THE POEM TREE
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The Poem Tree, Wittenham Clumps, Berkshire
View of the Poem Tree
Film still taken from the film
'The Poem Tree' 1991
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The Poem Tree, Wittenham Clumps, Berkshire
Detail of Joseph Tubbs' 1844 poem carved on a beech tree,
Wittenham Clumps, Berkshire.
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The Poem Tree
In 1844, a local man Oxfordshire man, Joseph Tubbs, leaves his home to walk to Wittenhan Clumps. He has a mission to carve an especially composed poem on a young beech tree growing on top of Castle Hill.
As he makes his journey to reach this tree he meditates on the nature of walking, the people who work in the fields and the beauty of nature itself. In tandem, the trees and plants, thereabouts, have a voice and talk of their own experiences.
Gradually, the individual interior monologues of the trees and Joseph become a dialogue, a conversation ensues and an understanding between Joseph and
one particular tree is reached.
While Joseph carves his poem into his chosen tree he has a vision of events that took place on the hill many centuries before, which are described in the poem,
events which resonate across the years and touch his present.
Some 150 years later the effects of Joseph’s poem still continue to ripple out touching the present of this author on a visit in 1991.
THE POEM TREE
Inspired by the work of Joseph Tubbs
THE POEM TREE
IN THE QUIET WOODS
From the small western window of their house
On the eastern edge of the village
Joseph Tubbs can watch the whole street. It is waking up.
It is still dark out. Behind the village, etched on the horizon,
Two hills are silhouetted, twin clumps
Their gentle forms agitate the skyline.
For a long as he can remember
Joseph has always kept the clumps in view
Never straying so far
As to loose sight of them.
It is there that he orientates his face
It is there that he will find his place.
Below him his aged father, the local maltster,
Is already busy in the malt house with his liquid alchemy.
The acrid smell of fermentation
Seeps through the floor boards.
He hears the scrape of metal across concrete
Swiping at a mound of hops and barley.
It is a familiar sound and the aroma sharpens the air.
He has known it all his life and eventually, and reluctantly,
He will inherit the malt house, taking his father’s place.
But day breaks and Joseph is rousing from slumber,
As the village does, for the village is restless
And the air is filling with sounds.
He is looking down onto the village street,
How well he knows it.
It is a street replicated across the county.
He watches the ponderous clip-clop of a horse on cobbles
Heading for the blacksmith.
The faint glow of the blacksmith’s furnace
Is illuminating the small courtyard where the horse is heading.
The blacksmith, ruddy complexion, clad in soiled apron,
Is already pumping at the bellows with one fat hand
The other is stirring the fire to ignite from yesterday’s embers.
On his workbench his tools are laid out in rows
Or hang from rafters. He straightens a file
And taking a pair of tongs grasps at metal
Preparing to plunge it into the furnace
And fashion it into shapes. The horse is waiting patiently.
A little further on another horse comes to a stop at the bakery
Trailing a wagon loaded with flour
Carried from the mill up-river.
Two men are jumping down
And quickly beginning to unload the sacks.
Wrapped in a white fug they are carrying them
Like dead weights slung across shoulders
And into the bakery, ducking slightly
To negotiate a low beam.
The owner is primed and with well practiced hands
Is mixing flour with water and yeast into a rich dough;
He is leaving it to prove in moulded tins.
Other loaves are being removed from the oven
And tipped out to cool on wire racks.
Already a queue is forming.
The villagers’ quiet murmurings
Are wafting up to Joseph’s window.
The anvil chimes with a sense of urgency.
The horse there steadies itself on three legs
To the ‘hup-hup’ of the drover.
He turns away to dress.
Today he is putting on an extra shirt.
The morning air is damp and pungent with possibilities.
Today he is not working below in the malt house.
from where I stand
the ground slopes
in all directions
His father, bent double over a shovel
Is giving Joseph a cursory glance
As he sidles out of the house and onto the street.
The rasping sound of the shovel resumes. Joseph digs deep,
His pockets are warming to his hands.
He is touching, gingerly, a small, closed knife.
In the other a stash of dormant acorns and beech nuts
Nest there like a clutch of eggs.
They are waiting to be thumbed into the ground.
