If Plants Can’t Think, How Do They Develop Such Beautiful Habits?

eel roots

As I set up my little table at the back of the store, my expectations were modest. The evening’s topic, and the name of the book I’d been asked to sell, was Thinking Like a Plant. The room filled with gardeners of all shapes, sizes, and levels of experience. Along with the attendees, I was eager for any discussion of growing things, in the middle of a very grey and dismal March. We had fought through hardened, bruise-colored snow to get to the room, were all itching in our woolies and hiking boots. But we weren’t even to here watch grass grow. We were going to contemplate how grass thinks about growing. For my part, the topic put me in vague, wistful mind of a hammock, a July afternoon, and a sweating Margarita.

Author Craig Holdrege’s main point, however, was not to lead us in sleepy meditation on botanical ephemera. Holdrege, Director and Senior Researcher of The Nature Institute, specializes in seeking to understand nature by observing it from the perspective that all living organisms are “dynamic and integrated beings within the larger web of life.” He was here to draw us into a detailed, observed analogy between plants and all growing things–namely, children.

“The plant,” Holdrege writes in his book, “lives in intimate connection with its environment and is sustained by this intimate relation.” It’s immersed in dirt. It drinks mud and sunshine. Filters out pollution. An educational analogy to this is counter to currently accepted wisdom, in which “mediated” intake of knowledge, that is, information received from electronic media and even books, substitutes for “real, unmediated” experiences of the world. Education should offer, or at least not interfere with, our children’s experience of physical reality. Let them get filthy. Let them fall.

We studied piercingly beautiful slides that depicted silhouettes of the plant’s habit and root system. We analogized field poppy development to our children’s. The plant’s formation results from active communion with stimuli. It is constantly, if you will, “thinking” about its surroundings in order to grow and form. Roots grow from the tips out, in response to the stimulus of soil, moisture, warmth, nutritional availability, in all 3 dimensions downward and outward. The plant’s overall habit moves in every direction that its environment allows. Imagine your own finger-and-toenails, the tips of your hair, were your dominant way of experiencing and responding to the world. Imagine growing in response to everything touching you. Can you feel your fingertips tingling? Your hair standing on end? If you acknowledge that your child has a growing body, and that the body’s healthy development is as important as, is in fact wholly connected with, the development of the brain, you understand where this is going. Expecting a child to learn entirely through mediated interaction with the world is like potting a plant in abstractions and expecting it to learn tomatoes.


I left the talk thinking, it’s very well to talk about children this way. It’s practically a no-brainer, the benefit of outside play to children, of adults leading them into the world, though it’s harder advice to follow than one might think. As a young mother, I relished the playground, the hiking path, the field-and-stream of childhood adventure, but when I had a toddler later in life, I would often have been more comfortable staying inside and looking out the window. The hammock in July is often too hot now, even in the shade, and full of bugs. (The Margarita does help one to ignore those annoyances.) And as things stand today, I am a writer, not a gardener or a nature enthusiast. I’m constantly “mediating” information for people, and being mediated. The most “real” stimuli I experience most days are hot water shocking my back in the shower, a series of chairs biting my butt all day, and a cold beer numbing my uvula after dinner.

I thought, what about adult development? I had my childhood long, long ago. I drank up my share of sun and rain, soaked mud into the creases of my knees, into the space under my fingernails. I climbed, raced, pedaled, fell.

Life’s dominant adult stimuli seem more abstract, but no less real. What can plants teach us about childbirth? About speaking or singing in public, doing miserably, and standing up to do it again anyway? Can plants teach us anything about pain, physical or emotional? About grief?

I went back to the book.

I wanted a chapter titled, “For Grownups,” possibly with a list of plants and personality types; I could get started observing the plant that should be my sun-sister. I had forgotten that, unfortunately for anyone seeking a regular self-help style book, Holdrege is an anthroposophist.

Anthroposophy, or “spiritual science,” is basically what it sounds like–a body of knowledge built on close observation of natural phenomena, infused by an accepted understanding of spiritual truth. Anthroposophy departs from religious “science” like creationism in holding observation and logic above blind faith in scripture. It also eschews traditional science’s agnostic tendencies. Anthroposophy assumes that spiritual reality forms physical reality, and teaches that understanding of both comes through close observation.

Anthroposophy is, in other words, difficult to explain. Its practitioners acknowledge that it is also difficult for others to accept. One result, in terms of books, is that Craig Holdrege and other anthroposophical authors spend more space writing explanations of the theory than about application.

I did find something, well to the back of the book. Something abstract.

Asked to speak at a high school graduation, Holdrege refused to offer the usual pablum: “I hope the school has prepared you well for college life.” Instead, he said, “My hope is not that the school has prepared you for present-day culture and it existing structures and processes. Rather, my hope is that you have been educated in such a way that the world is not prepared for you. I hope you have not been hindered and that you may even have been nurtured and encouraged to develop ideas and to do things that no one expects–not in order to be different, but because you sense what needs to happen.”

He was asking high school graduates to behave like grownups. And like plants. Keep growing in response to the world, and the world will, surprisingly, form in response to you.


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