Tree of many tongues

by Neil Carleton   

 Trees speak to us in many ways.  They contribute to the environment by providing oxygen, improving air quality, conserving water, preserving soil, and supporting wildlife.  In town and countryside, they help to mitigate storm runoff, store carbon, and moderate air temperature.  Trees define our landscape.  They contribute to our economy, health and well being.

 Trees speak to us from the past and present.  Many have been planted as living memorials to loved ones, or to commemorate special events.  Some serve as records of family history with remarkable tales to tell.

This month’s shady character speaks with many tongues, close to 37 actually.  It could easily be missed during a spring drive westward where the mission is to sample the rich taste of fresh maple syrup at Fulton’s Pancake House & Sugar Bush.  Located along Sugar Bush Way, connecting the 7th and 6th concessions of Pakenham, this tree of renown stands tall amongst its neighbours. 

Look for the tall shoe tree along the north side of Sugar Bush Way between the 7th and 6th concessions of Pakenham.

 There’s no doubt that the shoe tree on Sugar Bush Way has caused many a double take, and  likely some sudden braking, especially cars approaching from the west with a view of sunshine on the bark.  With shoes, sandals, moccasins, and boots marching up the trunk, it’s a wonder to behold.  Sources close to the scene report that the first shoes appeared in the early 1980s, inspired by a shoe tree seen on a family trip.  As runners and other footwear were attached by the children and parents, the idea caught on.  Soon others in the area were adding their shoes and boots.

Reaching over head height, shoes, sandals, moccasins, and boots march up the trunk of the shoe tree on Sugar Bush Way. It was fun when there was snow on the ground because new additions to the collection could be secured even higher up.
On closer inspection, the footwear of the shoe tree can be viewed as a time capsule of fashion and function in various stages of preservation.
Down below, at the base of the mature oak trunk, a combination of Canadian weather and universal gravity have assembled some of the samples over the decades into layers of archaeological distinction. Deeper below, nearly hidden from sight under an accumulation of roadside sediment and deciduous leaves, are the remnants of artifacts which descended in earlier times. Closer to the surface are exposed samples which arrived at the earth-air interface in more contemporary times.

With a circumference of 3.10 m / 10’ 2”, and diameter of 0.97 m / 3’ 2”, the oak shoe tree on Sugar Bush Way is a mature specimen standing straight and tall close to the gravel road with 37 visible pieces of footwear on site.

According to local historian Guy Scott of Kinmount, Ontario, about 60 km northwest of Peterborough, the anthropological roots of the modern day shoe tree was a First Nations tradition of hanging moccasins on a tree for good luck.  In the Kinmount area, he recalled it was Bill Boland who created the first shoe tree in the 1940s.  Sadly, the Kinmount tradition was axed in November 2011 when the municipality cut down a set of very popular shoe trees west of town along Highway 45.  Full story here.  The history of Kinmount’s shoe trees, along with photos and public reaction to their destruction, are available here.

Rachel Brougham, with Petoskey News of northern Michigan, wrote last year about explanations for why people throw shoes up into trees.  Bullies aside, or gang members marking territory, shoes have been tied together and tossed like a bola into special trees as a rite of passage over the years to commemorate a milestone.  This might be a marriage, the end of a school year, or a graduation for example.  A quick Google search for ‘shoe trees decoration or danger’ will lead you to her article of April 5, 2012.

The phenomenon of shoe trees in the U.S.A. can be linked to the original shoe tree at Mud Flat, south of Altura, California, coordinates 40°28’12″N   120°16’33″W.  Although its 1993 demise was reported as a murder in cold sap, the cultural significance of the shoe tree quickly sprouted and spread across the continent.  Read about them as roadside attractions here.

Lanark County, it’s reported, is home to more than a few shoe trees.  Stories about them are always welcome.  I’d be grateful for directions so I could take photos to feature in a future column.  Thank you for your help with this.

Do you have a notable or favourite tree?  Readers are invited to submit their nominations for an honor roll of trees in our area that could be featured in future articles.  You can contact me at 613-256-2018, <ve3nce@rac.ca>, or Neil Carleton, 3 Argyle Street, P.O. Box 1644, Almonte, Ontario, K0A 1A0.  I look forward to hearing from you.

My volunteer columns started in March 2010, as print features, to support the tree planting and tree awareness initiatives of the Mississippi Mills Beautification Committee.  The contact for the Tree Working Group is Ron Ayling, 613-256-4617.  In Carleton Place, the contact for the Urban Forest / River Corridor Advisory Committee is Jim McCready, 613-257-5853.

Until the next column, you’ll find me looking for and hanging out with shady characters.