The shoe tree

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The ash tree is a tall tangle of feathery limbs at the edge of the park.  At some point, unnoticed, shoes began to stipple its branches, like peculiar fruits.  They’re the shoes of both children and adults.  Mainly sneakers, but of many designs.  Some have a branch to themselves, others have become tangled with one another to form intricate mobiles.  The shoes don’t seem to harm the tree.  In fact, they’ve slowly become part of it.  They’ve been there so long that many are now encrusted in lichen.  Occasionally, an abandoned shoe will appear on the grass, evicted by gales or rot.

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I wonder who all of these shoes belong to.  Did their wearers skulk home barefoot, having had the shoes ripped from their feet?  Did their parents scold them because they’d lost their shoes?  Do their former owners still pass by and look longingly at shoes they once loved that are now out of reach?  Or did they give them up joyfully in a blithe moment of festivity?

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I first heard of shoe trees when I read local author Julia Darling’s novel The Taxi-Driver’s Daughter, in which an unhappy teenage girl decorates a tree with stolen shoes.  The tree ultimately becomes a symbol to the community.  At the time, I wondered which came first, the book or the tree.  But I soon learned that shoe trees aren’t unusual.  They’re found worldwide and there are many theories to their purpose: a result of bullying or pranks, a rite of passage such as the end of the school year, to signify a nefarious purpose such as the sale of drugs, or even that a person has died.

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Leaving offerings on trees is an ancient practice.  In many parts of the world objects are left tied to branches or hammered into the bark.  Trees are adorned with rags and ribbons, food and coins.  They’re often known as wishing trees, because the offering is left in return for a wish to be fulfilled.  And what else is a Christmas tree if not a tree laden with offerings?  I suspect that our shoe tree began as a prank, perhaps light-hearted, perhaps malevolent.  I worry about the children who may have been bullied to facilitate an offering to the shoe tree, but I hope that if this is the case, the tree now cradles and disperses that pain, taking the weight of it as it does the weight of the shoes, drawing it in to become a part of itself.

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But we offer words as well as objects to trees.  It’s not only lovers who carve their initials into bark.  The two beech trees guarding Lady’s Well are covered in the initials of pilgrims.  Studies have been done of the graffiti carved into trees across Europe by soldiers in the world wars, including the American GI who told the wife he’d married in secret before leaving for Europe that he would carve his initials on a tree everywhere he went.  Carvings in trees are known as arborglyphs.  The trees healing process darkens them, making them more visible.

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We have a need to tell the world that we were here.  We connect with a place by leaving something behind.  An old tree will have been here before us and is likely to remain after we’ve gone.  Trees are silent sentinels that we feel watch over us, a link between the underworld, the earth and the sky.  They give a sense of scale and permanence to our daily concerns.  We offer them the letters of our names (who we are in the world) and we offer them our shoes (what we travel in).  And perhaps they care, drawing strength from our attention.  Or perhaps they don’t and the meaning is ours alone.  If the tree doesn’t notice, then maybe someone else will and know that we existed, if only for a short while.

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The desire to be witnessed is always there.  And it spreads.  Already, shoes have appeared in two of the other trees in the park.  And in another park nearby, someone has left some more seasonal offerings.  So perhaps one day when I’m ready to dispose of a pair of shoes, I won’t throw them away.  I’ll take them to the shoe tree and hurl them into the branches.  And maybe I’ll ask the tree, if not for a blessing, then to be my witness, to know that once I walked this way through the world.

113 thoughts on “The shoe tree

  1. Some years ago while I was still a student living in a students’ dormitory I woke up at a day in March and saw the tree next to my window all in red bracelets. That shoe tree reminds me of it, just that it was much nicer to look at. There were students from Bulgaria and those decorated the tree with red and white bracelets which they wore during the month of march. They believe there is a saint (or something similar) named “baba Marta” (grandma March) which brings love to the ones who wear something red and white in the remeberance of her person. In april they put the bracelets out on tree branches to give some luck and love to the nature and neighbors. It was lovely to look at the tree and their happy faces.

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  2. This is a fascinating topic, Andrea. I checked Google for shoe tree images and I was awestruck. They are powerful symbols of … what? Perhaps an innate human desire to link with other human beings who were there before us, adding to the mystery of their anonymity for those who come after. Great photos!

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  3. Another spell-binding post…I LOVE your topic! Wow!…I adore the idea of a tree receiving a pair of shoes and then taking the essence of the wearer right down into it’s sacred root’s and then ‘walking in your shoe’s’ and listening with deep nature-respect to your story and then sending you healing and love…no matter the wearer, no matter the story. My God I love tree’s!…thank you for reminding just how much!

