If ever you lose your way in my part of east Suffolk, your satnav might direct you along a lonely and rather strange one mile stretch of arrow straight lane called The Clumps. This tree-lined lane is too remotely rural to merit a name board. Your mobile will not work there and, cut off from the chatter of the 21st century, you will be set adrift from the virtual world. But if you are sensitive to such things, you might be able to tune into another messaging system, something that is being communicated by the trees.
Some locals know about The Clumps and the special mystery of the place, but most don’t. I stumbled upon it by chance when I was out walking. Fascinated by The Clumps’ history, or lack of it, I was drawn to the lane by the sheer romance of the avenue of ruined and decaying beeches.
It was as if the dying trees chose the moment to reveal their secret to me one winter day in 1999. The bracken had withered away: all the trees were leafless, their trunks and boughs fully exposed. I thought, then doubted, that I saw something unusual on a huge beech trunk several yards ahead. A trick of the light perhaps? I looked again, close up, and saw a carved sketch of a tiny sailing boat, its hull less than a hand’s span long. Replete with masts and rigging, the perfect little craft was bravely navigating a rippled sea of beech bark.
I walked on and carefully searched all around the trunk of the next tree: no boats. Then another tree, bearing a few scattered initials, a heart, an arrow, but no boat. Then a third tree and the delight of discovering another boat, a much larger one, maybe a foot long with a tall pennant-topped mast. One of its three large sails showed vestiges of the craft’s identification number, prefixed LT for Lowestoft. Then another, marked IH for Ipswich. I walked on, checking every tree in turn on either side of the road, a mile out and a mile back.
Incredulous, I wondered how could this be? Who could have made these carvings, and when? Since that day I have repeated the same walk many times. I know that many of the beech trunks are blank. Some harbour a single boat, but on others small carved flotillas circumnavigate the entire girth of the trunk. To me, The Clumps is not just a vehicular roadway but also a busy, yet ghostly, shipping lane whose course bisects dry land. A whole gallery of sailing boat images is concealed amongst the trees. On some, the fine detail of yardarms and rigging remains clear despite the distortions caused by decades of tree growth. These are working boats, built for local conditions, all shallow draughted for navigating the nearby Butley River, the Ore, the Alde, the Deben and the Orwell.
The array of drawings looks like a rustic prototype for Jane’s Fighting Ships, the reference work first published in 1898 which annually catalogues every type of warship1. Trunk by trunk, the carvers have anticipated Jane’s page by page ship diagrams. Using knives instead of pens, and memory in place of measurements, they have catalogued the merchant craft which sailed the inshore waters here during the 19th century. There, on the beeches, are affectionate mementoes not just of long-vanished boats, but also, the abiding self-made memorials of anonymous carvers.
The deftly carved images are obviously the work of experts in possession of intimate knowledge of their subject. The carvers had accurately observed shape, form, proportion, and the intricacies of the complicated rigging of various kinds of craft. It occurred to me that the carvings could only be the work of the men who sailed the boats, local sailors. Working during the Victorian era and the early 20th century, they had had no access to the new fangled technique of photography, but had nevertheless managed to make a wonderful and enduring visual record of the boats they knew so well.
But the images are more than decorations or simple factual representations, and much more than naive graffiti. I saw a creative and knowing element present in the work too as the carvers had skilfully incorporated pre‑existing natural features into their designs. The boats tend to be sited where the extreme torsions of the trees’ growth have wrung the bark into the texture of choppy waves, or traced out the apparent course of powerful currents. Some of the boats are positioned adjacent to bulging scars or strongly grained knots so that they appear to be making passage around rocky outcrops. Others look as though they are bypassing the headlands of small islands, or carefully avoiding dangerous whirlpools. Yet others are deliberately juxtaposed over deep vertical creases in the bark so that the double convexities give the impression of strong wind filling the boats’ sails.
A powerful organic energy or will is still altering and animating the carvings. It has driven some of the boats off course, and, trapped between miniature wooden versions of Scylla and Charybidis, they list dangerously. Some are breaking apart under the strain. Caught in the heavy storm of the trees’ ongoing growth and change, others have succumbed to a kind of magic which has stretched and doubled the original length of their hulls and radically depressed the once steep angles of their rigging.
