It stands alone in the field, just beyond a pasture gate…a solitary question mark on the landscape. All manner of shoes, boots, sneakers hang from its grey limbs. A crooked signboard, nailed to its lifeless trunk bears the only clue to its purpose: Walk for Hope.
Admit it. We’ve all stopped to look, to peer, to wonder at this strange tree alongside Route 915 where it passes the Shepody marsh. It gains particular ethereal beauty in the low light of morning and early evening and has been photographed countless times by locals and tourists alike. Sometimes bus tours pause so visitors can pour out of the doors and snap memories to take home. And everyone wonders...
What is its story?
Then one day, a Facebook post provided the answer.
I first met stained glass artist Diana (Boudreau) Atkinson when she opened Kindred Spirits Stained Glass shop in Hillsborough. A hardworking, talented and diverse craftsperson, Diana was known for her cheerful, optimistic, caring personality. To supplement her craft, she also waited on tables and drove a school bus. When she married Peter Atkinson and moved to Ontario in 2012, we all missed her smile.
But it was while driving her school bus along Route 915 in the fall of 2011, that Diana spied the dry, bleached tree standing in the field. It brought to mind an art project she had seen once – a dead tree festooned with cowbells. She asked the landowner for permission to turn the tree into an art project, then Diana began collecting old sneakers and spray-painting them glorious, happy colours. One by one, she tossed them up into the tree.
She told no one what she had done. But the kids on her school bus noticed it right away. It sparked their imagination and they began calling it The Shoe Tree.
At the same time, her friend, Cindy Hewitt, was undergoing chemo. Diana prepared a special pair of sneakers for Cindy and placed a prayer note inside: “Please God, give her strength; watch over her through her hard times.” Then she threw them upward into the highest branch.
As time passed, whenever a friend was sick or going through difficulties, Diana went to the tree with a note or prayer tucked inside another pair of shoes. It was action in the face of helplessness.
Gradually other shoes began appearing – for different reasons, for different people - perhaps, inspired by the symbolism of a dead tree that somehow represented life and hope.
In fact, when she and her close friend Peter - both of them grieving the loss of his wife, and Diana’s friend, Charlene - went to the tree so he could take part in the ritual, the note he tucked inside the sneakers was one of hopefulness, ‘I am with Diana, I am happy.’ (The pair eventually married and the tree plays a part in their love story.)
Over time, it has become a sacred place of prayer and petition, of memory and mystery.
“It is very spiritual,” says Diana. “The hope of colourful things…old sneakers, painted. When the wind blows, they move back and forth. It's quite mesmerizing – like a living thing – they dangle, twist and turn.”
She is happy that others have added their own value to the tree, and that it has inspired curiosity. “My takeaway was knowing I had notes in all the shoes, that they remained there, and they were heard. But I am glad the community is asking questions. And they have the freedom to make up their own answers."
What does it mean to you? Have you left anything at the tree?