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  4. I’ve never seen a shoe tree, Andrea. I have seen shoes dangling from power lines and phone lines that cross over highways. I always wondered who they belonged to and why they were there.
    I would never think to fling my shoes up into a tree to leave my mark. I hope I can leave my mark simply by the lives I touched during my time on this earth.

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    • Shoes on the power lines are considered to be part of the same phenomenon Jill – it has a name ‘shoe tossing’, which I wasn’t aware of until I started looking into it! I like your philosophy though of touching lives rather than leaving objects 🙂

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  5. Quietly contemplative and fascinating… I had only heard of the shoe tree in the Nevada desert (in the general area of the Burning Man festival). I’d no idea these were so widespread. I suppose there are that many people needing something to bear witness, to leave something of themselves.
    Another lovely post, Andrea. Huge hugs! 😀

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  6. Beautiful. Until you mentioned Christmas trees, I thought I was previously unfamiliar with this custom, but I agree with your thought that leaving shoes/caring initials into tree bark is done to ensure identity is preserved and resonates as long as the tree stands. Very thought-provoking and powerful post.

    Fondly,
    Elizabeth

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  7. I’ve spotted some shoe trees, too. Like you, I wonder what inspired the shoe tossing, and I hope each pair has a worthwhile story behind it rather than just doing it without thought or motive. Makes the idea more appealing, and your lovely post captures why.

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  8. Cool!!! There are two trees on one of our hikes that has Christmas ornaments on them. We smile every time we see it.

    With the shoes, I am reminded of the movie Big Fish, where people throw their shoes into a tree to become citizens of this beautiful fantasy town. Have you seen it? It’s one of my faves.

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  9. Beautiful Andrea 🙂 We don’t have a shoe tree in our area but we do have shoes dangling from power lines. I believe teens do that. I have come across several trees in our mountains bedecked with ribbon and cloth and it does appear to me like people making offerings.

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    • Now that is a bizarre fence! I find it interesting that ‘vandals’ have been removing the bras and the shoe tree that Teagan referred to in Nevada was cut down by vandals. I don’t think these things are always pretty, but in some ways, once they’ve begun it’s a shame to ‘clean them up’ as the bra thieves said, because by then they’ve taken on a new meaning and become part of the landscape.

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  10. I’d never come across this phenomenon before Andrea, though it made me think immediately of all the locks on the bridge last time I was in Paris (and now found in several other places), which also got me thinking about how we like to leave our physical mark, our symbol, out in the world (the very motivation for art…) Will be looking upwards to spot shoes on branches now…

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  11. Andrea I drive by a tree near my mums place, its a grand old tree and lately travellers have been nailing their shoes to it. It makes me sad that we humans need to do this. The tree was beautiful and now it has lots of shoes all over the giant trunk. I keep promising to come one dark night and free the tree from the humans curse of trashy shoes. My daughter laughs and says “you keep saying it…why don’t you really do it!” Man theres a story in there somewhere. The hanging shoes don’t look as bad, at first looking at these photos I thought they were ravens…(glasses please). But why can’t we leave stories to be remembered by instead. A much better way I think.

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    • I agree with you Kath – the hanging shoes don’t seem to harm the tree, but I don’t approve of nailing something to the bark and personally I’d never carve anything into a tree – I think you should definitely free the shoes and write a post about it!

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  12. I’ve never heard of shoe trees before! The closest I’ve seen is shoes strung over power lines :). I hear what you’re saying about tree offerings though, and I think it’s a beautiful idea – although I probably wouldn’t choose to engrave my initials or fling a pair of shoes over a branch…

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    • I think it’s part of the same phenomenon Sara, the shoes thrown over power lines. I agree I’d never carve my initials in a tree and I probably couldn’t bring myself to throw some shoes up there, but I do like the idea of all that attention paid and the meaning that comes out of it.

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  13. Really interesting and well written history and thoughts about. shoes in trees. I’m fascinated to learn that names and symbols carved in trees are arborglyphs. In my part of the country people throw shoes whose tied strings loop over telephone wires. The picture of the red Christmas ornament is striking. 🙂

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  14. Funny. I was sure I’d left a comment…

    I haven’t seen a tree decorated with shoes but I do recall electrical wires stretched from telephone pole to telephone pole showcasing running shoes. Now I’m dating myself. 😀

    I enjoyed this piece. It took me down memory lane. Thank YOU.