Like the sea itself, the trees have tides of their own - the slow steady rhythm of the sap’s annual rise and fall which echoes the pulse of river and sea tides, highs and lows, neaps and springs. The beeches themselves have patiently colluded in the making and enrichment of these images. Even now, the trees are participating, working as though dedicated to the task of completing the seascapes begun by long-deceased carvers. Half-living trees, dead carvers, ghost boats - the three co-exist in secret in the delapidated beech avenue.
In 1999, I photographed a few of the carvings. Then, the avenue was beginning to deteriorate but was still almost intact. At the time, I assumed that the trees and the carvings would long outlive me. The same year, I left the district and the ships slipped my mind. By 2012, when I returned, the beeches were much reduced and many of the boats had been lost. I assumed that born and bred Butley people would know all about this vanishing piece of local heritage, that they would have alerted someone, somewhere, in some official place, made sure that detailed formal records were made. I presumed that all the research had already been done, imagined each boat thoroughly measured, code-numbered and logged. Stupidly, I thought that, like the far more grandiose remains of the Anglo Saxon burial ship at nearby Sutton Hoo, the carvings would have been subjected to forensic level examination. Specialists would have taken casts, collated photo series, created computer files full of visual and technical data: surely the carvings would have been obsessively labelled, numbered and catalogued - wouldn’t they? I was wrong: the boats are abandoned. They are drifting out of view, rapidly passing beyond curatorial reach.
Sometime in the 1990s the felling of the most precarious trees began. In their local history, Valerie Fenwick and Vic Harrup include an undated image showing the corpses of some of the first felled beeches2. Now, some of the more recent fatalities lie collapsed on ground, their immense hulks blackening as they succumb to the insistent attentions of destructive beetles and fungi. Other limbless wrecks still stand, their trunks pocked and rashed with creeping growths. The huge beech stumps shed their dead skin in desiccated chunks which are crumbling down to a dusty litter. Although the avenue’s remains are degenerating fast now, the sheer size of the stumps and their longevity make the derelict beeches imposing and deeply awe inspiring in their final decline.
Tree by tree, storm after storm, the beeches are going down, taking the carved fleet with them one boat after another. Perhaps over time, observant passers-by may have photographed the boats. Maybe a full photographic record of them does exist, but if so, it is dispersed amongst a thousand and one fading holiday albums, dissipated in the memory chips of countless smart phones. There are signs that souvenir hunters have attempted impromptu and drastic salvage by tearing off loosened chunks of the carved bark, but this is futile as the material is so brittle that it shatters instantly and destroys the image.
The more the beeches dwindled, the more curious I became about the carvings. I began to photograph in earnest, to make notes, to speculate and research. Little information was forthcoming either in books or on the internet, only brief passing references. An octogenarian who has lived all his life within a stone’s throw of The Clumps told me he knew nothing of the carvings. I stumbled upon snippets of information here and there: the 18th century Marquess of Donegal planned out the avenue; the beeches were planted in the 1790s. My enquiring emails to local museums yielded no useful result: the boats on the beeches seemed to have completely escaped detailed formal notice. All too late I realised that it was unlikely that there was anyone left in the district who could point out a carving and say “When I was a child, my grandfather told me that his great-grandfather did this.” As my fascination with the carvings grew, I realised that I was out of my depth and had no navigational aids - no historical documents, no personal recollections or memories available to help me tell the carvings’ history. I knew that in attempting to plot the story of the boats on the beeches I would have to do as sailors had once done - follow my nose, listen to my intuitions.
I found out that in the 1990s the artist Simon Read made an extensive series of photographs of the carvings. In 2014, I met Simon on his houseboat on the Deben and we compared our photographs of the boat carvings. Simon’s collection was far larger than my original 1990s one, and contained many images of boat carvings which no longer exist. Simon pointed out smacks, ketches, trawlers, topsail schooners, brigantines, beach boats, barges, cutters, fishing and trading vessels3. His photos were part of the research he had conducted in preparation for a commission4. His 1995 work, To Forgotten Fleets, is sited on ‘alignments to the buoyage for the approaches to Felixstowe and Woodbridge Haven’ and it includes a series of enamel plaques decorated with boat motifs taken directly from the beech carvings. Simon’s web page explicitly mentions how, like me, he discovered The Clumps carvings by accident. He too recognised that the carvings were ‘the product of someone who was connected with the sea because of their immediate and accurate recognisibility'. As we looked at our photographs, Simon agreed with my suggestion that the boats had been carved by sailors. He told me that The Clumps road used to be a Sailors’ Path.
