Handwritten hopes and dreams multiply on bike trail tree

Area kids transformed a cottonwood near Riley into a ‘wishing tree’
tree with wishes hung across them
Photo by Joel Patenaude
The Riley Wishing Tree stands along the Military Ridge State Trail.

If given the opportunity to share your most heartfelt desires publicly but anonymously, would you?

Scores of people have already said “yes” by jotting down their hopes and dreams on cards and tying them to string that partially encircles a huge, old cottonwood tree west of Madison.

The Riley Wishing Tree, which has its own Facebook page, stands on the north side of the Military Ridge State Trail about 1.5 miles west of the unincorporated town of Riley. The tree is adjacent to the trail at an intersection of three parcels, two privately owned and the third owned by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The DNR mows the small informal rest area immediately around the tree.

Started in late July by a group of young people from the area, the project has since attracted dozens of cards with handwritten wishes for the health of family members to improve, for world peace and, in one case, an 8-year-old’s desire for a pet turtle.

“It’s our secrets, you know, kind of waving in the wind. I think it’s profound,” says Marca Andriesse, a local yoga instructor and real estate agent, who keeps at the base of the tree a watertight plastic box stocked with blank cards and markers.

Wishes On The Wishing Tree

Photo by Joel Patenaude

Andriesse first brought the idea as an art project to the Mount Horeb Middle Schoolers Adventure Club she organizes. More than a year earlier she visited a wishing tree in Portland and was moved by the countless uplifting messages hung on it.

“It’s just beautiful and I was so inspired by it,” she recalls. “It just felt like a small, simple thing with a powerful effect.”

Then this summer — after having to close her brick-and-mortar yoga studio in Mount Horeb because of the coronavirus and seeing so many young people unable to get together — she says the Portland wishing tree came to mind again.

“I just felt like this project would give them a little hope. And also a sense of community because everybody is so isolated,” she says.

People of all ages and multiple ethnicities — some wishes are written in languages other than English — have embraced the project by reading the cards already there before adding their own.

“The other day I saw an older couple reading all the tags. I think it’s ageless, honestly,” Andriesse says. “The kids were super into it and now I’m seeing adults really into it.”

Joel Patenaude is associate editor at Madison Magazine.