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  15. Wow, I’ve never seen a shoe tree before! In our local recreation ground, it’s those dog-balls on ropes that end up in trees, after they’ve been thrown by people with a bad sense of direction, such as me. The wood carving on trees, brings to mind carvings made by pupils on the sort of wooden desks we had at school in the old days. Usually these carvings were made by the point of compasses in Maths lessons and filled in with ink during other boring lessons.

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  16. This is fascinating Andrea, truly. Just near us is a small independent sculpture garden which is open to the public. The displays change often, so I go often, in all seasons. One of the permanent displays is a “shoe tree” where the trunk has been created with lots and lots of random men’s shoes. Other shoes have ben used for the branches. It has always intrigued me – I had never thought to research the origins so I am really thankful that you’ve done it for me! Really interesting, and the way you sum up with walking your way through the world is pure Andrea. 🙂

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    • Thanks Jenny, that sounds like an interesting sculpture. It would be fascinating to know which was the first shoe tree and whether they started in other places because people had heard about the first one – but then that’s the age old debate about how culture spreads 🙂

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  17. what stories this post conjures up!! I love the carved initials becoming part of the tree forever more- “though lovers be lost, love shall not” – and these shoes wind walking in a symphony of silent chimes heard by the tree!! Wonderful wonderful post Andrea!! I’ve also seen glass bottles, catching light and hanging in trees when I was in Ireland and elsewhere.

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  18. This is a lovely, contemplative post, Andrea. Just love it. The only shoe tree I ever heard about were more like shoe stands that go in a closet for organization. Thanks for teaching me something new.

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  19. Andrea, how magical! This is all new to me ~ the shoes in trees, I mean.

    I wonder do people steal up to the tree in the darkness and leave their shoes or could it be a more communal practice?

    Reminds me a little of the love locks on bridges but somehow hanging up shoes has different connotations than love, I’d have thought.

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  20. I am new to your post and have really enjoyed reading it this morning . My home town Halesowen in U.K has a cluster of hills looking down on it . One of the hills is known as Clent that has a tiny church , nestled within it, is very old tree full of rags and ribbon left by people . We were led to believe the custom goes back to pagan times…so interesting . Love the shoe Idea.
    Cherryx

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  21. I’ve seen shoes hurled up into trees from time to time but not as in this tree. I’ve also seen them hanging from power lines and funnily enough, not that long ago, asked hubby about them. He said that he always heard that they had something to do with marking a drug dealer’s territory. I don’t like to think that this is the case with ‘your’ tree though. This is what I want to believe: ‘I worry about the children who may have been bullied to facilitate an offering to the shoe tree, but I hope that if this is the case, the tree now cradles and disperses that pain, taking the weight of it as it does the weight of the shoes, drawing it in to become a part of itself.’ Beautiful this Andrea, just beautiful…

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  22. I have never seen a shoe tree in person, Andrea! Here we have some on telephone wires though as a common sight. I often wonder who threw them up there. As for your words about leaving behind something so that people know you existed, I believe that your written words in your posts here speak volumes for your kind spirit and literary-loving soul ❤

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  23. Sooo interesting- shoe trees! I have always wondered about the owners of the shoes and why they tossed them forth to be cradled by a tree’s branches. Lovely writing, Andrea! I especially like your thought,
    “And maybe I’ll ask the tree, if not for a blessing, then to be my witness, to know that once I walked this way through the world.”
    There is an everlasting quality to that thought; to know that we are a part of the universe.
    x

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  24. Looks like we were writing twin thoughts at the same time. *grin* My comments are in the companion piece coming up.

    Leaving offerings on trees is an ancient practice.

    Didn’t know that. And yes, the Cmas tree makes all the more sense.
    Lovely reflections as always, AS.

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  25. Well I never – I’ve never come across shoe trees before. Certainly in Ireland a pair of trainers slung over a wire might signal a drug dealing spot, but that’s a bit different. Also I never knew that about tree carving either – probably that’s dying out these days. Fascinating stuff Andrea.

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  26. I have never heard of a shoe tree, and I guess I’m of two minds regarding the purpose of lassoing a tree with a bunch of smelly old shoes. Just another way for humans to make their mark, which saddens me because it isn’t about the tree at all.

    However, I love, absolutely love, your spin on this practice, Andrea, and I will lean on your words if I should ever come across a shoe tree.

