Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Way to Run a Culture

Gregory Bateson tells the story of New College in Oxford, England.

The great hall was built in the early 1600s with oak ceiling beams forty feet long and two feet thick. Around 1970, an entomologist examined the timbers and found them weakened by an infestation of beetles.

The College Council was distressed to receive this news as they were aware how difficult it would be to obtain replacements of that enormous size. They brought in the College Forester and asked if suitable trees might be found on any of the tracts endowed to the College.

The Oaks on Satulah, October 2007

“I’ve been wondering when you would ask,” replied the Forester, “for when the hall was constructed 350 years ago, the architects specified that a grove of trees be planted and maintained for the sole purpose of replacing those beams, as they always get beetly in the end. This plan has been passed from one Forester to the next through all these years, to save the oaks for College Hall.”

Bateson’s response to the story:

“That’s the way to run a culture.”

I remembered hearing this told many years ago and was happy to rediscover it recently after a long search. A more detailed account of the New College oaks is found at:

What an inspiring story of prudent forethought!

However, it is my sad duty to report that New College dismisses the tale as rubbish:

The affair of the oak trees. This is another hoary tale [and] nonsense. For one thing, the roof has already been rebuilt once, by a local builder named James Pears in 1786. He used pitch pine timbers and Westmorland slate... The Buckinghamshire woods where the mature oaks were felled did not come into the hands of the college until 1441. The truth is that the oaks came from the college woods in Great Horwood, Akeley and Whaddon Chase, where they had indeed been maturing for several hundred years. Yet, if you think back to a society where hardwood was the principal construction material, it is obvious that some trees in every wood had to be left to grow on, while the others yielded a crop of coppiced poles every fifteen years or so.

Despite the debunking, I still concur with Bateson’s sentiment.



Laura Sorrells said...

Great story. Have you read Mary Catherine Bateson's work? Composing a Life has been an important book for me.

GULAHIYI said...

Thank you. I'm not familiar with that book, but it looks interesting.