In a bag across his shoulder
what goes on up there in the light space
we have no names for, or know what shape
such seeds take on in the place where our skin
is exposed to the elements. We are not life itself
but we give life. Seeds seek shelter
from all manner of things
and all manner of things have grown here,
burrowed here, in the dark turmoil
of our acidity and alkali, stony layers,
between which roots thrust their searching tips
prising and worming deep into our soul,
a place where only the drip, drip of liquids penetrates
deeper and deeper still.
On the street we see the village in detail.
It meanders like a trickle of rain.
Cottages, unadorned in their simplicity, hing the curb,
Crowd into the space but edge away from the white-washed
Manor house, flint-walled, gable-ended, gripped in an ivy embrace.
At an upper window a sash is thrown up
And the daily ritual of dusting begins.
Joseph wanders. Here is the butcher’s window.
Carcasses, bloodily hung and dripping
Rich reds, fill the view.
An axe comes down sheering flesh from bone,
Contacting with wood. Livers, kidneys, hearts
Laid out and lifeless. Tongues severed from mouths
Lie speechless, their yearnings silenced.
Nothing is wasted and all are displayed like so many exhibits.
Sawdust strewn across the floor is spilling out
Onto the street. Joseph leaves a print in passing.
Greetings are exchanged.
Here is the grocer, a kindly man,
And there another shop, home to the seamstress,
Shuttered, but its awning is unraveling.
At the local hostelry the proprietor is ventilating the snug
Pausing across the threshold
Under a sign that bears his name.
He, too, is expecting a delivery.
The trap door to the basement, propped open,
Yawns from sleep and tedium
As the empty wooden casks, cork stopped,
Are being hauled up by eager hands. A cart is drawing up
Bringing its bulging cargo rattling across the cobbles.
after the monotony of monochrome, white on white,
and the long, cold stillness, the pointed ends of snow flakes
gradually unstitched themselves and sank without trace.
The breathing wind rippled the moist air and ruffled leaf’s
smothering covering. Layers of leaves shuffled
and let in chinks of light, gradually the light, the warmth
touched me. We stirred us from under dark slumber
where we had waited short days and long nights, waited
to warm our backs. Faced down in earth’s damp ochre
i was alone, but knew that i was not alone. We were
drawn, pulled into the earth yet had a yearning
to reach out, to reach up to where we felt the warmth,
the light. I carry me, a weighty ancestry yet all that is known
is still my unknown.
Labourers are gathering outside the school house,
Near the tarry stone, a weathered sarcen peppered
With holes that howls like a battle cry when the wind is up.
It is a regular meeting place.
There is a chill in the air. They stand huddled,
Armed with sharpening scythes and pitchforks
Balanced on shoulders or grasped in hands.
Their conversation is animated.
Among them a scorched, leathery face,
Crumpled like a brown paper bag, studies a rip
In the sky through which the sun is nosing,
Burning off the morning mist. The morning seems to sest
Something unexpected. They all agree, change is in the air.
The days are contracting. A fingernail moon dips down
Behind a solitary tree. The assembled company is moving off,
Heading for the fields.
From the beginning morning takes hold of everything
Lush fields unfurl, shadows retreat. The dew is sinking
Into the earth. Joseph is making his way
To the river, crossing the ford there.
In the middle distance a stile is approaching
Joseph is vaulting it with relative ease
Landing in a meadow.
He is following a track with a keen eye.
The field that is before him
Once lay fallow and traced his passage
In flattened grass
But this field is now once again
Under plough. The slow lumbering steps
Of a team of shires, pulling the plough,
Is driving its nose deep
And turning over stubble.
It is bringing to the surface flint and bones
And scattered stones which don’t belong,
The hand of early man reaches out
And touches the present.
Elsewhere, in the uncluttered undulations,
The ripple of an ancient boundary remains
An earthwork, a barrow
Survive the levelling harrow.
by the fields edge we grew. We remained a long time
and were left undisturbed. The plough came up to our edge
threateningly, but turned and sailed off, gliding choppily,
over the field, breaking the clods and turning under corn straws.
From our edge we long time looked over a distant edged distance.
Watched the sowing, the reaping, the ploughing, the sowing.
