Sunday Snapshot: Constitution Elm

In 1816, Indiana delegates met under the spreading branches of one of the largest trees of its kind in the world to draft Indiana’s state constitution. Its branches have since been trimmed and the trunk preserved, which is today encased in a large sandstone monument.

https://www.thisisindiana.org/directory/constitution-elm/

The wood from the branches has been used to make lots of keepsakes, some of which are framed in my lawyer’s office.

A WRITING PROMPT FROM ME TO YOU: Write about a famous tree.

MA

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About

I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but now live in the woods in southern Indiana. Though I only write fiction, I love to read non-fiction. The more I learn about this world, the more fantastic I see it is.

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One thought on “Sunday Snapshot: Constitution Elm

  1. Michael Hodges

    January 9, 2022 at 10:01am

    Your writing prompts always strike me, whether I write or not. So often these days I simply don’t write, finding the desire mostly gone. Or perhaps “gone” is the wrong word; after all, I continue to love writing prompts.

    I just shared The Shawshank Redemption with my son a couple of days ago. It’s on a list of films I consider important, films I try to show him because stories about people are important, stories about arcs and change are important. When asked about my favorite films or novels, they are stories about one person entering the tale, another person leaving: Never Cry Wolf, Jeremiah Johnson, The Godfather (it would be interesting to compare notes on what is “important” about the film, and why), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and others.

    Sometimes a movie is important because of one poignant moment.
    Sometimes a book is on my “changed Michael’s life” shelf because of a single line.

    So yeah, The Shawshank Redemption is an important movie, and there’s a “famous tree” in it. It wasn’t a famous tree before the movie, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

    In the film, the character Andy Dufresne describes the tree’s importance in detail:

    “It’s got a long rock wall with a big oak tree at the north end. It’s like something out of a Robert Frost poem. It’s where I asked my wife to marry me. We went there for a picnic and made love under that oak and I asked and she said yes. Promise me, Red. If you ever get out… find that spot. At the base of that wall, you’ll find a rock that has no earthly business in a Maine hayfield. Piece of black, volcanic glass. There’s something buried under it I want you to have.”

    Such a magnificent tree shown in the movie, a white oak in Ohio, hundreds of miles from where the story took place (as movie locations often are); but it met the criteria and truly looked like something out of a Robert Frost poem. I remember the first time I watched the movie (made in 1994), thinking “My God, what a magnificent tree!” Fitting for the story, providing resonance for Andy’s heartfelt, desperate reminiscence and a location for Red’s journey to discover what happened to Andy following his escape from Shawshank Prison.

    The tree was partially destroyed by lightning. I remember reading about that, being struck less by any relation to the movie, more by the sorrow and sense of loss for a thing I’d only seen in a movie. Because Story with it’s capital letter and human touch can be just that powerful.

    In 2017 the rest of the tree was brought down by high winds during another storm.

    To quote a completely irreverent cartoon character, “And that’s the way the news goes!”

    To quote my own feelings upon learning that, damn. Just God damn. Ain’t that life? Still… damn.

    I mentioned above that the tree wasn’t really famous before the movie, suggesting that I had some point to get to. Oddly, the point comes from another movie, *Throw Momma From the Train.” In the midst of very human and sometimes madcap silliness lies one of the most perfect moments in cinematic storytelling as the childlike character Owen shares his coin collection with his writing teacher, Larry.

    Pulling out a cigar box, Owen points out a nickel, and a dime, and another dime. Larry looks as though eye-rolling pain is washing over him and begins to “correct” Owen on what constitutes a coin collection; but it turns out each coin has special significance to Owen: this nickel was from a ball game he attended with his father, who let him keep the change… and this dime was from a time they went to the fair together. Coin after coin in a collection of memories, pennies filled with more meaning that a trove of Spanish dubloons. There’s more to follow, but at that moment Larry sees beyond himself, seeing the humanity in this little weirdo who latched onto him because the little weirdo was a person — and that makes things personal.

    Write about a famous tree.

    I used to have a tree collection.

