Sunday, 24 February 2013
The Shoe Tree
I'm unsure why I felt compelled to stop, but I'm here now. I turn off the headlights, pour myself a hardly-warm coffee from a large flask and allow my eyes to adjust to the darkness. There's an eerieness to this stretch of road that always makes me uneasy. The tree makes it more so.
Finishing my pick-me-up, I open the wagon's door and step onto the verge. I'm swallowed by the coldness of the night air. I zip my fleece to the top and take a few tentative steps into the edge of the forest.
The glow of moonlight forces its way through overhanging branches, hiding waiting monsters, making shadows sinister. And yet I keep walking.
Until I'm there.
Then I reach out for the tree. Touch its alien branches. Imagine what stories it has to tell.
* * * * * *
I'd first seen The Shoe Tree a couple of weeks previously. Leaving Saleby before light, I'd driven up with Our Kid to the highest point of Derbyshire's Snake Pass road to meet a good friend, Dave, and spend a day running through the finest terrain of the Peak District. Whilst not the most successful of days - the weather had been terrible, the visibility non-existent, our navigation questionable at best and amateurish at worst - we'd returned to the car five hours after setting out with that feeling that being in the hills with friends always brings. Once in the car, wrapped in warm clothes, clutching a brew and eating cake, we'd laughed at the mistakes we'd made, planned future day outs, and arranged our next meet-up. Then, after bidding farewells, Dave had headed off west, and me and Our Kid had started the long drive east to Lincolnshire.
Just through Worksop, the A57 passes through the very edge of Clumber Park before joining the A1 at the Five Lanes End roundabout. This section of road, heavily wooded on both sides, always feels dark and foreboding. Numerous lay-bys line the road, and rumours abound of unsavory activities in the area.
It was driving along this stretch on the way home that I saw it.
Near a lay-by on the opposite side of the road stood a large tree. Set slightly away from the verge and surrounded by a host of other smaller trees, it stood out, its twisted branches bearing strange fruit.
I did a double-take, originally doubting what I'd seen, and looked across to Our Kid, head back, mouth open, eyes closed.
'Did you see that tree?' I asked him. 'All those shoes hanging from it?'
He opened one eye, looked at me, said, 'No', and shut it again.
For the following few days, I found that the image of The Shoe Tree kept bringing itself to mind. I checked out Google in an attempt to convince myself I'd not imagined it. Typing in 'A57 shoe tree' revealed a handful of results, mainly flickr pages or twitter feeds. Adjoining comments added to the sense of strangeness:
'This tree on the A57 to Worksop is a local mystery. Nobody seems to know who puts them there. Or why. But they are accumulating.'
'The mysterious shoe tree on the A57 near Worksop. Who puts them there? Nobody knows.'
'Located by a busy road, this is another shoe tree withy no obvious reason for its existence.'
Lured by these tantalising snippets, I resolved to find out more.
The next weekend, I'm sorting through a stash of CDs in the back room, looking for sounds for the van and attempting to match up discs with their rightful cases. It's a big job. After a bit, I come across 'Abbey Road' - my favourite Beatles album. The cover photograph is so iconic, and I can never look at it without being reminded of the whole 'Paul is dead' saga. When rumours started to circulate in 1969 that Paul McCartney had died and been replaced by a look-a-like, it was always the imagery of 'Abbey Road' that was pushed forward as evidence. For most of us, the album artwork just shows the four members of the road walking over a zebra crossing. However, for the 'Paul is dead' conspiracists, it represented a whole lot more. Lennon, dressed in all-white, symbolised the preacher or heavenly figure. Ringo Starr, dressed in black, symbolised the undertaker or mourner. George Harrison, in denim jeans and shirt symbolised the gravedigger - and McCartney, barefoot and out of step with the other members of the band, symbolised the corpse. Of course, it was all bullshit - only Macca's creativity died in 1969, only rarely to be revived after that - but it's still one of rock and roll's great stories.
A while later, I'm finished with my sort-out and listening to 'Golden Slumbers' whilst reading through the 'Abbey Road' CD booklet. I look again at Paul's bare feet and can't help thinking of The Shoe Tree.
