There’s an old saying that the difference between an American and a European is that a European thinks that 100 miles is a long distance, whereas an American thinks that 100 years is a long time. Today, in a conversation with some fellow Americans all finding ourselves temporarily on the other side of the Atlantic, the topic turned to differences in how time is viewed between the U.S. and Europe.
I told of the time I had gone to a conference at the in Chateau de Bloire, and was invited to dinner at the nearby chateau of a colleague (people seem to live in old castles in Europe a lot more than they do in the U.S. - maybe because we don’t have any). The thing that impressed me the most was the big barn/stables out back. The oldest part of the estate, the barn had been standing for about 800 years. The walls between the giant beams holding it up were made of a kind of mixture of caked mud and straw. My host pointed to a place where, before the mud was completely set, teenagers had carved their names and whatnot, and I realized that I was looking at 800 year old graffiti. As a native New Yorker, who thinks of “old graffiti” as something measured in mere decades, I felt a kind of awe.
The conversation drifted, naturally enough, onto the topic of giant beams. My friend Michael Gleicher told a wonderful anecdote about a college in Cambridge University - perhaps it was King’s College - where one of the old houses was held up by a single massive wooden beam, supported by smaller beams. It seems that after seven hundred years of faithful service the great beam was finally starting to rot out. Those responsible at the college realized it would need to be replaced in a few years time, lest the building itself eventually collapse.
But there was a problem: The house had been built back in a time when England was still verdant and covered with magnificent forests, and a tree from which to carve such a beam had been easy to find. Now, of course, things were very different. So the way Michael had heard it, the Cambridge dons turned for advice to the British Forestry Commission. The foresters told them “Your tree is ready.”
It seems that seven hundred years earlier, somebody had realized that this day would come. In preparation, a tree had been planted.