If you were in Gibson Park last Sunday, you may have seen a tall oak tree slowly walk across the grass. The oak, made mostly of canvas and latex, is a costume designed to inspire the public’s renewed reverence for trees and nature said Michael Shaffer, 44, who wore the costume.
Shaffer has been on the road for six years as a performance artist, he said in a phone interview. He started his tree act last November in Las Vegas. Fellow performance artist Cliff Spenger’s Walking Tree Man inspired him.
He performs at fairs across the country. Sunday’s Great Falls park act was a Father’s Day present for his uncle. Shaffer hopes to be a tree in Great Falls during the fair, he said.
“The artistic presentation is to be as treelike as possible,” he said. “Trees don’t move very fast.” “And they don’t ever appear to move when you’re looking.”
Once his limbs and trunk are set in motion, adults stare, sometimes for the full 30 minutes of the act. They stare into the tree the way they look into fire, mesmerized, he said. Flora in motion terrifies a few. “There are always a small number of children that do become frightened.” he said.
So far, none have tried to climb him. But he and Spenger hold three spoof criteria to becoming an authentic tree, he said. Essentially, the “tree men” must fool people, birds, and dogs.
First of all, people must walk past without knowing the treeman is there –they must mistake the elaborate costume for an actual tree.
Two, birds must land on the tree’s branches while in performance. Shaffer has come close. A hummingbird whirred around him once –“frrrr, frrrr.” he said –but didn’t land. Spenger, the original treeman, did have a bird land on him once, in California, Shaffer said.
The third, he said, is to have a dog pee on the tree. Shaffer doesn’t sound disappointed that he isn’t canine-approved yet.