What if each pair of shoes was a touching momento of a life no longer lived? Just as the loved ones left behind might leave flowers by a headstone, what if each pair of shoes had been lovingly placed on those bare branches - a symbol of respect and devotion for someone who needs them no more?
The CD had finished, and I'd hardly heard it. My mind had been with The Shoe Tree. It was starting to become an obsession.
Now I'd chanced upon my own little mystery, it was disappointing to find out that my shoe tree wasn't the only one. In fact, world-over, they're not as uncommon as you'd like to believe. The UK's most famous is an ash tree growing alongside the A40 between High Wycombe and Stokenchurch in Buckinghamshire. For over 40 years, the tree's branches have been festooned with discarded footwear. It even made national headlines in 2005 when it was added to a list of 500 special trees in the Chiltern area as part of the Special Trees and Woods Project, an initiative which subsequently received £265,000 in funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. In an article typical of the usual reactionary bollocks found in its pages, The Daily Mail lambasted this waste of public money whilst clumsily succeeding in linking a shoe tree to other matters closer to their right-wing, middle England agenda:
"Rachel Sanderson, co-ordinator of the project, described the tree as 'an absolute mystery'.
'When we heard about this tree, we realised that it had to be on our special tree list,' she said.
'We're here to use examples like this to try and leave a legacy which protects the local wildlife.'
In the past, lottery funding aroused stinging criticism for paying millions to bizarre causes.
These included a campaign to prevent the deportation of failed asylum seekers from Britain and a project to grow fatter guinea pigs for Peruvians to eat.
At the same time claims from the Samaritans have been turned down as have applications from rural communities because they do not have a big enough ethnic minority population."
The article also quoted David Holmes, a walker who regularly passed the tree.
'There are so many stories about why the shoes appear in the branches,' he said.
'Some say it was a form of toll payment by travellers, or a fertility ritual, but I think it's probably a hoax that just carries on.'
'Whatever the reason, new shoes keep appearing, even now.'
Why would someone decorate a tree with shoes? What's the point of all this? Perhaps the US gives us some clues. In the States, the phenomenon of 'shoe tossing' or 'shoefitti' has become increasingly popular in recent years and has spawned imitations in most countries in the West, including Britain. 'Shoe tossing' is the act of throwing shoes over raised powerlines. The reason for this is unclear, but a number of theories have been proposed.
Bullying is the most logical explanation. Having beat up a guy, you steal his shoes and lob them to a place where he can't get them, thereby exerting his perceived superiority.
Another theory proposes that the shoes represent gang activity in the area. Shoes hanging from powerlines could be the footwear of a recently beaten gang-member or the 'snakers of a fallen homie'.
Yet another says that shoes on powerlines indicate a crackhouse in the area.
Now, this is all well and good, but I'm talking Bassetlaw not South Compton - how much of this translates to this run-down area on the Lincolnshire / Nottinghamshire border? And why a tree and not a powerline?
Two weeks after my original sighting, I pass The Shoe Tree again late on a Saturday afternoon on another journey to the Peak District. It had been my intention to pull over in the lay-by while there was daylight, have a look round. However, traffic on the short stretch of the A1 from Markham Moor had been murder. I resolved to carry on, aware that any stops would make me late for my fell-running rendezvous. But the ghostly sight disturbs me, intrigues me, entrances me, and I think of little else for the remainder of the trip - theories of my own, born from the boredom of a long drive:
What if, instead of a sign of death, violence or addiction, The Shoe Tree was actually a totem of goodness? A man leaving behind a material possession that is no longer important and moving on to a new live shaped by dreams and strong convictions? A woman discarding the reminders of a hollow marriage to a man she no longer cares about and deciding that there surely must be something more out there? A teenager saying goodbye to the innocence of childhood before venturing into a future life on his own terms?
What if the shoes were left as a result of a subconscious fear of the untamed world around us? In an age where man must be the master of everything, what if leaving shoes on a tree was an attempt to 'humanise' nature, assert our dominance over it in a symbolic way, strip it of its beauty, its wildness - make it safe?
