As the global crisis gathers momentum, we urgently need to find ways of replacing our voracious exploitation of Nature with more respectful modes of participation with the complex ecological relationships that sustain the ravishing beauty and habitability of our planet.

Such a shift is by no means easy to accomplish, given the ways in which mainstream culture so effectively indoctrinates us into believing that the natural world has value only when converted by industrial processes into commodities for sale on the global marketplace.

Which means Craig Holdrege’s book is a hugely important and timely contribution to the vital task of waking us up to the living qualities of Nature in order to undo this indoctrination. Craig’s main question is simple yet startling: “How might the world look if we human beings were able to think the way a plant grows?”

Craig calls what we can learn from plants ‘living thinking’, in contrast to the ‘object thinking’ that is the primary emphasis of our mainstream culture. He shows us in great detail how object thinking turns the richly sensuous world of living Nature into generalisations and abstractions by seeing it as no more than a complex mechanistic system composed of interacting objects such as individual water molecules, or DNA when conceived of as the essential building block of life. Object thinking thus gives us a high degree of control, but causes us to lose our immediate, lived experience of the palpable world, which becomes nothing more than an “unreal after-effect of a ‘real world’ that consists of molecules, photons, chemical and neural responses and the like”.

Living thinking does not reject object thinking, but places it within the much wider frame of a rigorously cultivated bodily experience of the world that does not theorise or explain but instead seeks to transcend the “dichotomies of man–Nature, subject–object, or mind–matter that are so ingrained in the Western mind”.

Craig takes his lead from Goethe, the great German poet and scientist who developed this approach in the late 18th and early part of the 19th centuries whilst working on a wide range of natural phenomena, including plants. It was Goethe who said: “If we want to behold Nature in a living way, we must follow her example and make ourselves as mobile and flexible as Nature herself.”

Craig gives us vivid descriptions of how living thinking is taught by him and his colleagues at The Nature Institute, which he established in 2002. Using careful observation, including drawing, his students come to realise that a plant is a dynamically sensitive being that forms itself through dialogue with whatever conditions it meets in the world through its rootedness in place and its openness to its environment.

Taking the example of the milkweed plant, we learn how our thinking can become enlivened by our encounters with a plant’s living presence as it flows in wholeness from its first stirrings as a germinating seed, to the development of its leaves and flowers, all the way through to the formation and dispersal of its seeds. Inspired by the plant, we learn to drop fixed ideas and to “enter into an open-ended dynamic dialogue with the world in our thoughts and actions, so that by doing so, we can enhance the living qualities of the world we inhabit”.

Towards the beginning of the book, Craig tells us that he wants it to be a practical guide to living thinking, which will help readers seeking a new relation to Nature and also can “provide perspectives for educators on how education can become a truly participatory, experience-based process”. And the author succeeds admirably in these aims. Over the years, I have read many books on ecology and sustainability, and I can say without hesitation that this is one of the very best, destined to become a classic.

Read it, connect with plants, and feel yourself expand tenderly and powerfully into our marvellous world.

Stephan Harding is a founder member of staff at Schumacher College, where he is Head of Holistic Science. He is the author of Animate Earth: Science, Intuition and Gaia.