We watched the scavenger birds that picked up rogue ears,
taking straw for nests. Our leaves were in harmony.
We shed them when it was required, when it was our time,
and revealed where the feathers had been,
had spent the time of waking, long gone now. We did not
mourn their passing. Leaves leave and when the last leaf left
we retreated to conserve our energy. All this time we watched
the horizon, looked over long distance and saw movement,
but all this time, between our waking and our sleeping, grew
a deeper green than we had ever seen, creeping up, gradually,
slowly, slowly suffocating around our trunks and up into our
What is the true nature of the countryside
And how much a part of it am I?
I know this land intimately;
Every track and hedge,
Yet nature constantly surprises me,
Constantly evolves. I walk on familiar paths,
Yet every walk
Is full of discoveries.
I trust these pathways.
It is no accident the direction they take
Shaped over time. Even in an open field
They will wander, drawn towards terrain
That is sure footed and dry.
These tracks that meander over hills
And down through valleys
Are like musical phrases, punctuated
By stiles. From down here
To up there, as the crow flies,
Is no distance, but I can never walk
In a straight line. My walks are circuitous
And while I seem to travel great distances
I seem, too, to travel nowhere.
heavy ropes of rain lash down
taunting the flimsy foliage.
It dampens our smouldering colours
that would otherwise scorch the earth.
We turn from our summer shades.
The air becomes increasingly opaque and wet heavy
as those parts of the sky that move
come down in order for us to make our exchanges.
Others among us show their underside, their silver side.
At night, when the nighly-sun is up
and everything around is filled with night and dark
then they glimmer white like pieces of the moon,
ripple like quick-sliver. The wood is speckled
with pieces of the moon, leaf-shaped, shining,
silvery-white, shining. When all is dark,
when all is night, only they glisten.
But in the darkly-night dark, among the lumbering black shadows,
we listen, there is a whisper of havoc elsewhere
These paths I walk I have worn down with meditation
Circumventing these clumps.
Each step is one step closer
Until eventually I reach the summit.
My route takes me through fields
Where people made clearings
And woods where they coppiced.
Walking has a momentum
And the rhythm of my walking
Is harmonious to the surroundings,
Is conditioned by them.
Crossing a ploughed field
Feeling the crumbling clods underfoot
There is hesitation.
the wind is our breath
it gives us our voice
and every movement is musical,
rustling, rattling, knocking, rubbing, creaking
sweeping in it stirs us
from our light-green reveries
and brings us stories from the valleys.
We, chattering leaves,
when the wind comes
are full of whispers,
we tremble at the story-telling
and as the wind leaves
we collectively exhale
leaving the forest ripe with rumours.
To walk a pathway
Is to walk with the ‘company of the imagined’,
Who seem to me to be more real.
These are my companions. I know these people.
They are forever walking. I see them; ordinary people,
I hear their lingering voices
Hang in the trees, carried by the breeze
Through every hamlet and village,
Cross every meadow and through every copse,
Hiding in the hedgerow.
So where I go others have been,
I think of them as I walk
While there are those who walk
There are those who remain
And shape the land. They give it
Names, easily recalled, local words
Known only to the locals.
Such names signpost a field’s location,
Claim its ownership, indicate its yield
And they reveal to me all that is mysterious.
While such names are remembered
Their origin is quickly forgotten.
From where Joseph is climbing
He is able to look down on the wide spread scene below
And the village that gave him knowledge
And wisdom. Not the dry and dusty school house
Nor the squat church nestling among
Its flock of grave stones (Home to Joseph’s ancestors)
But the farmers, the hay makers, the thatchers, the hurdle-makers.
To the laborours working in the silent heat,
To the wives yoked to milk pails.
Their faces, their names, their local speech,
Their Saxon and Roman origins
He sees their hand, their imprint
Left in the shaping of this land.
The making of this village built on the ruins
Of other villages.
He recognises each reed-thatched residence.
He can even see his father’s malting house
And make out the window of his room
Where he looked out.
And in his mind’s eye he is observing
Himself from there standing alone up here
in relief against the clumps behind him
Crowning the tops of these two adjacent hills.
He is half-way there.
The space between vibrates on a long-bow string.