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  27. I have seen shoes hanging from telegraph wires but not really in a tree! I know people decorate Christmas tees, but it annoys me somehow when I see trees covered in ribbons and dangling offerings, it seem disrespectful to the tree somehow. The Glastonbury holy thorn was covered with ‘offerings’ the last few years (before it got sadly got vandalised). It always seemed wrong to me, but that’s just my feelings. Interesting post as always, Andrea. 🙂

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    • Thanks Wendy, I’ve never been to Glastonbury but I did see the tree in question on TV the other week – post-vandalism and it did look a bit of a mess, but I have mixed feelings – I see the magic as well as sometimes thinking we should leave well alone.

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  28. Beautiful post. My daughter and I lost our red frisbee high up in a tree in the Golden Gate Park. Every few months we would pass the tree in hopeful expectation that it was still there, and it was for almost three years. It became a secret tradition, something that was just between us and the tree. However, one day we looked up to find that the frisbee had disappeared, probably shaken loose by a particularly desperate Pacific storm. While initially sad my daughter said something to the effect that it had moved on, as everything has to eventually 🙂

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    • Thanks Malcolm, sorry for the late reply but I’ve been out of action for a while. Love that story of you and your daughter sharing that secret tradition and I love her philosophy when it finally disappeared 🙂

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  29. I’ve been hibernating so catching up on my blog reads..
    I never heard of ‘shoe trees’ and only very occasionally did I notice a shoe dangling from telegraph wires. Strange way of leaving a trail if you ask me and I’m even more upset about carving into trees :/ Not done.
    I love(d) to leave nature mandala’s with whatever I could find on my walks (in Mass.) but shoes..? Noo
    I read you’re ill Andrea ? Nothing serious, I hope? Wishing you a speedy recovery. Hugsxx

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    • Hi Karin – not a serious illness, but I have had to take an unexpected break, so apologies for not getting back to you sooner. I still remember the post you wrote here https://karinvandenbergh.wordpress.com/2013/10/27/a-delightful-added-bonus/ about the binder that was left for people to write their thoughts about their experiences of that particular place, which is a great way of leaving a trail – that one inspired me to write a short story – nothing to do with leaving a binder for people to write their thoughts, but about leaving something of beauty in a place for no other reason that to do it.

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  30. Andrea, I’m in awe of you. You always manage to wrap so much folklore, history, music, and magic into each post. I really love how you’ve said this part, among several others: “I worry about the children who may have been bullied . . . but I hope that if this is the case, the tree now cradles and disperses [disperses is awesome diction!] that pain, taking the weight of it as it does the weight of the shoes, drawing it in to become a part of itself.”
    I also didn’t know trees darkened as part of the healing process, either. I’m afraid I’ve seen trees on one of my favorite hiking trails that were so marked, and I found these human scratchings to be an affront to nature, although I completely sympathise with the human need to make one’s mark, literally or figuratively. Anyway, I could ramble on about trees and how great this post is–not to mention your reading list at the right of the screen–but I won’t keep you. Spring is around the corner over here, by the way, with temps in the 50s F and thawing some of our standing snow. I’m thinking it might be awesome to take the kids on a trek to the Spring equinox celebration at Cahokia Mounds a few weekends from now (a place you might enjoy if you ever visit the States, and if you haven’t been there before: http://cahokiamounds.org/), though I attach no particular spirituality to nature. (I just love it, as goofy or sophomoric as that might sound.)

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  33. When I was a girl, there was a very old farmhouse at the edge of our town, Andrea. As the pasture land around it was cleared for development, finally just the house remained with one huge ash tree giving shade in front. I don’t know who hung the first shoes from the tree, but over the years there were hundreds. When the tree finally died, a branch broke off some of the shoes fell off. The amazing thing was that most of the shoes contained handwritten messages: unsigned poems, wishes, prayers.

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    • That is magical Marylin! I don’t imagine I’d find any messages in our shoe tree, but who knows! This week shoes have been appearing on the grass, first a beige loafer, then it disappeared to be replaced by a black court shoe…

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  34. Never heard of a Shoe Tree, but there is a Rag Tree, or rather a Rag Well I want to see this summer. This is an ancient well and a blackthorn tree with the stripes of cloth on it: a wishing tree that I heard people still visit.

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  37. This was such an interesting post – (I linked from your `What we leave behind’ post.) I have never seen what you’ve described above other than Christmas decorated trees, but in the south, they have a tradition of Bottle Trees. You can read about them, if inspired, here – http://www.appalachianhistory.net/2015/06/bottle-tree.html – the practice came from Africa to Europe to our South on plantations. Pretty interesting. Now they’re sold – online and elsewhere – as garden sculptures! You inspired me to go learn more – thanks! 🙂

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