Taking the Long View

Places tell a story, many stories in fact. If campus planners are to write an institution’s next chapter, they have to have read the book. How else can they understand the things valuable enough to carry forward?

One story places tell is about the mindset and sensibility of the decision-makers during particular periods.  To understand this aspect of the campus story, we often engage in a bit of research we call behavioral archaeology — the relationship between human behaviors and place making. We’re looking for those pivotal decisions in institutional history that are reflected in the campus setting, and if they endure, help to sustain the health and character of the institution. This is often found in a pattern of long-term thinking informing near-term action.

Oak beams always become “beetle-y” in the end.

One story that’s top of mind is from an institution founded in 1379. This College is one of the oldest, most storied institutions in Western history. It has a great dining hall with huge oak beams across the top, as large as two feet square, and forty-five feet long each.

There’s a centuries old story about a busy entomologist who went up into the roof of the dining hall with a penknife and poked at the beams and found they were full of beetles. This was reported to the College Council, which met the news with some dismay, as beams this large were now very hard, if not impossible, to come by. “Where would we get beams of that caliber?” they worried.

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some worthy oaks on the College lands. The College is endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country that are run by a college forester. They called in the college forester, who of course had not been near the College itself for some years, and asked him if there were any oaks for possible use.

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

The Forester relayed that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became “beetle-y,” because oak beams always become “beetle-y” 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.”

A nice story, and one that raises an immediate question, “What about the next time? Has a new grove of oaks been planted and protected?”

The answer to this is both yes and no. The truth of the story is that there was probably no single patch of trees assigned to the beams. It was standard practice for the foresters to plant oaks, hazel, and ash. While they would harvest the hazel and ash every twenty years or so, they allowed the oaks to grow quite large for use in major construction work.

In reality, the oaks used to rebuild the hall came from land that was not acquired by the College until 1441, nearly sixty years after the hall was originally built, and the roof of the hall had already been rebuilt once before in 1786 using pitch pine timbers, because the large oak timber was apparently unavailable.

The answer to the question, “Have new oaks been planted?” is “probably.” Somewhere on the land owned by the College are oaks that are, or will one day be, worthy of use in the great hall, assuming that they are managed in the same way they were before. It is this management by the forester in which lies the point. Ultimately, while the story about replacing and managing resources for the future is perhaps apocryphal, the values of long-term thinking and stewardship — sustaining the health and character of the institution over time — are not.

While each institution brings their own mindset and sensibility to the decision-making process, one has to always ask, “What are our oak trees?”