron, 2020)


The mindfulness exercise helped us cross a threshold into a safe space for genuine engagement. The energy and tone of the guided walk changed, participants had connected, and now conversations were deeper and silences only meant complicity. The walk took place in a respectful, conscious and curious environment. Our guide, Neil Henderson, generously shared with us his lifelong knowledge and experience about native plants. We listened to his voice and to the voices of the bush, he encouraged us remember our true nature, feel the earth, rejoice in the smell of healthy soil, and recognise the stories written on the skin of the trees, the stories we would later borrow by rubbing them against paper. It was a wholesome experience.




If you were a plant, what kind of plant would you be?


After coming back to the main quarters, we shared lunch and stories. Then, we filled out the Botanical Empathy canvas which invited participants to talk about themselves through plant metaphors. They had to understand which plant species they felt more connected to by reflecting on questions like: If you were a plant, "What do you/could you provide to your community? Which are your main challenges and aspirations? What kind of environment do you need to thrive?."



Participants were finally asked to sketch their plant-self and share their thoughts in a circle.

To my surprise, participants chose not-so-popular plants like Lichen, Cactus, and Harakeke, amongst others. These choices reflected the diversity and uniqueness amongst the team. I have chosen to keep their words private, but for the purpose of explaining plant empathy, I gathered some examples from this thread at Quora.com:


- "I love plants of all sorts. But I would come down to being a sunflower. Sunflowers are pure and give out seeds like crazy. They don't actually turn their heads to face the sun. Their flowers don't absorb the sun; it is their leaves that do. They turn their head to intimidate and scare any predators with their rayets and disc-shaped center." (Jose Ramirez Chavez).

- "I will prefer to be a Banian tree. It has a majestical personality that attracts everyones attention. This tree is supportive to a wide variety of fauna e.g. avian, insects, reptiles, amphibians, and thus useful in strengthening biodiversity. It provides food, shelter, shade to a range of beneficiaries. Timber and leaves are of commercial value. BANYAN trees absorb high amounts of atmospheric CO2 and produce good amounts of O2. Thus, it is useful in maintaining a healthy environment. It's own requirements are very limited. Marginal soils, less water and minimum care conditions do not affect its growth. More so, it is very easy to multiply by seed, cuttings or roots. It lives very long. Thus, once planted continues to give service for a pretty long time." (Tewari Girish Chandra)

- "A rosy periwinkle. It’s an evergreen herb, and it’s quite hardy: it can grow even in dry, cracked soil and in narrow crevices in walls. It tolerates a wide range of temperatures too. What’s more, vinca alkaloids obtained from the plant are useful as anti-cancer drugs. A tough, resilient human being capable of curing cancer. Who wouldn’t want to be that?" (Adhish Sethi)

- "I would be a rose. Beautiful, sweet smelling and popular. But underneath I would be a really vicious bastard, ready to hurt anyone who comes near me. I would be an annoyingly picky eater, and, if times got hard, I would revert to being boring and unscented and generally lose all the good points, but still be a really vicious bastard. (Edward Alport)

This activity was not only useful to integrate the knowledge received (on bush ecology) with the emotional aspects of ourselves through botanical empathy, but it provided also an opportunity for participants to establish genuine, respectful and strong connections with each other.




Visualising Empathy


This experience taught us that participants can consolidate their connection to the natural environment by complementing informative stances (that work on the cognitive levels) such as the talk on bush ecology, with experiential aspects (the walk through the reserve engaging sensorially with the plants), and with an artistic exercise (the lithography piece). But it is by understanding how this external environment relates to ourselves in deeper levels that we make this enduring connection explicit. The Botanical Empathy canvas provided a space to visually externalise this emotional connection and translate it to words and drawings.


Empathy is an integral part of the D4C methodology. We understand empathy as much more than a mindset, but as a rationally and emotionally compassionate state of connection with the self, with other humans, and with the natural realm as an indivisible whole. This mind-heart synergy is presented as the central phase of the D4C methodology, and we have named it "re-connect". The reconnection stage is the core of the D4C methodology and should inform all other steps.



You can learn more about the D4C Methodology and try out our tools for environmental conservation.


*Special thanks to Laura, the team at Kaipātiki, and all the participants of this experience.


#designforconservation #designthinking #designforsustainability #botanicalempathy #D4C #empathy


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