I saw them in my mind’s eye, youths and men, sea-booted and bewhiskered in the style of previous centuries, following the Sailor’s Path either back towards home or out towards the boats and the sea. On the way they might have dawdled, met crew-mates and enjoyed a leisurely smoke under the shade of the semi-mature beeches. Perhaps they talked about the boats they were going to or from, discussing the characters and abilities of the different craft. Passionately proud of the boats they worked on, they probably fell to verbal boasting - then, using the blades of their pocket knives, they gave their boasts visual and more permanent expression.
But why would sailors spend precious leave-time and effort carving images of boats on trees standing inland? The patient incision and painstaking shaping of lines suggests deep attachment - surely no one would waste time depicting boats that they did not care about? But what purpose could such carvings serve? Perhaps taking time and effort to embed the emblem of a mobile and highly vulnerable sea-going craft into the living flesh of a static, landlocked tree, one securely anchored on deep roots, might have worked as an act of faith aimed at countering an unspoken fear of being lost at sea. I wondered if the carvings might have been intended as votives: more long-lasting than perishable offerings of food or flowers or rags, they perhaps were pleas for life-long protection. They might also have worked as proxies: as long as the carved boat survived safe on the tree, then so too might the actual boat survive the dangers of the sea. After all, a sailor’s life was a dangerous life lived at the mercy of the elements’ vicissitudes. To me it seems too simplistic to say that the sailors casually made the carvings just ‘for luck’. There is something much more highly intentionalised, intense and meaningful in the way that men and boats and trees are foregathered in the imagery on the beeches.
My inkling of sailors eliciting protection from carved trees may seem far fetched, but there is an intriguing feature about the carvings’ location. When I was photographing in 1999, I noticed that the most lavishly carved beeches stood at a crossroad.
Crossroads have long been the locations of rites of passage, shrines, the scenes of punishment, gallows and gibbets, the burial place of suicides and criminals. Some are reputed to be the domains of supernatural beings. They are in-between places, and out-of-place places, neither ‘here’ nor quite ‘there’. Standing on boundaries, or borderlines, they have been thought of as magical places, imbued with powers of protection, healing and augury5.
This reputation, along with the fact that the carved trees lined a segment of a Sailors’ Path running across lonely coastal heathland clearly identifies the beech avenue as a liminal zone. The Latin word limen refers to thresholds, doorways. Such physical thresholds are implicated in rites of passage during which individuals pass from one life stage, status or situation to another6. But the liminal has spatial and psychological dimensions too. Borders, no mans’ lands, bridges, marshes, shorelines, edges, and of course, crossroads are liminal places: they are all betwixt and between. Set in a littoral landscape of marshy edge-lands, The Clumps avenue feels very much like a place where superstitious seafarers might well call upon the extra-human for protection. There, they might have thought that the ‘magic’ properties of the place and the trees were most potent, and at the crossroad itself, the boundaries between the sailors’ religion, and magic, faith and desire were at their thinnest.
Every trip between home and work involves slippage, change. Even now the daily commute involves more than mere physical movement from A to B. It also entails subtle shifts in identity, the putting on and taking off of the domestic self and the occupational self. Walking the Sailors’ Paths, mariners must have found themselves between identities, neither completely sailors nor fully landsmen. When on the path, sailors knew they were walking between worlds. In travelling between shipboard and household, they voyaged between the quotidian and the preternatural. Amongst the extraordinary beeches, and at the crossroads, they entered a locale where limits might be transgressed, where overlaps and out of the ordinary connectivities between things and people might occur.
Maritime museum collections demonstrate just how intently sailors stitched, scratched, stuck, sewed, knitted, knotted, braided, plaited or carved using whatever material was available. They were inveterate makers who co-opted ships’ biscuits, rope-fibre, straw, ivory, bone, wood, wool, and canvas for creative purposes. Many of the artefacts they made reflect an intense preoccupation with replication and miniaturisation, and the ships depicted in wool-works, models and scrimshaw drawings are charged with highly concentrated feeling that somehow captures and compresses the ships’ vital energies. The boats depicted by sailors in scrimshaw work, painting and embroidery are much more than inert copies; they are animated, live things imbued with vitality and spirit.
