In my last two posts in this series, we explored permaculture design principles from the perspective of our outer and inner landscapes. We now move into a series of posts exploring different aspects of these specific principles. Today, we start with the inner work of the principle of observe, interact, and intuit (I will also note my post from last year on “Mushroom eyes” which is part of the outer work of this principle and explores nature observation). Today’s post explores the personal niche analysis. The Niche Analysis also connects with many other principles, such as layered purposes and can be useful both for designing spaces as well as inner work.
The Niche Analysis
A niche analysis is a tool that we use as permaculture designers to understand the many aspects and connections of a single element has within a larger system. We are using “niche” in the ecological sense here, which is defined “a position or role is taken by a kind of organism within its community.” (I’ll also note that the word “niche” comes into English by way of French, originating in Latin (nidus or “nest”; this etymology also teaches us a deeper meaning of the word). In permaculture design, we see each element having its own “niche” in an ecosystem, a number of things that element does well. We design intentionally, placing elements in the system that fill the multiple roles.
A typical niche analysis can include yields, needs, and behaviors. I also add predators and allies to my niche analysis (see below for more details on each of these things).
Let’s take a look at my rooster, Anasazi, who lived at my homestead in Michigan. I considered Anasazi one of the critical components of my land there. Here’s Anasazi’s niche analysis:
What this does is help me understand how Anasazi functions in the system–what he offers, what he needs to be protected from, and who his allies are. I see his behaviors, and I’m able to use them for the greatest good and see his role. This is a really useful way to think about any element. (As an aside, if you want to know about specific trees and plants and how they function in the broader system, and you live anywhere in the Midwest or East Coast of the USA you can check out John Eastman’s books, Book of Forest and Thicket; Book of Field and Stream; Book of Swamp and Bog. They are delightful books and really describe these “niche” relationships quite well!)
The Personal Niche Analysis
We often learn to do a personal niche analysis as part of a permaculture design course, and I think its a useful activity for everyone to consider as a part of our own growth and inner work. In this context, I present it as part of the “knowing ourselves” piece of observe, interact, and intuit: the work of understanding our own role (that we determine), what we need, and what we offer.
The standard niche analysis asks you to start with your name in the center of the map, and then map three things: Yields, Needs, and Behaviors. One I learned this summer offers two more choices: Predators and Allies. I’ll cover each of these below and then show you a sample map that I created as part of my recent Permaculture Teacher Training course.
Yields: That which you produce. Remember that, just like in an ecosystem or garden, each element often has many different kinds of yields. Yields for a human being can certainly be physical things like producing food or earning an income, but they can also be much less tangible, like offering love and support or bringing joy.
Articulating our yields is a critical part of self-care and self-empowerment. I think that many of us, especially those who are nurturers and healers, do not own our gifts and don’t have self-acknowledgment of the good work we do in the world. Further, because our culture generally does not hold gratitude as a value, we often spend our time doing important work that is often under or unacknowledged or thanked. Describing our yields, then, allows us to be empowered–to realize what it is that we can and do produce in the world that is of benefit to life: whether that is a dedication to picking up trash in the forest, to be friendly to people at your job, or to simply being a person others can talk to in times of need. These yields don’t have to be something that is “measurable” by society’s standards, but rather, something that you feel you bring.
Needs: This is what you need in order to be stable, functioning, and happy. Again, these can be physical things but also emotional or spiritual things. Again, articulating our actual needs is something that we often don’t do, and there are at least two challenges and reasons for this work. The first is cultural: commercials and advertising work very hard to make us believes we have needs that we don’t–needs of products and services–rather than needs that help support and fulfill us. Many of us, as part of our own spiritual paths, are shedding the layers of consumerism, and re-articulating what are actual needs in our own lives, rather than manufactured needs, is an important part of this process. The second is the intersection of personal and cultural reasons: many of us have a hard time voicing our needs in our immediate relationships (work, family, friend, intimate) or even to ourselves. Part of spiritual growth is recognizing that we have needs, and those needs are valuable. This involves acknowledgment of the need of others in our lives but also the acknowledgment of our own ability to provide for our needs.
Behaviors: Behaviors are those things that you engage in in order to produce your yields. You should write these as verbs. What I like about adding behaviors to a personal niche analysis is that it allows us to think about our actions out in the world and what are meaningful to us. Ultimately, behaviors lead to yields, and if we aren’t engaging in the behaviors we want to be engaging in (or we have behaviors that are detrimental to our goals) we end up not being able to produce the yields.
Allies (Optional): You can add two additional categories to your niche analysis (which I think really helps create a fuller niche analysis). Allies are those things that help you produce yields and facilitate the behaviors that you want to engage in. These again can be anything from free time to supportive partners, to, in my case, rivers, and chickens. Think about your support system external to you: these are your allies. Those that help you move forward with whatever it is you want to accomplish. We often draw strength by surrounding us with allies, and they are critical to acknowledge and to honor.
Predators (Optional): Finally, we come to predators. In this niche analysis, they are defined as they things that harm or otherwise take away your ability to produce the yields you want to produce in the world. Predators again can be anything at all: from problematic thinking to certain people to things happening in the world that drain you. These are “predators” in the pejorative sense, not in the nature-oriented sense (which I discussed in a blog post earlier this year). Identifying predators in our lives helps us better avoid them or find ways of managing them.
Creating your Personal Niche Analysis
You can create your personal niche analysis any way you like. I will give you some suggestions here that I have found useful and helpful in creating it.
Get a large sheet of paper and markers. I find it is useful to do it on a large sheet of paper with colored markers, each color can represent a different element of the Personal Niche Analysis. A large sheet of paper gives you more space to be thorough and really explore those different aspects of yourself. You can embrace the inner bard within to get visually creative with markers, paints, etc. I’ve seen other nice niche analyses that people have done digitally, but that’s not quite my thing!
Open up a sacred space. The personal niche analysis is a wonderful spiritual activity: open up a sacred space/grove, say a small prayer, clear your mind with some meditation or color breathing, and then allow the niche analysis to flow from you.
Create Time for reflection. As our first permaculture principle suggests, the personal niche analysis requires time for us just to interact, observe, and intuit our own gifts. Spend time really considering the different things that you bring.
Repeat this practice. We are always growing and evolving as people and the niche analysis can help us see that. You can do a new personal niche analysis every year or few years to see how things have changed (revising the predators and allies, for example, is a really useful activity).
Use it to spur change and growth in your life! Use the Personal Niche analysis as a reflective tool that will help you understand where you are now. You can use goal setting, journaling, and other kinds of meditative work to help you move closer to your personal, spiritual, physical, social, family, or other goals.
Here is my sample personal niche analysis from my permaculture teacher training course this summer:
In terms of how I used this niche analysis; after doing it, I spent some time meditating on it and thinking about it. Are there needs I’m not currently having fulfilled? Are there behaviors that are negative (that I chose not to represent?) How often am I producing the yields I want to be producing? This niche analysis can help us engage in deep reflection on ourselves and create a richer understanding of who and what we are!
I’d love to hear how this works for you as a spiritual exercise–please share if you end up using this as part of your spiritual work. This doesn’t have to take long, and it is a really useful first step for the inner work of permaculture. In the next post on this series, we’ll explore the same principle from the outer world.