The Oak Beams of New College, Oxford by Gregory Bateson (via Stewart Brand)

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

Some five to ten years ago, I am told, some busy entomologist went up into the roof with a penknife and poked at the beams and found that they were filled with beetles. This was reported to the College Council, who met in some dismay, as 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 enquiry 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 four 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.

~Gregory Bateson

A paper copy of this has resided in my archives, “Thinking,” for more than 25 years. I wanted to share it with you.  The Internet now tells me this is an excerpt from “How Buildings Learn,” by Stewart Brand (as told to him by Bateson) and that New College dismisses this story as “nonsense.” Still a story worth telling , sharing and remembering for 25 years.

One Response to The Oak Beams of New College, Oxford by Gregory Bateson (via Stewart Brand)

  1. The New College bursar, who is the chief proponent of the view this story is false, is wrong. Gregory Bateson’s father William was a legendary biologist in Cambridge and coined the word “genetics” in 1905. This story likely came to Gregory through him and was precisely the kind of story shared by Oxford and Cambridge naturalists of that era.

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