Saturday, 18 January 2014

Trees: Symbols and sign posts of life

Over the last few weeks I have spent a great deal of time watching the world through the lens of my car window. I seem to have constantly been on the road travelling from one place to another, spending time with my nearest and dearest. I have been quite emotional as I have driven and yet strangely I have felt calm and deeply connected to myself, to the world around me and to the source of all life and love that I name God. I have been a keen observer of life these last few weeks; I have seen many things as I have looked at the world from my window.

The other day I was heading to meet with some people in Warrington. I looked to my left out of the passenger side window and was greeted by the most amazing sight. There on a grassy verge in front of what looked like council properties was a tree stump, probably about four feet high. Dangling from this tree stump were a collection of shoes and trainers and attached to the stump was a sign that read “tree of lost soles” That’s soles “S”, “O”, “L”, “E”, “S” not souls “S”, “O”, “U”, “L”, “S”. I drove on smiling thinking about this amazing sight and wondering what on earth it could be about. It lifted my spirits, it filled my soul as I went and shared time with friends before heading to Yorkshire and family and the making of arrangements for my grandad’s funeral.

These last few days I’ve been telling everyone I meet about this road side sighting. Several have heard of it before and one or two have driven past it and wondered what on earth it is about. I have looked a little deeper into it and found out one or two things. It first appeared on Manchester Road Woolston in Warrington during late spring early summer back in 2012. The creator , who has remained anonymous, wrote the Warrington Guardian explaining that this abstract piece of public art is based on a similar tree found on Princess Highway in Woodburn New South Wales Australia. He says he found the shoes while out dog walking in the area and decided to copy what he had seen in Australia. Over the last eighteen months the sculpture has been added to by others and I have since been told that other similar pieces of public art have appeared in other parts of Cheshire. There was even one in Altrincham a few months back. Other examples can be found all over the world. The largest of its type, that I have uncovered, can be found in Holburg, British Columbia, Canada. This was started by loggers 25 years ago who nailed their boots to a tree trunk.

Now I don’t know if there is anything deeply symbolic in all of this. I know it made me smile and it drew me out of myself as I connected with others in telling the tale. Perhaps “the tree of lost soles” means nothing more than a tree with sole less shoes attached to it. Then again maybe it is a commentary on our modern times and our disposable and soulless lives...maybe, maybe not...It did get me thinking though...first of all about symbols and then about trees.

There are many signs that I see as I watch the world from my car window, mostly warning signs about the road and world that is built around the roads. There are also sign posts to all kinds of different things and places. Most are meaningless beyond the information they offer, but some hold deep significance. Some even touch me deep down in my soul, when I pass them I never feel like a lost soul. Whenever I am on the M62 travelling up towards Stott Hall Farm I often feel emotional as it’s a sign I’m heading for home, with all its blessings and curses. I know the road very well by now and as I pass a certain point I always make sure I move to the inside lane so as to be as close to the Yorkshire sign as I can be as I pass it. I always blow a kiss to the “White Rose” then drive on home. Ok it’s only a sign in the road, but it means something to my soul and to the roots from which I have grown. Signs and symbols mean something; it’s no use pretending otherwise.

Symbols can reveal deep and meaningful truth, they have the capacity to reach beyond the limits of the written and or spoken word. Joesph Campbell taught that certain images and pictures invite the eye not to merely rush along but to rest a while and dwell within the revelation that can be found by looking deeply into them. This certainly happened as I passed the “Tree of Lost Soles” I can only have caught a quick glimpse of it and yet I took in every detail. Signs and symbols allow us to get caught up in them and as a result they enable us to see the things in life we would normally miss in our day to day rushing and pushing and pulling. Signs and symbols have the capacity to pull us beyond ourselves to our better selves, they help us engage religiously with the world, as they re-bind us back to life.

