Planting For the Future
Three stories about foresight and oak trees.
Part 1: New College in Myth
There is a story Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation likes to tell about the oak beams of New College’s great dining hall. Executive Director Alexander Rose retold it recently, at a Long Now presentation about the 10,000 year clock. It goes like this:
New College at Oxford was founded in the late 1300s. The great dining hall was built with enormous oak beams. In the late 1800s, they discovered that there were beetles in the beams. Dismay ensued — no one knew where they’d find oak trees big enough to replace the lost beams. Someone had the bright idea to summon the college forester.
The forester does have such oaks. It turns out that a stand had been planted and set aside when the great hall was built and while everyone at the college had forgotten about them, the forestry people had been under strict orders passed down for 500 years.
“You don’t cut them oaks, them’s for the College Hall.”
Brand ends the story thus: “That’s the way to run a culture.” The implication being that we aren’t running ours that way anymore. When Long Now clock designer Danny Hillis tells the story, he is even more accusatory.
The 14th-century builder had planted the trees in anticipation of the time, hundreds of years in the future, when the beams would need replacing. Did the carpenters plant new trees to replace the beams again a few hundred years from now?
A timely message of prudence and foresight which, fortunately, differs from reality in two important ways.
Part 2: New College in History
When Brand’s version of the story first started to circulate, the New College archivist looked into things.
In 1859, the JCR told the SCR that the roof in Hall needed repairing, which was true.
In 1862, the senior fellow was visiting College estates on ‘progress’, i.e., an annual review of College property, which goes on to this day (performed by the Warden). Visiting forests in Akeley and Great Horwood, Buckinghamshire (forests which the College had owned since 1441), he had the largest oaks cut down and used to make new beams for the ceiling.
It is not the case that these oaks were kept for the express purpose of replacing the Hall ceiling. It is standard woodland management to grow stands of mixed broadleaf trees e.g., oaks, interplanted with hazel and ash. The hazel and ash are coppiced approximately every 20–25 years to yield poles. The oaks, however, are left to grow on and eventually, after 150 years or more, they yield large pieces for major construction work such as beams, knees etc.
A moment of consideration will reveal that this is a much better way of planning for the future than the myth that Brand tells. The foresight on display in Brand’s version is incredibly fragile. What if the dining hall had burned down before the oaks had regrown? What if the one stand of oaks had burned? What if no one had thought to talk to the foresters? What if the foresters had all died at some point, breaking the transfer of knowledge?
New College’s actual method is much more robust.
Cultural continuity is ensured by regular visits keeping the foresters and college administrators in touch. Materials continuity is ensured by having redundant oaks spread over the college lands. No one oak is destined to be the future beam at College Hall. Instead, they have a bunch of oak, available for whatever circumstance might arise, including burning the great hall to the ground, three years in a row.
Part 3: Visingsö in Error
The lesson seems clear. Plant your seeds, plan for continuity, and your foresight will be rewarded. This is because I have pulled a trick, and told you only stories about where long term planning has paid off.
There is another story to tell.
Around the time that New College was repairing its great hall, the Swedish military was confronting a resource problem of its own. Demand for warships meant that there was a need for 150 year old oak trees. Foreseeing a shortage, the Navy began planting on Visingsö island. The trees came of age in the 1980s, when warships were made of steel.
cc image by bobchin1941