‘I’m rather worried about the yew tree in the churchyard,’ the old woman said as she walked past my house.
I had never seen her before. But she was speaking to me as if she had known me for ever.
‘It’s over two thousand years old,’ she said. ‘I’ve written about it lots of times.’
Dismissing a natural desire to quiz her on her writing credentials, I asked what was wrong with the tree. After all, this was the important thing here. The yew tree is one of the most sacred in the tree pantheon. And our tree, if it is indeed as ancient as the woman says it is, would have been old enough to remember the Roman invasion of Britain.
It may well have been providing shelter to illicit love affairs between Vespasian’s men from the fort at nearby Waddon Hill and women from the native Durotriges tribe of ancient Celts who were holed up at Pilsdon Pen. Oh, the stories it could tell.
‘Wrong with it?’ the woman said, looking at me as if I should know. ‘It’s dying. I think someone has poisoned it.’
Panic fluttered across my sternum like a butterfly in a jam jar; a tight feeling akin to stress. The yew tree? Dying? Could it be so?
I scooted around to the churchyard to take a look. Efforts had been made to destroy the ivy creeping up the tree’s multiple trunks and a branch or two looked a bit yellow. But I don’t think it’s dying. At least I hope not.
This yew would have seen so many things during its lifetime. I’d like to ask it if Dr Thomas Fuller really did have his 17th century congregation queuing up outside Broadwindsor Church to hear his sermons. What a wit. What a man.
‘Charity begins at home…but it shouldn’t end there’ (or words to that effect) is one of his sayings I like the best.
Did the yew tree look on from a distance as Charles II hid in the ‘best room’ of the Castle Inn on his flight from the Battle of Worcester? Was it intimately acquainted with the fairies said to frequent Lewesdon Hill?
If only trees could talk.
The yew tree is another of our native trees which was held sacred by the Druids in pre-Christian times. They no doubt observed the tree’s qualities of longevity and regeneration (drooping branches of old yew trees can root and form new trunks where they touch the ground), and the yew came to symbolise death and resurrection in Celtic culture. They will also have been familiar with the toxicity of the tree’s needles in particular, which can prove fatal, and which may have further contributed to its connections with death. Shakespeare too was familiar with these qualities when he had Macbeth concoct a poisonous brew which included ‘slips of yew, silvered in the moon’s eclipse’.
The themes of death and resurrection continued into the Christian era, with the custom of yew shoots being buried with the deceased, and boughs of yew being used as ‘Palms’ in church at Easter. Yew trees have in fact established a popular association with old churches in Britain, to the extent that very old specimens of yew trees are now relatively rare outside of church grounds. According to Richard Mabey in his Flora Britannica ‘… no other type of ancient tree occurs so frequently inside church grounds …’ and he goes on to say that he does not know of any similarly exclusive relationship between places of worship and a single tree species existing anywhere else in the Western world. In some cases yew trees have been traditionally planted beside churches. In other cases it seems that very old yew trees may have already been growing on a site before the earliest church building was erected there.
I do hope the old woman is wrong. I have never seen her since, and wonder who this kindred spirit is, as I usually know most of the people passing by. I have passed on the information to the Vicar in case the yew needs checking out. In the meantime, let’s say a prayer to the gods – old and new – for the good health of our ancient yew.
When Great Trees Fall
When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
When great trees fall
small things recoil into silence,
eroded beyond fear.
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
Photography Nathalie Roberts @natamagat