The great dining hall at New College, one of the oldest colleges of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, was built not long after the college’s founding in 1379. It features a towering ceiling supported with huge oak beams, some two feet square and 45 feet long — the dining hall in Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series may be the best visual for us Americans.
As the story goes, told by British anthropologist and philosopher Gregory Bateson and recorded on Atlas Abscura, nearly 100 years ago the roof of the dining hall was found to be overrun with beetles. These giant oak beams would need to be replaced, which was something of a problem since beams of this size are not easy to come by. Impossible, even.
It was suggested that they might look on the college’s endowed lands, woodlands scattered across the country and run by the college forester. Seeing few other options, a call was placed to the long-tenured forester, presenting him with the problem. He responded, to their great surprise, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”
In the words of Bateson:
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 over five hundred years saying, “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”
“You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”
Many have cited this story to make a point about the importance of long range planning — and it certainly does that. To maintain that kind of institutional memory alone is beyond impressive.
But it seems to me there’s something more going on here.
When I hear this story and I find myself moved by this line of individual people, these foresters, and their ability to think generationally, and not simply individually. To think more as a people and less as a person. To realize, in some small way, that they are a part of something much larger than themselves, but that they nonetheless play a critical role in this larger mission’s success.
And isn’t this the difficult balance to strike as people of faith: between understanding that we are at the same time so small as to be insignificant, and yet so loved as to be necessary? Isn’t this the paradox of grace, or life itself? How the most precious thing in the world is thrown around so willy nilly: springing up here, snuffed out there? And yet always moving forward, against all odds and at times even despite our best efforts?
And in the midst of this, we’re called to find purpose in the miracle that we are here at all. To make something good with what we’ve been given, which if the life of Christ is any indication, means to make it serve people other than ourselves and last beyond our years.
Not paying God back on a debt beyond our means that we never asked for in the first place, but instead paying forward on an embarrassment of riches we’ve been given that, try as we may, is more than we ourselves can use.
From this side of the pond:
I’m told that the great theologian Howard Thurman used to tell a story from his childhood in Lagrange, Ga., and coming upon a very old man planting pecan saplings. He asked the old man why he would plant trees he would never eat from himself. The old man looked at him and said he didn’t see the problem, he’d been eating from trees he didn’t plant his whole life. It only seemed right to leave some for others.
“You don’t cut them oaks,” one forester said to another, and to another, and to another. “Them’s for the College Hall.”
Or as naturalist John Muir is to have said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
Thanks be to God, this is true of people, too.