What is the meaning of the Shoe Tree?

Maybe some mean, “Don’t bother coming back for your boots at the foot of my bed.”

Pausing before the West Bank Shoe Tree on a lazy summer day, one might imagine a future in which trees are bio-engineered to grow, for example, human feet.

If you can imagine a tree that sprouts inorganic polymers like shoes, why not a tree that sprouts something more organic, like hands, hearts, livers? Maybe we could grow sirloin steaks on trees and never have to kill cattle.

The Shoe Tree gives rise to this kind of dreaming. Nestled where the Washington Avenue Bridge meets the West Bank near Anderson Hall, pedestrians can’t help but notice the abundance of footwear dangling from the branches. Other things dangle there, as well. Recently I noticed a bicycle inner tube and a pair of shorts. The shorts were turned inside out, but seemed to be red with a snakeskin pattern. The miraculous tree, it appears, has a serpent.

A shoe tree is not unique to our campus. There are other shoe trees in various places, and some have written about the life cycle of a shoe tree. At least one shoe tree has ended its life cycle by being set ablaze. Casting one’s shoes into a tree has been characterized as the solitary act of a dreamer. But sometimes, it is said, others catch the dream, and a shoe tree emerges.

There are stories and legends about shoe trees. One supposedly began when a couple argued on their wedding night, and, somehow, a pair of shoes got thrown into a tree. Later, the shoes of their children joined the first set of shoes. So perhaps that particular shoe tree is associated with marriage or fertility. Our West Bank Shoe Tree seems to be strongly associated with graduation. In the past year, when I casually asked around for information about the shoe tree, several agreed it was a custom to cast shoes into the tree when graduating. In fact, last spring I witnessed people in graduation gowns being photographed in front of the shoe tree.

But I doubt there is only one custom, story or possibility. The variety of footwear on the tree tells me people must bring personal and subjective meanings. There is a pair of shoes that seems to be spray-painted bright orange. Another pair has been decorated with a mosaic of colored tiles and small objects, including what appears to be a compass. There are shoes held together with twine instead of laces.

Maybe some shoes mean only, “I think the shoe tree is cool and want to participate.” Maybe some mean, “Don’t bother coming back for your boots at the foot of my bed.”

There is no official sign discouraging the casting of shoes into the tree, and yet the act seems quite illicit. It isn’t the kind of thing most people would do in front of a campus security guard. And yet the crop of shoes on the tree grows, week by week, month by month. For how many years? When did it begin, and how will it end?

The Shoe Tree is expressive and inarticulate, simultaneously deep and meaningful, and yet kind of silly and pointless. There is a collective feeling or spirit about a shoe tree. Instinctively, one turns to others and asks, “Do you know the reason, and how it all began?”

But, then again, there is an individual and subjective experience of a shoe tree, personal like your favorite footwear. Solitary dreamers stand before this phenomenon and imagine strange new crops, wildly creative combinations, deeply personal visions that could become a collective tidal wave of action if only one could know where to begin or where and how to take the first step.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected].