The Shoe Tree is dead. Long live the Shoe Tree.
I learned about Nevada’s Shoe Tree on the “Loneliest Road in the World” from a touching article in the Los Angeles Times. In December 2010, this modern-day sacred tree was cut down by vandals with a chainsaw, after serving as a curious and cryptic symbol in a lonely stretch of the Nevada desert.
Here’s a lovely black & white photo of the fallen Shoe Tree.
Why did people toss worn-out footwear into a cottonwood’s gnarled branches until shoes clustered like bees on a honeycomb? Why are there many other shoe trees all across the U.S. and around the world?
Where I lived in rural Pennsylvania, solitary pairs of shoes often festooned power lines. These peculiar pendants intrigued me. I imagined older children must have tossed them up there as a challenge. Perhaps shoe tossing is like climbing Mt. Everest: people do it because it’s there.
Yet I think something more is happening with these shoe trees. They crop up alongside roads, a visual oxymoron: a stationary tree beside an artery of travel, where shoes may come to rest in one place our feet cannot easily tread: the sky. Of course, like any sacred trees, shoe trees have origin myths to explain their hold on people’s hearts— and shoes.
A popular myth about Middlegate’s Shoe Tree ascribes its origin to a lovers’ quarrel. Two newlyweds, broke from Vegas, were squabbling. The young wife threatened to walk out on her husband. He grabbed her shoes, tossed them into a tree, and challenged her to try. Then he stormed off to a local bar. The bartender (and chief bard of this tale) counseled him to make up. Eventually he cooled off, went back to his wife and apologized. She asked him to toss his shoes up into the tree too, to cement his apology.
Mythos originally meant not just a story, but something told. This is a true myth. It does not matter whether it actually happened: the story rings true.
The wake for the Shoe Tree, described in the article I cited above, demonstrates how this unlikely symbol has touched people’s hearts. Perhaps the shoe tree’s fans instinctively recognize a truth hidden in this myth and in plain sight: two shoes tied together by a knot that binds, when neither could find their way up there alone. The shoe tree, solitary watcher beside the road of life, upholds a symbol of union.
The more we ponder the Shoe Tree, the more we draw parallels with other tree myths. There are truths shared between them. They are hard to put into words, but we sense them, like the invisible tug that beckons passersby to put up their feet, or at least their shoes.
Things hang on trees. That, too, is part of tree-myths. Odin, Norse Allfather, sacrificed himself on the tree of knowledge, hanging on Yggdrasil the World Tree for nine days. When he came down, he had learned the art of writing. The Vikings believed that Ragnarok, the end of the world, would come when Yggdrasil fell.
The ancient Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers revolves around another family quarrel, and again a tree plays a part in reconciliation. In this fable, a certain Bata is falsely accused by his older brother’s wife of seducing her. Outraged by his wife’s accusation, Anubis tries to kill his younger brother. After Bata escapes, Anubis learns too late that his wife is the true betrayer, his younger brother innocent.
Bata, living in exile, performs a curious ritual to protect himself: he hides his heart in the top of a cedar tree. Later he marries, but his wife, too, betrays him, catching the attentions of the pharaoh. In order to free herself from her true husband, she asks the pharaoh to have the tree chopped down. Eager to please her, pharaoh obliges. Anubis soon receives an omen of his brother’s death. Determined not to fail Bata again, Anubis goes to the valley of cedars, searches for three years until he finds Bata’s heart and restores him to life. There is more to this story, and another sequence with resurrection and trees; in the end, reborn yet again from the splinter of a tree, Bata is reborn as the king’s son and grows up to avenge himself and rule Egypt. As with Odin, death, rebirth and growth are closely tied to a tree.
After all, most trees “die” by dropping their leaves and reviving in spring. They seem to live forever, unless they are burned or chopped down. As wood, trees are the source of fire, of furniture, of houses, and of charcoal which was once used in smelting and writing. They give shade to travelers beside the road, and many give fruits. Eve’s apple came from a tree, and Jesus hung from another.
But why shoes? Old, worn-out shoes, old selves? Why are humans forever scratching their names on rocks, casting shoes up into age-old trees, as if to say, I was here?
Another sacred tree, one I remember myself: an enormous, gnarled willow that stood beside a crossroads in a rural corner of the Pennsylvania countryside. There was a little wooden house in its shade, and there an old black man would often sit, Bo Gibbs. I never got a chance to talk to him: we were driving by, not walking. But sometimes we would pass him walking into the nearest town, West Grove, many miles away. The local rumor said that Bo Gibbs was the son of a freed slave, and if you ever stopped at his house, he’d tell you all kinds of stories. He was like the spirit of that land. He had walked all over it. He always came home to that tree.
Shortly after Bo Gibbs passed away, lightning struck the old willow and split it into a million pieces.
Trees stand for life and death. Their roots are deep and steadfast. We say they have a heart, but I am not sure why they so often seem to stand for love, too.
Here is one more tree-myth, the myth of Baucis and Philemon. It may be Greek, but the first full telling is from the Roman poet Ovid.
The story goes that Hermes and Zeus went down to earth in disguise to test mortals. Disguised as beggars, the gods were pelted with rocks, chased by dogs, and denied the hospitality of many wealthy homes. Only one mean little hut opened its door to them. The elderly residents, Baucis and Philemon, were living in poverty, but all they had they offered to their guests. They even made to kill the old gray goose that served as their watch-dog, so that they would have meat to serve the strangers. But this was too great a gift; Zeus and Hermes revealed themselves and forbade the terrified couple to sacrifice so much. Rather, Zeus said, the gods would grant the honest pair any one wish of their hearts.
They could have asked for riches, a comfortable home, or anything in the world. However, both Baucis and Philemon had only one wish: to die at the same moment, so that they would not be parted.
The gods, greatly moved, were glad to grant this gift. When the couple died, they turned into trees with interwoven branches, boughs knotted together forever.
Do you know a tree myth? Stop and remember it. The shoe tree has fallen, but there will always be other trees to carry on the story, inviting us to pause our journey, look up at immortal branches pointing towards heaven, and ponder where our own road will end.