Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > Fostering the Future at the Talbot County Free Library
Over the past several years, it's been my privilege to serve on an ad hoc committee created by the Talbot County Arts Council to solve a particularly thorny problem. Attend a classical music concert in our area nowadays and you'll most likely find yourself surrounded by nothing but gray heads, not a young one in sight. Think about that for a moment. Classical music is one of the supreme accomplishments of Western civilization. It took our world not centuries but millennia to reach the point where Johann Sebastian Bach could reach back into the grab-bag of his cultural inheritance and produce a fugue, Mozart could spin out the Jupiter Symphony, Beethoven pen his Fifth, Mahler his Ninth ... the list goes on and on. But they mean nothing, achieve nothing, if they are not played, listened to, appreciated, and loved; if their humanity does not inform our world.
And so it was that I found myself not too long ago sitting with the members of our committee and a group of music teachers from Talbot County Public Schools trying to figure out a way to get young people interested in classical music again. As we talked about a plan we had to bring in graduate students from the University of Maryland's Music Department to work with and inspire our local middle school students, I found my thoughts wandering. All of us seemed so ... “mature.” Not the teachers. No, at my age they looked scarcely old enough to teach. But the members of our ad hoc committee ... well, suffice it to say we all looked like typical concert-goers: “late, late middle-age” would be putting it kindly. Which interested me. What we were talking about, what we were working so hard to bring into being, was a program that could only hope to bear fruit—pretty much by definition—long after we were all gone.
When I was preparing to write The Oblate's Confession, I came across an interesting fact. In 7th century England, when someone wanted to put up a building that would last, they found an oak whose trunk curved gently in a single direction and thickened as it reached the crown. Such a tree would be cut down, sawn in half lengthwise, and then each of the two halves would be sawn in half again, creating four matching, curved timbers that thickened toward the top. Next, pairs of these timbers would be set in the ground opposite each other at intervals along the main axis of the proposed building. Then, following the direction of the natural curve in their fibers, the opposing timbers would be bent toward one another so that their thickened tops met to form an arch. The resulting “crucks,” as they were called, became the supporting framework for the house's roof and walls.
To acquire the size and strength needed to produce such timbers, an oak had to be at least three-quarters of a century old. In any given forest left to grow naturally, oaks with just the right proportions would have been rare. To meet the demand in a culture which abandoned and re-built its houses about every thirty years (due to rot—wooden members were set directly upon the ground), people were forced to maintain groves of oaks pruned and trained to assure that, at maturity, each individual tree would exhibit the characteristics needed. Problem is, few people at this time lived past 40. Which meant that, all over England, during the “Dark Ages” when everyone was supposedly struggling just to stay alive, individual human beings took the time to cultivate groves of oaks they would never see put to use. They assumed such an apparently fruitless, but nonetheless difficult, task for the simple reason that they believed in their community. They dreamt of its future, liked to imagine their children and their children's children living in homes whose supporting timbers they had tended.
Looking at all the gray heads sitting around the conference table that day in Talbot County Public Schools' administration building, I found myself thinking we had something in common with those 7th century arborists. As do the members of our school board, our town and county governments, and, of course, the board and staff of the Talbot County Free Library (even now we are cultivating a collection of books, science backpacks, Playaway Launchpads, and more that will shepherd the next generation of Talbot County children into adulthood). We are fortunate enough to live in a place that believes in itself and its future, a place where teachers and librarians, town and county council members, grandmothers and grandfathers, friends and neighbors, regularly reach across the great divide to love and care for those that will survive them. We all tend our oaks.
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