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Knowledge propagation: can we learn from nature?

Not long ago I was idling away an evening with the 2003 Heronswood Nursery catalog. This is a famous catalog that no longer exists (nor does the nursery, as of May, when new owners W. Atlee Burpee & Co. closed it), and I’m sorry I threw away the other issues I had. They’re probably collectors’ items already, but with no ISBN, and no real title or author, how can I locate them at

I have found other nurseries with interesting ranges and funky websites, and the truth is that I didn’t buy much from Heronswood because the northwestern climate is so different from ours in the Berkshires (one of Burpee’s plans was to open a “Heronswood East”), but that business was very special, born of individual vision and a passion for plants from all over the world. There were six-foot Solomon’s Seals from the mountains in southern China, for example, and the catalog included stories of collecting seed in all kinds of remote areas. A remarkable number of their plants did come from China.

Berkshire’s a little like that, I think, in our passion for bringing knowledge abouat, and from, all corners of the world to the gardens (classrooms, armchairs, lecture halls) of the English-speaking world. Now we need to make sure that we don’t suffer the fate of Heronwood! (It’s actually quite interesting to read the blog and website countering the “negative reports in the media” about the Burpee closure. I have mixed feelings: I can sympathize with the need to run a profitable operation, and realize that visionary founders are often poor at making business decisions. All good fodder for our current business planning.)

I’ll be writing more about how the spread of knowledge but on a closely related theme, here’s a preview of the LA Midwinter Issue of Against the Grain, guest edited by yours truly. The theme of the issue is “Beyond Boundaries: Knowledge Innovation and Generation” and the contributions are quite diverse:

  • “A Healthy Information Economy (In Memoriam Milton Friedman),” Howard Burrows, Autonomous Undersea Systems Institute, Vermont
  • “Looking Back, Looking Forward”—Q&A with Richard Charkin, CE of Macmillan, London
  • “Thinking Globally: The Benefits of Interdisciplinary Publishing,” David Levinson, editor of the Encyclopedia of World Cultures, and president of Berkshire Publishing
  • “From Collection to Connection,” David Pollard, Meeting of Minds, Toronto
  • “Social Media Simplified,” Karen Christensen
  • “Reference Universe: Unlocking Libraries’ Reference Collections,” Eric Calaluca
  • “The Good Library Campaign and the Future of U.K. Libraries,” Tim Coates
  • “Top Ten Innovations in Library History,” David Tyckoson

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