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Plant your oak

05/14/2013 @ 8:15am

So here’s a great story. Oxford University has a dining hall that is nearly 500 years old. Giant oak beams, of the sort you just don’t see anymore, hold up the ceiling. Truly massive, 2 feet in diameter and 45 feet long.  The story goes that in 1859, it was noticed that bugs had gotten into the beams and they needed to be replaced. In the 1860s, when they finally got around to it, they scratched their heads when they looked at the beams because there was no place to buy lumber like that anymore. As it turned out, Oxford has its own forest, and since they couldn’t find oak beams to buy, they asked their forester whether there were any oak trees big enough to use. The forester said, “Sure.  This patch of trees has been there for 200 years and every forester has told his successor not to cut those trees because we’ll need them when bugs get into the beams in the dining hall.”

Now, that’s the story, but as with most stories, the truth is a little different. And in this case, unlike most stories, the truth is even better.  The university forest has been planted to trees since 1441.

Yeah, that’s right - 1441.

In the 1700s, when the roof on the dining hall needed to be replaced for the first time, they used pine because no oak logs were available. It takes oak trees 100 years or so to get big enough to make a timber 2 feet across. That means somebody, around the time of the American Revolution, planted some oak trees, which were tended for all those years. I doubt there was really a forester who had the foresight to look down through the generations. It’s far more likely that a variety of trees was planted and used for a variety of reasons. And, as it worked out, the trees were there when they were needed. That’s what makes this so cool, not to mention relevant.

My question is, have you planted your oak trees? Is there anyone, anywhere in our society or government who is looking forward not just one year or two, but one or two generations, one or two centuries?

You don’t often plant a tree and get to see it reach maturity. You plant trees for your children and grandchildren. You try to figure out where shade will be needed, what should be there to protect from the wind and erosion, and you take a quiet pleasure in knowing that your sweat and forethought will make things a little better for the next generations. When the homesteaders came 150 years ago, they received title to a quarter section of land in exchange for plowing, planting, and building a shack to live in. They got a little more land if they planted a tree claim, and almost everyone did.  Almost all of those trees are long gone, and there isn’t much replacing them. Our politicians bicker about short-term political wins when everyone, including them, knows that the seeds for future disaster are lurking like weeds in a fencerow.

It may be too late for our current crop of politicians. They’re locked in some sort of death spiral of nonfunctioning confusion, but there will be another election coming up soon. I hope everyone looks for a  candidate who can not only fix the roof today, but plant the trees needed down the road.

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