Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Oak and Long-Term Responsibility

I'm sure I've bitched about Boing Boing here before. It's my least favorite site, that I visit daily. Only periodically is there something of interest, but when there is, it is often of considerable interest, like today's feature on the Long Now Foundation. (But why do their 'web-TV' spots feel the need to ape every convention of regular TV segments? Is that all the progress we have - the migration of content from one media to another?).

The Long Now Foundation is over a decade old, and I've been reading a lot about their work in the course of research for my project here at Glenfiddich, the creation of a hundred year old barrel of Scotch. In this clip, Alexander Rose of the Foundation presents some early models for the 10,000 year old clock they are hoping to build in a mountain in Nevada, explains some of the mechanisms and displays a series of Tibetan bowls as a prototype chime (borrowing from Jem Finer, presumably). The most interesting thing about the brief interview is a story Rose tells about New College in Oxford:

In the 19th century a student researching a paper on joinery was up in the roof beams of the 600 year old College of St Mary hall and discovered evidence of powder-post beetle infestation. The hard to find, hard to kill wood-boring insects can reduce timber to dust, often without much in the way of warning. The discovery was reported to the College Board, who called an emergency meeting to determine how to prevent the loss of the heritage building. Where would they find appropriate oak to replace the enormous beams, and how would they cover the costs?

The staff Forester was called in and he calmly explained that they had anticipated this problem, in 1379 AD, and planted a grove of oak trees on a bequested plot of land. The information was passed down from one Forester to the next - "You don't cut them oak trees. Them's for the roof of New College Hall!" The trees were milled, the beams replaced, and the field was re-sown with acorns, planning for the next six hundred years.

Oxford's own website debunks this tale as more fable than fact, but it remains a powerful story about long-term thinking.

The clip is here.

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