|The 2,000 year old Grandmother Yew, Sy Nicholas, Newington, Kent, 4th June 2017|
“Like blue whales to land...”
On Midsummer's Day I went along to the 'Festival of the Yew Tree' organised by the Friends of St Nicholas Church, Newington. I was already familiar with the church, as I have been there to services and also to visit their 2,000 year old Grandmother Yew, but it was lovely to spend a whole day there drinking tea and listening to lectures.
|St Nicholas Church, Newington, Kent, 4th June 2017|
|St Nicholas, Newington and her wild roses, 4th June 2017|
|She flows like the sea, Grandmother Yew, 4th June 2017|
|The Grandmother Yew, St Nicholas Church, Newington, Kent, 4th June 2017|
And so I found myself at the Festival of the Yew Tree, looking forward to a whole day of yew related talks and activities. The church was beautifully decorated for the event, with ivy draping the walls and looking stunning next to the stained glass windows, and we were very well looked after all through the day with frequent breaks for tea and biscuits, together with a rather fine buffet lunch.
|St Nicholas Church was beautifully decorated with evergreens for the Yew Conference|
Jeremy Harte, who I have heard speak before at events in London, is an expert and researcher into folklore and has written several books, including 'The Green Man' and 'Explore Fairy Traditions'. When I first caught sight of him at this event he was attempting to manoeuvre a solid oak lectern carved into the shape of an eagle and looked very much as though he was wrestling a crocodile! However, all was eventually well and he went on to give an interesting talk, mainly about the controversial and contentious subject of accurately ageing yew trees. He began by telling us about the giant Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, which has a 56ft girth and may be Britain's oldest tree, having been aged at between 2,000 and 4,000 years old. Some have even suggested an age of 9,000 years, which seems to be one of the most mysterious things about yews; no one can accurately work out how old they are! There is much complex evidence, complicated by strategies that help yews 'live forever', but how long an individual tree may have been living is anyone's guess. It has been found that they grow quite quickly when young and then may or may not continue growing at the same rate. For example, two trees planted at the same time can vary from between 4 ft and 10 ft in girth. It is therefore impossible to measure a tree and extrapolate back in order to work out its age. Alan Meredith of the Ancient Yew Group has visited every large yew tree in England and has pushed back many dates but often his ideas seem not to fit in with the available historical information. Even then we were told that there is much 'pseudo history' relating to yew trees and so most things should be approached with a pinch of salt. Some grow in datable landscapes, such as deer parks which were often laid out and enclosed as land once held in common was claimed for the few from the 1500s onwards, and there was an early medieval tradition of planting yews but for all this their age is often impossible to guess. They are 'one unto themselves'. I love that the more we feel that we know about yews the more mysterious they seem to become!
We heard that Ireland was once an important centre for yew trees, and that evidence of this can be found in both the extensive indigenous literature and in writings by visitors, such as Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) who travelled there in the 12th Century. When Saint Patrick converted Ireland to Christianity in the 5th Century he found a land which already had its own well developed laws and teachings, which the inhabitants refused to abandon. However, both cosmologies included sacred trees. The yew became associated with the 'saint as ancestor' and both St Patrick and St Columba, who founded the important abbey on Iona in Scotland, are depicted with yew trees.
The Yew of Ross, which grew in Leinster and was said to be the 'offspring of the tree that is in Paradise', was a particularly significant tree in Ireland. This significance shines through in the 'Praise Song of the Tree of Ross', which describes it as, 'a King's Wheel, a Prince's Right, a Wave's Noise, Best of Creatures, a Straight Firm Tree, a Firm Strong God, Door of Heaven..a Fruitful Sea, Beauties Honour, Shout of the World, Banba's Renown, Noblest of Trees, Dearest of Bushes, a Bear's Defence, Vigour of Life, Spell of Knowledge, Tree of Ross.' However, sadly the depth of meaning held in this holy tree was not respected by early Christianity. The 'Life of St. Laserian' says that, because they wanted its wood, a group of clergy, not daring to cut the tree down outright, 'took turns at fasting and praying' around the tree until it fell. Further attacks on the yews of Ireland occurred when the English invaded in the 16th Century and began to confiscate and colonise land. Many of these ancient trees were cut down to make way for 'plantations'; for the 'planting' of settlers, more than trees. The yew tree had been thought of as the 'abiding centre' in Ireland and was a sacred tree associated with the honour of the community so, sadly, it makes sense that invaders, both Christian and colonial, would want to subdue the people by desecrating their holy trees. We might imagine that similar things happened in England and yet we are blessed that so many of our yew trees remain.
