The Beams of New College

How Build­ings Learn, by Stewart Brand, pp. 130–131.

The anthropologist/philosopher Gregory Bateson used to tell a story:

New College, Oxford, is of rather late foundation, hence the name. It was founded around the late 14th century. It has, like other colleges, a great dining hall with big oak beams across the top, yes? These might be two feet square, forty-five feet long.

A century ago, so I am told, some busy en­to­mol­o­gist went up into the roof of the dining hall with a penknife and poked at the beams and found that they were full of beetles. This was re­ported to the College Council, who met in some dismay, because where would they get beams of that caliber nowadays?

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and sug­gested that there might be on College lands some oak. These col­leges are endowed with pieces of land scat­tered across the country. So they called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years and asked him about oaks.

And he pulled his fore­lock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was dis­cov­ered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for five hundred years. “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

A nice story. That’s the way to run a culture.

Every time I’ve retold this story since I first heard it from Gregory in the 1970s, someone always asks, “What about for the next time? Has a new grove of oaks been planted an protected?” I for­warded the ques­tion to the au­thor­i­ties at New College—the College Archivist and the Clerk of Works. They had no idea.

[New College de­scribes this story as “nonsense.”]