And Joseph is asking himself
‘Where in these meadows is my voice?’
The ancestors say that when the spring came
the young leaves became restless and the roots
agitated the stones resting in the soil under us.
They had heard stories from the stones of seas
and of seas leaving and leaving land.
They wanted to know what they meant
when they talked of seas and how such seas looked.
The stones could only say in a way
that the leaves would understand and told them
to look out to the distant fields.
‘You see how the wind ripples the long grasses
waving in those fields? That is how the sea moves.
Seas are like blue skies lying under blue skies above
and like fields of waving grasses that are not grasses.’
And how the leaves on hearing this reached up.
‘We are rising, rising up to the top of the spreading canopy below.’
And we called out to them,
‘Tell us, tell us all you see. Do you see waving grasses
in distant fields that are not grasses?
Are there, anywhere, big skies lying under big skies above?’
The stones said that the seas made their surfaces smooth
and round before it retreated and that when
they touched land they became still.
Many generations of trees put down roots
and the stones stopped rolling and took root themselves
and became a part of the soil. And every season
when a new ring is added to our girth
we are still left marvelling in wonderment
and wondering what seas are for.
Joseph is entering the wood
Hesitates a moment and retreats
For a last look. His eyes
Are drawn up to an expansive sky.
A break in the clouds lifts the shadows
From off the fields, the labourers’ profiles sharpen.
He is looking further, to the river wandering off
Like a tear in the fabric of the land.
At his feet the minutiae
Of earth and stone.
From panorama to detail.
He examines the soil.
Feels its gritty texture between his fingers.
Watches the industry of earthworms.
Notes the progress of his saplings.
Picks up smooth pebbles
Washed up on an antediluvian shore.
And between lies a landscape
Composed of a patchwork of colours
Many colours. Light and shade
There is movement, there is stillness
There are a multitude of layers
Each of which is invested
With its own particular gravity.
Pale green meadows, golden fields
A ploughed field’s brown nakedness.
Great swathes of woodland
Stretching across great distances
Under a wide blue sky spattered
With migrating birds. He pulls out his book
And makes a note
We know the history of our landscape.
We know the landmarks hereabouts
because the stories are legendary.
We do not need markings to record our history.
The signs are recorded in the soil,
locked in stones. Those scored in our bark,
in a language that is nothing to us,
remind us that we are paper for others
and knives are ink for them.
Many springs and summers passed
and the language, that is not our language,
cut into the bark of us grows distorted as we grow.
We resist these wounds to our skin.
Markings stretch, become different-shaped,
become gradually illegible, save for a few markings
that are readable to some, and in time
the carrier of these markings, too, succumbs
to the same fate that is inflicted on those
who would leave such markings. We survive them.
Wounds heal. We sprout new life
governed by forces far beyond our comprehension,
which we do not question because such things
are never questioned. It is as it is and we are moved by it,
moved in all directions, under the ground
and above the ground. As we pass through
the earthly-dark earth we make the same shape as above,
as in the cold-time.
We exist in two worlds.
There is a thought for every footstep.
Each thought imprints itself in the soil,
Leaves a trace in the earth, scatters
Like dandelion seeds.
Every stone has a memory.
Some were moved, carried in my hand
And placed at a different junction,
Next to a seed.
Pockets filled with beech nuts,
This year’s harvest,
pushed into the ground,
Wait until their time. It is a fragile moment
When all life begins, filled with anticipation.
On the hills where I come
Others have planted seeds
And many have survived those early moments.
But there is one among the many
That is my planting. This one I have singled out.
This one will carry my words. My words
Will fix this view.
The landscape changes, the river flows,
But I will capture this fleeting moment.
The river will, momentarily, stand still
As the stones stand still.
When a tree stops growing does life cease too?
When I die do I stop growing?
Or can something remain,
Some part continue to grow, to ripple out
Until it makes contact, to mature in the minds
Of others? A purple clover in a green sea.
The turning leaves are fiery flames
Blistering my fingers with every hand-full.
I came here earlier this year
And stood waist high in the long grass
That yielded to my passing, but now
The seasons are turning round again.
from where we stand
the ground slopes
in all directions.
Here we long time established ourselves.
We were just many among many more and, gradually,
the many became fewer, our numbers dwindled.