What if there was no good reason for leaving shoes on the tree? What if, after one pair was discarded years previously, other people just decided to follow suit?
What if it was all a joke?
And what if all possible reasons were true? What if every single person who'd ever left a pair of shoes on the tree did so for their own reason - a reason unique to them - a reason different to every other person who had every hung, or would ever hang, shoes from the branches?
After running into the night, it's almost midnight by the time I'm driving back through Worksop. The bogs of Bleaklow have taken their toll. My body's tired and my eyes are heavy. In desperation I casually contemplate a stop at the 24-hour MacDonalds, But the image of The Shoe Tree reappears and, suddenly, I have a much better idea.
* * * * * *
There's a force in this tree. It's made from xylem, sap and bark. It's made from lost lives, discarded dreams and new horizons. It's amplified by darkness and bent into the shape of question marks. It's humbling, invigorating, terrifying.
I make my way round it, exploring it in just-light. Brand new children's shoes, laces tied in a hurry and carelessly thrown. Adult sizes, covered in moss - plastic hosting new life - now a part of nature. Intricate knots, tied with measure and precision around specific branches.
Now I'm here, I still don't know what to make of it.
The headlights of a lone car illuminate the road beside me and pass quickly, leaving only the dim glare of retreating red eyes.
I walk back to the wagon, turn on the headlights and look at The Shoe Tree one more time.
Then I start the ignition and pull away, questions unanswered, but strangely satisfied.
As I continue my drive, Robert Pirsig's 'Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance' comes to mind. It's a book I read several times in my younger days - an important book that is, at once, infathomable and revealing. Within the pages of this seminal pop-philosophy classic, Pirsig categorises people into two broad groups with two contrasting ways of thinking, and thereby, living.
There's those of an analytical mind who want to know how and why a thing works, what intricate processes and mechanical mastery actually make the motorcycle tick. And there's those of a romantic mind who greatly appreciate the beauty of a smoothly-running engine, but don't really care about what it is that's happening in order to get that result.
I've always put myself firmly in the latter camp. I live by feeling.
There's answers for everything, but I'm not sure that I always want them. I want to hear music, not analyse how the radio works. And it's this way of thinking, or not thinking, that extends to most aspects of my life.
I think of Whirlwind coming up to me this morning with a silver bolt in her hand, found in the kitchen junk drawer. 'Dad,' she'd said, before giving me a kiss, 'I've found the key to your brain.'
I think of my pride in Lightning when he tries his best in everything he does, the way he'll explain things in that serious way he has sometimes.
I think of holding Tammy in my arms, half-awake on a lazy, weekend lie-in.
There's an explanation for the feelings that life's best, and worst, moments give me - a complex mess of hormones, chemicals, blood through vessels, messages over synapses. But I'm not interested in these. To feel is enough for me.
I remember the words of mountain runner, Joe Grant. 'I'm an artist, not a mathematician.'
And my thoughts move to the way they relate to the other thing I value in life - my forward motion, one foot in front of another. I don't want to analyse - answers are not important. It's the feeling that motivates me. I could explore the science, follow a schedule, keep a diary of runs, miles and minutes, and, maybe, I'd run faster. But at what expense? Because once that simple essence - the feeling it gives me - is gone, there'll be nothing left
Then I think again of The Shoe Tree, and I realise that, here too, I don't want answers. I don't really want to know why the shoes are there. I like question marks, and it's the unanswered questions surrounding that tree that have captivated me for the past weeks. With the questions answered, it would just be an ugly tree, covered in unwanted shoes, by the edge of a scruffy lay-by. But with questions unanswered it's mysterious and magical.
I drive the rest of the way home relaxed and oddly content. I sing along to the music on the radio and look forward to getting home to my family.
The Shoe Tree's never far from my thoughts as I wonder what what the future has in store. A future full of question marks, feelings and only the occasional answer.
But I wonder only for a moment, not for long.
Because sometimes it's just better not to know.