Seafaring culture is renowned for being a highly superstitious culture, one in which a huge variety of actions, observances and visual symbols have been relied on to attract good luck and to repel bad luck. The tradition of tattooing was, and still is, deeply implicated in this belief system. For sailors, tattoos are more than bodily embellishments worn for vanity’s sake. Some traditional designs signify their wearer’s membership and position in the hierarchy of their occupational culture. Others provide a visual and public record of the wearers’ achievements, or they denote the completion of nautical rites of passage. Importantly, some motifs are intended as talismans imbued with protective capacities. For example, images of cockerels or pigs are believed to save the wearer from drowning7.
If sailors used such a diverse range of media, then why wouldn’t they set to work on the bare bark of trees too? Men who could produce intricate and highly detailed drawings on virtually any material would have been completely capable of producing the boat images I found. The more I looked at the boat carvings, the more I became convinced that they might be analogous with protective tattoos.
If so, the idea of sympathetic magic may apply. Originally suggested by the anthropologist, Sir James Frazer, in 1889, sympathetic magic takes two forms8. The first involves imitative effigies and fetishes - classically the wax dolls whose deliberate injury is replicated in the person the doll represents. The second involves the law of contact or contagion where things that were once in close contact continue to influence one another after separation and at a distance - like a sailor and a beech tree, for example. Frazer suggested that ‘things which have once been conjoined must remain ever afterwards, even when quite dis-severed from each other, in such a sympathetic relation that whatever is done to the one must similarly affect the other’9.
I’m only guessing, but following sympathetic magic’s law of contact, the carvings might work like this: trees, once permanently ‘tattooed’ with boat carvings, could act as guardians to named craft and those who sailed them. For the carvers, the boat images might have worked figuratively as receptacles, containers of desire. As much as they are descriptive depictions of real seagoing craft, they are also symbolic vessels freighted with the sailors’ fervent wishes for protection, for safe return from the sea.
The logic of symbolically returning the boat to the originary material matrix of the living tree might have been seen by sailors as a way of making a plea, a bargain, a pact, a proposed contract of exchange. The import of the wordless carved message is implicit: ‘If I give the tree this token of my boat, will the tree, in exchange, assure my safe return home?’ In making carefully controlled ‘injuries’ of the living tissue of a tree, the carver perhaps hoped to attract prophylactic powers of protection towards himself and the boat he sailed in. It’s just possible too that the carved trees could have been expected to act in the same way as lightning rods do, drawing and dissipating the destructive energies of an unlucky storm strike. Tapping into the extra-human powers of a powerful tree seems like an appropriate tactic for men who worked both with and against the unpredictable forces of nature. Sailors took their bearings from celestial bodies and attended to signs and portents communicated to them by weathers, animals, the clouds’ colours and formations. So, employing the idea of ‘like for like’, or equivalence, why shouldn’t nature, the fates, correspondingly be tempted to respond compassionately to the sailors’ carved signs of entreaty?
When sailors carved boats onto trees, both man and tree were affected by the encounter: both marked for life. Through the carvings, particular men, trees and boats became inextricably connected in an enduring and life sustaining relationship. Writing of beech carvings, Richard Mabey suggests that such markings are 'Not really tree abuse, […] nor always a compulsion to leave one’s mark on the world. More, I think, the result of the world’s leaving a mark on you'10. Sailors had every reason to fear being fatally marked by the dangers of the maritime world, the realm of the sea. Working in an age before radio, radar, satellite navigation systems and insurance policies existed, they had to improvise whatever methods they could for mitigating risk and underwriting the safety of their boats.
There is no way of knowing whether the protective magic - if that's what it was - of the boats on the beeches worked, but what matters is both the sailors’ belief itself, and the surviving physical evidence. Now the carvings offer a tantalising clue to an under-explored and unacknowledged aspect of maritime custom, one which has been all too easily missed or dismissed. For example, in a Victorian photograph by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe four fishermen strike picturesque poses by a wooden door on which there are chalk drawings of boats. In the reproduction I found, the caption asserts that the drawings are the work of children - despite the fact that the images are far too high up for a child to reach11. They have been drawn well above a grown man’s shoulder-level, as have most of the carvings on the beeches.
In following up Mabey’s claim that tree carving has a long and universal history, I found out that such carvings are known as arborglyphs, and that the trees which bear them may be known as Culturally Modified Trees (CMTs). A CMT is one which has been worked on or altered, often by indigenous people as part of their tradition. Once culturally modified, such trees function as repositories or archives of their makers’ history and social traditions. For example, in Sweden, CMTs were carved by the Sami people up until the late 19th century12. Some of their carvings involved religiously motivated tree scarring, while others marked boundaries and the routes of traditional paths.