Over many seasons there grew
in the valleys more spaces between us
and these spaces became bigger, wider,
spreading, but not like our branches do. They appeared
below us in the places where we now cast shadows.
The grasses found their place in the gaps
and spread themselves far and wide,
filling these spaces - because something has to.
The grasses were flexible and yielded to the wind;
some say that this land was shaped by the wind.
Some of the soil still got carried away
by the wind and many stones
found themselves exposed again. Even so,
we kept a root hold on the summit of this hill.
We are visible; we are seen long distant
while below the wind and the grasses
along the valleys hereabouts created
gentle undulations. Sometimes a fire was lit
on our summit, but not in our lifetime.
Traces remain deep within,
charcoal and ash nourished the soil
and there are stories of such fires
which have been passed down.
Generations before us grew
and were nurtured by this land, (some even fed these fires),
and as they grew so, too, did the view grow and change.
As we grew skywards the land lowered and opened,
fields, which could look after themselves,
began to be worked by men who cut away the waving grasses.
They seeded and grew other grasses.
Over many years I have been coming here.
I was young once as you but am no longer.
You were the seed I planted here in the soil,
In my youth. This was no accident.
I have been giving back to the earth something
Of what I borrowed. The earth around
Nurtured me, gave me life.
from where we stand we have a view in all directions.
Over many years I have surveyed
The wide spread scene laid out before me.
This landscape became a life of noted observations
How much of this will last? This land has witnessed
Many changes. All is quiet now, all is at peace.
but it wasn’t always so and long after you have gone
the earth shall witness more staining.
The rain will be my blessing.
what is it that you come here for? We see you strling
to reach this mound, feel your effort to reach us up here.
You are old, becoming like the gnarled oak
that is our companion. What is it that you are seeking?
Some trace that you wish to lay down,
that you wish to last and endure and be remembered by?
I am to be the legacy that you leave;
leave for others who, too, will make this journey.
We all have a journey to make.
I will survive your cuts but i am not immortal, either.
Only your markings are thus. Your efforts will be unknown,
unknowable, over-grown. Only your cuts,
your signs will speak. They will be your testament
that once you came here and left your signs.
I am still young and i will carry them.
My blood will continue to circulate
and I will still grow stronger and bigger.
Joseph is returning into the wood.
Low lying branches drape the air
Across the entrance of a hollow.
Over the rampant undergrowth, between boughs,
A blackbird churls alarm.
A wood pigeon claps
And breaks through the knotted brambles
That reach out to catch unsuspecting
Flesh and cloth. Joseph brushes the leaves
With his shoulder and pushes through.
No one comes here now.
He steps through thorns into a darkening path.
The branches close in.
Here it is damp and musty
And as his feet sink into the mud
They leave an echo of his passage,
Just as he listens out for those
Who have gone before him.
He touches trees in passing
Until he reaches the far side of the wood
Until he is there, until he has arrived.
Joseph finds his tree.
He approaches with reverence,
Since it has been waiting for him.
Putting down his bag
Joseph draws the knife from his pocket
And unfolds it.
Dragging the blade across his thigh
His other hand trails over smooth bark. He is
Feeling for textures, examining
The patterning before taking a step
Back to take in the whole trunk in its entirety.
The height, the girth.
It is the size of a man’s chest.
He thinks of his father,
His buried ancestors
And how they have brought him here.
Approaching the tree again
He stands prepared, poising the blade
In mid-air. The air offers no resistance as
Steel contacts with wood.
In a moment of held breath the tree shudders.
Joseph is pushing the tip of the knife
Into the bark, penetrating the skin.
The tiny blade is tilting downwards
And as it does so
A spark of sunlight glints across his face,
His pupils retract against the light
He tilts it again, and again the light
Whips across his features,
Filling his eyes, causing him to squint,
Connecting him to some ancient urge
Welling up inside.
The blade is becoming a sword,
Glimmering in his hand then another
Until around him there are a hundred such swords
Held aloft, and more,
The faint hum of insects
Is becoming a cacophony of shouts
Feet tramping, running,
Heavy, tramping steps
Storming up the hillside
Breaching the encampment walls.
