Monday, August 05, 2013

The tree that is not one

This photo, kindly furnished by Isabella Winkler, shows a nearby tree neatly reflected behind the new "Shimer College" lettering at the Admissions entrance:

The reflected tree reminds me of something I noticed when I was last walking around the outside of the Shimer building: that in summer, the Chicago campus is not such a gray and dreary place at all.  The flourishing greenery actually gives an almost human touch to the modernist angles of the old Institute of Gas Technology.

But the reflection also uncannily recalls the opening sequence of the recent Shimer video:

That tree, of course, is (or is intended to represent) the tree of the Shimer logo:

But whence comes the tree of the Shimer logo?  It first emerged in the early 1970s; here it is in the 1973 catalog:

There appears to be some dispute as to exactly which tree that is.  In shape it most resembles an oak, and it may have been modeled on a large oak [or maple] that grew on the Shimer golf course in Mount Carroll.  On the other hand, contemporary reports indicate that the Graduation Elm -- which was in the final throes of Dutch elm disease by 1971, when the logo first emerges -- had an unusually oak-like shape.

For my part, then, I prefer to think that it is the Graduation Elm: a noble tree that had the wisdom to leave Shimer before Shimer left it.

When I attended Shimer in Waukegan in the late 1990s, there were a number of delightful trees on the campus, which, by then, had grown into a real campus (or pretty close) with a quad and everything.  But there were many years in the Waukegan period when the "campus" consisted only of the 438 building.  And although the sideyard of 438 did boast a couple of respectable pines, it didn't have any that were anything like the tree of the logo, or even the sort of tree that you can hang out in the branches of, as we had by the 1990s.  Shimer had left all its trees behind.

What could the tree logo represent, then, but a reminder of everything that had been sacrificed to keep this school going?  As students, we sometimes called the Shimer tree "the Tree of Knowledge."  But perhaps a better label would be "the Tree of Loss."  And so it remains today: no real thing, but a stray image caught in the glass, a reflection seen through tears. 

Our comrades at Marlboro College have a mascot known as the "Fighting Dead Tree." Perhaps this is another case of convergent evolution between these two peculiar schools.  Our trees die, or are left behind, but we keep them as our symbol: either our shield against the madness of the world, or a marker of our shared insanity, whichever you prefer.

It is our losses that give us the strength to fight. 

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