The abstract concept of cross-pollinating ideas

Exploring the cross-pollination of ideas — Part 3 of 3

I’m currently reading two books with botany themes — the first is a series of educational essays, while the second is a work of fiction. They have both been such absolute joys, I find myself compelled to write about them.

As an extension of the book reviews, concurrently reading two botany-themed books has got me thinking about the concept of cross-pollinating ideas. This is something I’d like to write about as well.

So that all of this is more easily digestible, I’ve split this blog post into 3 parts — 2 separate book reviews and my thoughts on cross-pollinating ideas. They are meant to be read as a whole, but feel free to read them separately and in your own time.

This is the final part of a 3 part series. If you haven’t already, read part 1 and part 2.

Thanks for following me through to this last post. This is a subject I think about quite a bit, so I hope I am able to do it justice. Feel free to let me know what you think!

Having first been drawn into the mind of a real botanist, all Alma Whittaker’s botany talk in The Signature of All Things hasn’t been in the least bit intimidating. I’m glad I started reading Gathering Moss first because I think there would have been entire parts of Alma’s psyche to which I never would have been privy.

In reading the two together, I’m able to apply what I know about Robin Wall Kimmerer to Alma Whittaker and vice versa. For example, I have insight into the amount of time and effort it probably took Kimmerer to become a leading bryologist, because I’ve followed Alma’s fictional journey from child to adult. I also realise that Kimmerer probably doesn’t consider her work work, just like Alma does not.

Inversely, I know that Alma considers the forest within the Whittaker estate an extension of her house. And to go there in the middle of the night, barefoot, with only the light from the stars and moon would be a completely safe and secure act. The extent of her comfort in the forest is never actually mentioned, but I imagine all this to be true because Kimmerer speaks of frequent barefoot nighttime walks in her own neighbouring forest.

Linking them both, even though one is a real life Native American Associate Professor and the other is a fictional half British, half Dutch girl living in the 19th century, brings a depth to both books that I would not have gotten if I had read them independently.

The point I’m trying to make is that I’ve found it really useful to be able to take ideas and learnings from one thing and reapply them in another.

Here’s a simpler example — A retired frisbee player whom I respect very much once said that everything he learnt about managing his company, he learnt on the frisbee field. I have also found this to be true in my experience.

This concept of cross-pollination is also a trademark of one of my favourite bloggers, Maria Popova of Brain Pickings. Incidentally, she is the person upon whose recommendation I read both the books mentioned here (apparently Gilbert’s book was inspired by Kimmerer’s!). To read one book review of hers is to learn about 3 other books that similarly inspired her.

Come to think of it, the very concept of Kimmerer’s book is cross-pollination. Each story is held together by a single theme that ties together an aspect of her life and something educational about moss. Here is a small example involving change:

Mosses have a covenant with change; their destiny is linked to the vagaries of rain. They shrink and shrivel while carefully laying the groundwork of their own renewal. They give me faith.

Being able to draw links from all over helps connect things in ways nobody else has done before. It’s how new things are borne into this world. It also represents a deeper understanding of a concept. There is a level of mastery necessary in order to distil an idea down to its core and reapply it elsewhere, out of context, and in the wild.

I try to do this with everything I learn. That is, put it into the network of ideas I already have in my mind and hope it fertilises some other idea that was lying dormant. Admittedly, it takes awhile and I don’t always succeed, but it is really satisfying when I do.

Over time, I will try to write a lot more about transplanting ideas and letting them take root elsewhere. And I’d love to hear examples of how you have done this too, whether or not they were successful!

Want to go back and read the two book reviews? The first is Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer and the second is The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Enjoy!

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