Steel clashes with steel. Axes smack
On wooden shields,
The ground is shaking
The ground is bloody and stained.
Swords slashing and hacking.
Joseph is dragging his knife downwards
The tree is bleeding,
But still they are charging the hill.
The offensive is met by a hail of arrows
Pining their victims to the ground
Like a butterfly collection,
It is relentless and savage.
Bodies are falling.
Bodies slumped over bodies.
Their numbers are diminishing.
The horde is receding
The sun is in retreat.
The earth is receiving
Swallowing up all memory.
Joseph is leaning into the knife
Lost in thought.
Around him walls are crumbling, vanishing.
Stones are scattered and buried, dragged under.
Grass is growing, leaving only faint traces,
Of an outline, a hillock, an embankment
Lost to an un-tutored eye
Washed by centuries of rain
And the river.
Joseph is still cutting
He is distracted by an insect
He hears nothing now just a rustle in the canopy.
He is feeling weightless, breathless.
Below in the surrounding low lying land
A raked evening light is stretching out across a raked field
Brushing the incisions he lifts his hand
To reveal the first letter
Of the first word
Of the first moment
As up the hill with labouring steps we trod
Where the twin clumps their sheltering branches spread
The summit gain’d, at ease reclining lay,
And all around the wide spread scene surveyed,
Point out each object and instructive tell
The various changes that the land befell
Where the low bank the country wide surrounds
That ancient earthwork form’d old Mercia’s bounds.
In misty distance see the barrow heave,
There lies forgotten lonely Culchelm’s grave.
Around this hill the ruthless Danes entrenched
And that fair plain with gory slaughter drenched
While at our feet, where stands that stately tower,
On days gone by up rose the Roman power.
And yonder, there where Thames’ smooth waters glide,
On later days appeared monastic pride.
Within that field, where lies the grazing herd,
Hugh walls were formed, some coffins disinterred,
Such is the course of time, the wreck which fate
And awful doom award the earthly great.
In 1987 I hiked my bike off the train
At Wantage. Left the station and
Headed for the Berkshire Downs
And Wittenham Clumps, a convoluted route.
An ordinance survey mapped my journey
In the wake of the painter, Paul Nash,
Who, too, visited the Clumps many years before,
And found inspiration there.
I recognized little from his paintings
Except for the twin hills, topped with trees
Unmistakable local landmarks
Hereabouts. The ride was breezy,
Though the last leg was on foot.
The sheep there grazing on the hillside
Barely noticed my laborious
Efforts to reach the summit.
I then wandered along a path that seemed to lead
To the other end of the wood.
It narrowed, gradually, before opening out
Onto a small sunlit space
And there found myself gazing out over rolling downs.
But it was only when I turned back
That I noticed a limbless beech
That looked as if it had been tampered with.
Cuts revealed letters carved in the bark
Some words, random at first.
Here was a ‘there’, a ‘such’, a ‘where’
And an ‘And’.
I traced the letters with a finger
Around rough, overgrown gashes.
Odd jumbled letters that together
Barely made sense. I lingered.
When I returned four years later
Little remained that hadn’t decayed
Beyond recognition. In its stead
Stood a small concrete monument. On it
A small metal plaque with
An embossed inscription
And a transcription
Of a poem.
I read it like braille
Looking out over a long lingering landscape
With eyes other than my own.
. . . . . . . .
Little is known about the life of Joseph Tubbs.
He was a bachelor living in Warbourough Green,
in Oxfordshire and was a man with a gift for
wood carving. It was, however, his father’s decision
that he should follow the family profession of maltster
and, perhaps to express his frustrated ambition,
Joseph carefully cut, in 1844, a specially composed
poem into a beech tree on Castle Hill, Wittenham
Clumps. It is said that he took a tent and a ladder
and that the work took a fortnight to complete.
The poem is a meditation on the beauty of nature
and the frailty of human ambition.
In 1965 Dr Henry Osmaston took a rubbing
of the poem before decay rendered it almost
completely illegible. It is thanks to him that
we have a transcription of the poem.
In 1991, to commemorate its 150th anniversary,
a small monument was erected near to the
remains of this tree and which includes a facsimile
of Dr Osmaston’s rubbing of Joseph’s poem.
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