|Her ancient heart, The Grandmother Yew, St Nicholas Church, Newington, 4th June 2017|
|Her medicine, the Grandmother Yew, St Nicholas, Newington, 4th Nune 2017|
|She is the first door, the Grandmother Yew, St Nicholas Church, Newington, 4th June 2017|
|Yew trees, which have shallow roots, stabilise themselves by putting sweeping their branches down to the ground|
|Clearly showing aerial roots growing down through her hollow heart|
|Tree expert, Russell Ball gives a workshop on how to care for our churchyard yews|
There are a huge concentration of yews in England, especially in the south but beginning to fade in number as we go west and north. Martin showed us a map which claims to record all English yews, but which has missed some, including a small and 'secret' yew of at least 200 years of age snuggled in a holly wood, which has existed since at least the 8th Century in Dungeness, Kent. I love that even on our own small island there are so many secrets to uncover and so many possible moments of quiet intimacy with hidden nature.
We learned that yews are 'dioecious', which means that individual trees are either male or female. However, the Buckland yew in Dover changed sex when it was moved! Again, no one truly understands why this might happen. The tree has now settled back into its former female self but still retains one or two male branches. I looked this up after the event and learned that the male trees produce wonderful golden clouds of pollen in the spring (I love to give the branches a gentle shake) and that the females birth the berries, more properly 'arils' (berries enclose the seed and arils expose them), in the summer and autumn. The seeds are highly toxic, as are most parts of the yew, and so should not be eaten, although I do know of brave souls who have made 'yewberry jam' by carefully removing the black seeds from the red flesh. Speaking of pollen, yew trees are usually 'anemophilous', which means that they are wind pollinated. Bees and other pollinators will collect pollen but don't visit yews everywhere that they grow. Another mystery, as no one understands why this should be. Bees and yew trees have a private relationship that we know little of, and I am quietly pleased.
|Male yew flowers, St Mary's Church, Plaistow, 16th March 2016|
|Female yew 'cones', St Nicholas Church, Newington, 4th June 2017|
|Female yew arils, the Grandmother Yew, Newington, 7th July 2017|
|Kingley Vale yew, 16th April 2014|
|Kingley Vale yew, 16th April 2014|
|Mistle thrush (juvenile), Wiki Commons, via David Friel on Flickr|
Nuthatches are able to split the seeds but it isn't clear whether they are affected by the toxins in yew seeds. We might assume that the birds which eat the seeds have evolved with the tree and so will be unaffected. Martin told us that he has eaten the arils many times (not recommended!) and survived and so he may well have evolved in the same way! Goldcrests breed in conifers and love yew trees, badgers and squirrels eat the arils. It may be that this suppresses their metabolism ~ possibly echoes here of yew being used as a sedative in ancient Indian medicine. As for fungi, beech and oak sustain 2,200 species and yew only 258, mostly simple micro fungis and slime moulds, although earth stars are common in some yew woods. Whereas willow supports 450 insects, and oak 423, yew is in intimate relationship with only 6. Every new morsel of information I learned was like a poem, making yew ever more precious by the moment.
|The warmth of yew wood, Brecon Beacons, Wales, 14th March 2010|
Finally, Martin told us with some glee about the 'artichoke gall', which can be found on yew, diverting energy from the tree, and which houses a tiny fly. He informed us that this gall has its own parasites which lay their eggs inside it and feed on the fly larva and that these parasites have their own parasites; like a tiny living Russian doll! Truly nature is ever unfolding in its surprising wonderfulness!
This was a fine day and I am very grateful to the Friends of St Nicholas Church for making it possible. I left even more enchanted with yew trees and more in awe of the Grandmother Yew in their churchyard than ever. I thought that day, as I often do, of her roots which have been growing in this land since before the Romans came, before even the birth of Christianity. Often she seems to tower above the church, as well she might. Next time I meet her I will whisper the words 'like blue whales to land' to her as a prayer. I want her to know that she is seen.
|The 2,000 year old Grandmother Yew seems to tower over St Nicholas Church, Newington, 4th June 2017|
This has been a long piece of writing, and I hope that there will be much here to cause us all to cherish our precious yews, but I haven't written much of her heart and my own experiences with yew. As a small balance to that I will end with this image of a 'yew spirit' I met on a trip to Wales in 2010. She seems to me deeply gentle and kind and yes, patient. A much needed prayer for this world of ours indeed.
|'Yew spirit', Brecon Beacons, Wales, 14th March 2010|
Robert Bevan-Jones, The Ancient Yew: a History of Taxas baccata
Plantations of Ireland, Wikipedia
England Enclosure Records and Maps, familysearch.org