    There was the tree by the top of the ridge where the back of the farm pitched down into a little valley, a tree with a long limb sticking precariously out. We had a salt feeder there for cattle, and more than once I climbed the feeder in order to reach the limb and stretch out when I was alone, out walking. I used to imagine climbing that tree and placing a hammock somewhere high, imagine myself swinging up there where nobody could hurt me, somehow private and wild among the leaves and the birds. I never did that, despite stealing a bedsheet and some rope because I had no idea how to make a hammock. When the sheet tore miserably, I hid it along with the rope, high up in some branches. When my father saw it and asked what it might be, I had no idea whatsoever, because he was the one I was afraid of. Nope, NO idea, the world is weird, you just never know, pops. Life is strange, and you’re a pseudo-cripple with the scars of polio, so unless it blows down and you find me out, the mystery remains.

    There was the little maple just past that tree, above the old metal-tanked spring, a water trough for cattle. The maple had a limb that stuck out just so during the height of my Edgar Rice Burroughs fandom, and I should have been Tarzan. Took me years to leap to that limb, afraid to try and grasp it, always reminded of an attempt earlier in life when I fell flat on my back beneath a swing set while endeavoring to master brachiation. The kids ran and got their dad, who declared I’d just had the wind knocked out of me, and comforted me, and got me a drink. If I fell here, it might be hours, or even days before anyone gave a shit enough to look for me, and if they found me hurt the only thing I’d get wouldn’t be comfort and a drink for a hurt child, but a walking stick upside the head. Took me years to make that jump. Eventually I did, and it was far less dramatic or rewarding than I’d imagined.

    There was a red oak tree with another long, low branch; a branch where I lay so still a deer walked beneath me and I touched its back. No one believed me, I earned only more disgust and derision. But fuck you awful people from my past, I did it and you can’t take that away from me.

    There was the “Bone Forest,” a stretch of wood where my father used to drag dead cattle and horses in order to get them out of the way and let them rot or be devoured by wildlife in the years before he learned it was illegal and became afraid of being caught. The ground beneath the green canopy was littered with large bones. Most dramatic were the horned skulls and the enormous pelvises with their shamanic-seeming “eyeholes” and “antlers.” I donned many of those things, pretending I could gaze into Otherworlds, see beyond… before ever I learned I was wearing a cow’s asshole. Now I chuckle when I see fireside hippies with their own “shamanic” garb, but I DO get both sides of the joke.

    There was the plum grove, with its marvelous red fruit growing absolutely wild near a field of limestone fossils. Nearby was the persimmon grove, with large, sweet, golf ball-sized fruit so different from the small, catch-as-catch-can variety scattered all over the farm. There was the cherry grove, wild and smallish, but deliciously sweet in breathtaking abundance, enough for man and beast alike. All of them eventually cleared and plowed.

    There were the Thorn Trees, with their impassable spikes longer than my hands, great tridents of almost insane viciousness, into which calves occasionally wandered and into which my father sent me to retrieve them. I believe they were some kind of acacia.

    Most important was the Silver Forest, the great Beech Wood on a stretch of land at the very end of our property, tucked away and untouched. I was sixteen, and the trunks of these trees were so awesome I couldn’t wrap my arms even halfway around them. A friend and I once tried, and couldn’t touch, not by a long stretch. Beneath these honest-and-for-true giants only low shrubs managed to grow, so the floor was a bumpy carpet of gold in winter as the leaves fell, a land of moss, limestone, and green-hued light in summer. I spent countless hours there exploring stream and stone, catching crayfish in the shade, or seated as still as I could sit while squirrels drew closer… closer…

    I went back there on my first trip home after joining the military, and my father had the place logged, utterly destroying it, debris left in the stream to rot and turn the water brackish and polluted. It was Stephen King meets The Lorax, complete destruction, and I assure the no elves ever ventured there again.

    Write about a famous tree.

    I’d have to look up famous trees to write about them, because they simply wouldn’t mean much to me, not without some times spent thereon; but I have known some trees in my time,

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    • Author

      Marian Allen

      January 9, 2022 at 10:19am

      Michael, I simply LOVE your writing: what you write and how you write it. I feel as if I’ve been given a gift, every time to comment, and every time FB lets me see one of your posts. You DO write, my friend, and with great depth and beauty.

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