The “tree of lost soles” reminds me of another work of art. This though is not found on an ordinary road in the north of England. Instead it is housed in the British Museum. It is titled “The Tree of Life” and is the creation of four Mozambican artists Cristovao Canhavato (Kester), Hilario Nhatuueja, Fiel dos Santos and Adelino Seraphim Mate. Is it the product of “Transforming Arms in Tools” project, inspired by words from Isaiah 2 v 4b “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

The "Transforming Arms into Tools" project was set up by Bishop Dom Dinis Sengulane in 1995 and is supported by Christian Aid. During Mzmabique’s civil war, which lasted from 1976 until 1992, millions of weapons poured into the country and many still remain there to this day. The project is an attempt to create something out the devastation of the civil war as well as deal with the present danger of the weapons hidden all over the land. It encourages Mozambicans to hand over these weapons for decommissioning. As an incentive they are exchanged for ploughs, bicycles and sewing machines etc. “The tree of life” sculpture and other works of art are created from the decommissioned weapons; the "Tree of Life" is something beautiful that has been created from tools of violence and destruction; it is a powerful symbol.

The “Tree of Life” is a beautiful and universal symbol it can be found in many of the worlds religious traditions. The ancient Chinese, Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians and Samarians all had a tree of life symbol. There is Ygdrassil, the Norse Tree of Life, The Etz Ha Hayim of the Kaballistic Jews. The Bahai's speak of it and Christians of all kinds talk of the tree of life, with healing leaves, found in the Book of Revelations. The book of Genesis tells of two trees: a Tree of Knowledge, which is the tree of good and evil, and the Tree of Life, the tree of immortality. I wonder why Adam and Eve chose knowledge over life? I’m not going explore that here that's another discussion on symbolism that I will explore at a later date.

The trees at this time of year always fascinate me. There is something very beautiful about the trees in winter. These lifeless stick like sculptures stretching out from the hard frozen ground are stripped right down to the bone. They look vulnerable and exposed, but they are not. By next spring they will once again be bursting into life. They look like lost souls, but this is an illusion for they will soon find life once again.

The May Pole is symbolic of such trees, stripped of their leaves to characterize their winter state. On May Day in an act of rebirth and everlasting life, they are re-clothed with decorative bands and flowers, giving us the opportunity to celebrate life’s re-creation. Again this seemingly symbolises the tree of life; it is a symbol of re-birth and renewal; it is a sign post to the path of enlightenment; it is a place where lost souls and even lost soles can come together and once again be found.

The Mozambique “Tree of Life” is a symbol of hope, of what can grow from the devastation of civil war; civil war which puts neighbour against neighbour brother against brother. All war is devastating and horrific but there is something even more destructive about civil war and yet they continue. Not just in foreign lands either, but also in our personal lives, in our families with our friends and neighbours and in our communities. We all fail to see from time that we are are all finite leaves on the infinite tree of life; we all seemingly fall out over the most trivial of things. We never seem to learn.

I live in hope though, not necessarily optimism but definitely hope. I see signs and symbols of hope all around me. I see them on the sides of the road in Warrington and other places too. I see them in the spring that will soon come to clear away winter when the tree of life will once again be in bloom. I see it in the eyes of people as they come to life, in many and varied ways, from seeming devastation.

We can all return to the tree of life, the tree of renewal, the tree of re-birth and follow the path of enlightenment. For all soles and souls are welcome, even those that have been discarded.

I pay homage to “Trees of Lost Soles” the world over and “The Trees of Life” universal.

May they lead us home, may they lead us to life.


  1. Sir, you seem to me to be a very deep thinker. I must own up as the man responsible for putting this "tree" together. It is based on a similar tree I visited close to a relatives home at Tabourie Lake, NSW. Australia.
    It was to amuse passers by nothing more, nothing less.

  2. Wow! How wonderful to hear from you...While it may have only been to amuse passers by it has lead to some truly beautiful and wonderful interactions...just goes to show what chain reactions we can set off by what we do and what we don't...everything matters, every thought word and deed and emotion...everything matters I have discovered...who knows what chain reactions we are setting off all the time...I'm a great believer in what I have heard described as "The Chaos Theory of Compassion"...who knows where this little interaction made lead, not only in our lives but in countless others...You little act of amusement has lead to so much good...So I thank anonymous...Keep on rocking in the free world you groover and shaker you ;-)