A Shoe Tree Grows in Minneapolis (Two, actually)

shoe tree northeast minneapolis 2013
photo by author

Shoe trees, like fairy doors, seem to be growing in Minneapolis.

I discovered this one yesterday on an annual cemetery walk. Really, another photographer found it – I just wandered over, curious about what had her attention so long. Neither one of us knew the whole story.

But I did know of another shoe tree nearby.

The U of M has a shoe tree just off of Washington Avenue Bridge. Yes, it’s that same bridge that so many people have jumped off of over the years. According to the U  of M Admissions website, graduates throw their shoes on the tree in celebration. According to my partner – who, predictably, can’t tell me who told him this – if you get your shoes on the tree you won’t fail the semester.

University of Minnesota - shoe tree
University of Minnesota shoe tree – photo by Chapendra on flickr

Really, nobody knows why. It’s just something you do. Investigation 10 years ago turned up nothing – Minneapolis Parks and Recreation can’t even say for certain what kind of  tree it is. ((I am both amused and saddened that throwing the shoes to commemorate a first act of coitus is deemed by the author as “unpleasant.” Consensual congress most certain merits such a celebratory act – like giving up those shoes from your very first walk of not-shame.))

When you see a practice like that, you recognize something as folklore in progress. While answers from “randomness” to “indicates a drug dealer” have come up about what these are and where they come from, no one has settled on a solid answer even between Snopes or the Atlantic Monthly. There are spooky tales, memorializing death, an especially improbable one about serial killers marking their victims (with that many bodies to hide why in the hell would you take the time?) or just as some sort of odd sport. Getting them over wires is even called shoefiti – i.e. “graffiti” and “shoes.”

The one I found – it’s unlikely it marks a drug dealer. Too many shoes and it’s between a cemetery and a bike path. Not impossible, I suppose – maybe someone waylays bikers or joggers and throws up their shoes. But unlikely. Many of the shoes do not seem to be used.

A peculiar Americana travel site even has lists of “shoe trees” for intrepid, Supernatural style road trippers. While ancient in Internet years, it appears to be lovingly kept up to date.

Some soul cursed with a far more righteous Pagan in his or her life than myself posted about this reaction from one of our own to the shoe tree:

FireShot Screen Capture #003 - 'Search Results - RoadsideAmerica_com' - www_roadsideamerica_com_search_tip_offset=10&tip_Town=Minneapolis&tip_State=MNHonestly, I think the tree is fine – it’s continued to grow since the practice first started in the 70s. When a tree’s not cool with a situation, given 30+ years it works its stuff out or it dies. Not saying we need to start showing our consumerist excess by festooning every tree and powerline in sight, just saying that this one seems OK – especially since no one can even say what kind of tree it is.

While I have reasonable academic chops – thus the search for shoe trees to begin with – I’m more interested in “how can this modern folkway translate to my own magical practice?”

There are two keys to this behavior that stand out to me: one is herd behavior and the other is the good ol’ competition.

Herd Behavior:

To see this in action, take three friends to a mall or a university. Line up in front of something. Chances are, people will line up behind you. Especially if you tell them you’re waiting for Lorde or Katy Perry tickets. Wait to see how long until that person leaves.

From a magical perspective, if this is a herd behavior thing, I would ask: “What is it I need/really want lots of people to do?”

Or it’s …

Competition

I have this to a lesser degree than other humans – thus my career of doing interesting work that seemingly about five people know about. Once in awhile, though, I fixate on beating my Wii at tennis so I kind of get this one. You want to aim higher, break the record, walk away with the prize.

If that’s the case, to me it’s a less interesting possibility because nearly all magic involves this at some level, but: in what situation do you wish to emerge the victor? It could also apply with divination – will you succeed, won’t you? How well? The U of M tree is a straight shot across a bridge, same level. But the tree I encountered? Getting shoes up there takes some work – that’s a tall, old tree, maybe as old as the city itself.

Community

There is a third, somewhat lesser possibility here since no one knows the exact reason for the shoe tossing. It may be a communal act – people did this together to commemorate an experience and thus through shared experience strengthen their group mind. This is different from the herd effect in that they are differentiating their group from other groups.

On a magical level, it’s a good exercise for a coven.

If I really wanted to tear this apart, I could look into folklore about shoes. This is a town that welcomes and gives fresh mythology to the elves and fairies that immigrated alongside its settlers. Shoes themselves give signal after signal about everything from our exact place in mythology to the condition of our health. But for now, it’s about shoe and tree and wire – now there’s quite the urban witch’s rune to chant!