In the plant world trees alone do something remarkable: they lift dense matter up from the earth into the light. In their trunks they bring the solidity of rock and the power of the subterranean energy of the earth upwards towards the sky.
Discovering the Heart of Yew
Yew trees in particular show this process in the most awe inspiring way, especially those that are really ancient, for example the Compton Dundon Yew in Somerset. Yew trees can live for hundreds, even thousands of years. At times they grow very slowly, seeming to stop growing for many years, so that it is difficult to date them accurately.
Standing or sitting beneath such trees puts us in touch with the ancient wisdom of the Earth, known instinctively by the shamans of old, and with the depths and hidden aspects of life and of ourselves. If we quieten ourselves to listen they are profound teachers. If we are on a path of initiation into the secrets of landscape, earthlore and healing, the yew tree can become a powerful heirophant. This was the case for shaman Michael Dunning who received his strong and difficult shamanic training from and beneath a female yew tree in Scotland.
Living as they do to such a great age, yew trees have witnessed great spans of history and to this day retain the atmosphere and indeed presence of invisible energies and beings which our ancestors could still experience. These trees still work as portals into forms of awareness which we have forgotten but need to develop once again in order to help the struggling Earth. My own modest experience on this level has led me to find that a real dialogue and interaction is possible between the consciousness of the yew tree and oneself, and the sense has grown that the beings of the yew tree can also take a real interest in you. This was vividly demonstrated for me when a healer, whom I go to from time to time, suddenly asked me to think of a tree. I thought of the local yew which has become a special friend. He then said that the yew tree needed him to ask permission of it, before he could proceed with his treatment. I felt enormously privileged to discover that I have a yew tree as a guardian.
The archetypal Tree of Life?
The yew is known by many as the physical version of the Tree of Life. It has enormous vitality. New trees can grow from the red fruits, called arils, on the female of the species, fertilised by the prolific pollen dispersed by the wind in the spring from the pollen sacs on the male trees, but when allowed to follow their natural inclination yew trees will send down a whole canopy of branches to the ground which root there and in time form whole groves, the sacred groves of the druids, as is now understood. The remnants of such groves, once common throughout Britain, can still be seen, such as at Newlands Corner in Surrey. When an ancient yew tree becomes hollow, almost magically it sends down aerial roots into the hollow, which, over time, as the outer shell rots away, become the trunks of new trees, but genetically they are part of the same original tree. This process can be seen in the beginning stages in the Ankerwyke Yew near Windsor and at the stage of new trees at Ashbrittle near Exmoor.
The tree of death and resurrection
The yew tree also has a relationship with death, not only because it is often to be found in graveyards (although the yew trees in churchyards are mostly older than the church) but because most parts of the tree are poisonous, excepting the soft outer part of the arils, which is actually make into a liqueur in Germany. The yew has been used in the past however for healing and in our day it has been discovered that a substance found in the bark and the leaves can be made into a drug (taxol) to treat cancer, which has the capacity to surround the cancer cells so that they are starved of nutrients.
What has drawn me to this tree particularly and aroused my wonder again and again is its individuality. Its overarching canopy is generally recognisable from a distance, but once you venture in beneath the branches no two yew trees are the same, a multiplicity of extraordinary shapes and gestures reveals itself. Whoever is seeking to become truly themselves and to express their unique talents and gifts in their lives will find real encouragement in the remarkable individuality of the yew tree. Emerging now out of a period when it was largely forgotten and hardly noticed, this is a tree which has much to teach us in these times of crisis and change.
On Saturday 24th November at 8pm in the Open House Hall, Gloucester Street, Stroud, Jehanne Mehta, Andy McGeeney and Fred Hageneder will be launching Heart of Yew. Fred will give a short introductory talk on the importance of yew trees, and perform some of the harp music he has composed for the CD. Jehanne will read some of her poems aloud and many of Andy’s photographs of yew trees will be on display. Jehanne, Fred and Andy will also be available to sign copies of the book. Simple refreshments will be served. Admittance free of charge.