A close up of the Tree Man's face, a balance of gentleness and strength.
Be a Tree
by Phil Houseal
Everyone should be a tree.
At least according to the philosophy of Michael Shaffer, who is The Tree Man.
“If someone has a passion for trees,” he said, “they should get an opportunity to be a tree.”
Shaffer is a professional, full time tree. For 13 years he has donned an elaborate 12-foot-tall costume and performed at renaissance festivals, state fairs, art shows, and exhibitions as a living, walking tree.
Let me state here that I have some experience in the arboreal acting field. Once, as an adult, I snagged the plum role of playing a tree in the Fredericksburg Theater Company production of the Wizard of Oz. I believed that my prime qualification was that it required no talent other than fitting inside the trunk.
Last weekend my viewpoint was changed. I was at the Llano Earth Art Fest (the world championship rock stacking event I wrote about a few weeks ago), and I met The Tree Man. Being a tree, for him, is both a philosophical passion and a physical challenge.
The costume is bigger than life–110 pounds of stilts and latex, with detailed bark, realistic leaves, highly engineered joints, and a face that recalls the gentle strength of Groot in the recent movie Guardians of the Galaxy.
Shaffer dons this outfit in full view of the public. It is a laborious, choreographed process, as he climbs a specially built pyramid ladder and carefully slips into the legs, shoulders the branches, places the headpiece, then picks up the 10-foot long arms/walking sticks. When he turns around, the transformation is complete and startling.
“Yesterday I had another vendor come up to me,” Shaffer said. “He said, I watch you get in, I watch you buckle, I watch you lift and put on, yet the minute you turn around I am totally lost in what happened prior to that.”
When Shaffer glides slowly across the grounds, it eerily evokes a tree pulling up its roots and migrating. While you wouldn’t call it frightening, it does create a powerful image. Yet I watched a grown woman run up and grab his trunk legs (tree huggers), and saw kids’ eyes grow larger than their heads.
Shaffer’s inspiration came when as a young man he read Lord of the Rings and identified with the Ents, or tree men.
“The tree men rocked my world,” he said. “It was the whole concept of their passive approach. They didn’t throw bombs, they simply did what trees do.”
The symbiosis between trees and mankind goes back before written history, according to the actor, cabinet maker, costume maker, painter, plumber, and, once upon a time, tree trimmer. He spoke of the Green Man in English folklore, the god of vegetation and plant life, celebrated at harvest festivals.
“Back then, an individual from the community was chosen to don the green and represent the Green Man, or Jack in the Green,” he said.
Why does he do it?
“People love trees,” he said simply. “The response is primal. It represents an earth element. That’s what is great about being here in the Hill Country. All the elements are represented: the fire in the lava; the water in the river; the earth; the air. It is all about balance. Isn’t that where we need to go?”
Shaffer is such a believer in the power of trees, he wishes to share that passion. He is working on franchising the Tree Man concept. But he will only work with a certain temperament of people.
“If someone is willing to do the process that I came through, to represent the Tree Man in an honorable fashion, then I wish to facilitate that.”
He envisions a forest of multiple trees advancing across the landscape in, as he calls it, “a wave of energy.”
“It will happen my friend,” he said as he slowly turned and lumbered across the festival grounds. “It will happen.”