In the American West, the historian Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe documented over 20,000 tree carvings made by young single Basque men who came from the Spanish Pyrenees from the mid 18th until the mid 20th centuries to work as shepherds13. These carvings ‘provide the closest thing to a compressed autobiography of the sheepherders who are one of the most forgotten social groups in American history’.14 Many of the carvings show the date, the herder’s name and birthplace and some take the form of texts or imagery commenting on the harsh conditions of the herders’ working lives.
In Britain, the anthropologist Chantel Summerfield has researched arborglyphs carved on 250 trees situated on the largest army training estate in the UK - the Salisbury Plain Training Area, (SPTA)15. Soldiers’ tree carving began there in 1897 and continues now. Summerfield explains that the ‘conflict related.’ arborglyphs produced by soldiers training for combat in WW1 and WW2 are ‘delicate items of archaeology’ which transform the tree into ‘an irreplaceable cultural artefact’ which bears 'witness to the presence and emotional state of individual soldiers, and to the period of time [in] which they trained for war, before travelling to a battle zone'16.
Obvious parallels exist between the sailors’ and the soldiers’ carvings. For example, both sets of men were separated by their occupation from home and family. Both were passing through an ‘in between’ place. Both groups had to contemplate the risks of danger and death as unavoidable elements of their work. In another parallel, Summerfield also notes that the amount of time soldiers invested in carving implies that there were hidden or underlying meanings in the messages they left on the trees. She suggests that a soldier ‘may deliberately choose a tree which holds significance to him in ways that could not be understood by a civilian’.17 It’s no coincidence that the tradition of carving the beeches was taken up after the sailors’ time. Many of the Clumps’ beeches bear the names of American pilots who were posted during World War II and the Cold War to the nearby Woodbridge and Bentwaters airbases. For them the same motivations were in play - being uprooted from home, and the compulsion to leave a mark when faced with the prospect of danger and death.
After reading Summerfield’s work, I looked again at Sutcliffe’s images of Victorian seafarers and saw them afresh. Where Sutcliffe emphasises the sailors’ confidence and composure, Summerfield’s insights reveal what might have laid behind the mask. The emotions that were felt by sailors, soldiers, Sami, shepherds - and latterly fighter pilots - perhaps ran too deep to be spoken or written: they exceeded the bounds of words.
The Clumps carvings may not be unique. Because sea voyages universally entail the same fears, the same risks and the same hopes for safe return, sailors may have had a habit of making protective carvings and drawings wherever they went. But now such carvings are few and far between. Yearly more trees, more boats, go down. As The Clumps beeches degenerate into ruinous stubs and rotten butts, they do not seem to be diminished but instead accumulate an increasingly uncanny power. Like the very opposites of totem poles which display life-affirming symbols - the faces of animal guides and guardian spirits - each failing tree now flaunts the tokens of abandonment, desertion and obsolescence. On them, the emblems of their own mortality stack up: big liver-coloured bracket fungi, the stumpy vestiges of amputated limbs, mould-encrusted nodes and tumours, gross deformities and protrusions. Neither living, nor yet fully dead and gone, the derelict stumps command your attention, suddenly and powerfully. They stop you in your tracks, just as unanticipated roadside shrines do, exciting morbid curiosity and sending a shiver down the spine. It is impossible to pass these last survivors without experiencing a strong sense that they have some reason for their tenacity, some task to complete, some last vital message to signal.
Do the carvings still matter? Do they have value? I think they do because they are so much more than quaint relics. I believe that they are not only markers of the powerful human emotions of vulnerability and fear, but also clear expressions of resourcefulness, faith and tenacity. Their authors may well have been illiterate, but the carvings are reminders that may show how people invented and applied alternative kinds of personal or occupational literacies. It is impossible to know whether the protective magic of the carvings was effective in literal terms or not, but what matters more now, what touches me deeply when I touch the carvings is the idea that they are tangible signs showing a way that sailors made their world work.
Although the sailors and the boats have been far outlived by the carved trees, my encounter with their traces has, as Mabey suggests, made an important mark on me. The images I found inspired me to make marks too, to set out these written marks on a page that might, for a while, memorialise an otherwise unremarked and fast-vanishing memorial.
My thanks to Dr Tim Martindale for his comments on an early draft of this piece.
I also wish to thank Katherine Skala for the input she provided on the first draft of this piece.
Kim Crowder, July 2018.