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The Upside Down: A Tree for Life

John Mitchinson explores why the dark and mysterious yew tree is a symbol of both life and death

Taxus baccata. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Some years ago, when we moved to our current cottage, we were puzzled by the death, one by one, of our hitherto robust, lay-an-egg-a-day-without-fail chickens. 

There was no obvious distress. They first stopped laying, then stopped scratching the lawn and, finally, hunched dolefully on their perches, they stopped breathing altogether. 

It turned out they had been poisoned by the magnificent male yew tree which dominates our back garden and sheds its toxic leaves and spent flowers across the lawn.  

This was a somewhat brutal introduction to the yew’s back story. 

They are known as the ‘tree of death’ and almost every part of them – leaf, bark, flower, seed – are extremely toxic. Our chickens were just a small addition to the large number of livestock that die from eating yew foliage each year and, even though a fatal dose for a human would be 50 grams of yew needles – not easy to do by accident – it does happen: even inhaling the sawdust has been known to kill people. The Latin name for the tree, Taxus, shares a root with ‘toxic’ (from toxon ‘bow’, the connection being poisoned-tipped arrows).

This association of yews with death stretches back at least as far as Ancient Greece where the tree was sacred to Hecate, goddess of magic and witchcraft, who was also associated with death. Yews were planted with cypresses and laurels in cemeteries – their roots were believed to seek out the mouths of corpses and to ferry the souls to the afterlife. This idea seems to have emerged in Celtic cultures too, where yew trees were also associated with burial and rebirth. 

English churchyards are still full of yews. Because it turns out that the ‘tree of death’ is also the ‘tree of life’. 

Yews can live for an unimaginably long time. The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, Scotland, is estimated to be at least 2,000 years old – some estimates put it at 5,000 years old, which means it was planted during the Bronze Age. At least 10 other British yews are thought to date back to the first millennium. 

John Mitchinson’s yew tree

Yews have other miraculous powers that add to this sense of immortality. When most other trees split, they perish because fungal diseases thrive in the fracture. Not so the yew. Indeed, cut the trunk of a yew, or bury one of its long branches in the ground, and vigorous new growth emerges, even on an ancient tree. As Wordsworth wrote in his poem ‘Yew-Trees’, they are:

A living thing

Produced too slowly ever to decay;

Of form and aspect too magnificent

To be destroyed.

But the story of the yew is one of exploitation as well as veneration. 

The slow-growing wood is both hard and flexible which makes it perfect wood for longbows. The demands of medieval warfare were such that the population of yews in France and Italy were decimated almost to the point of extinction and have never recovered. 

And what of our killer yew? It is easily the oldest living thing in the parish, but it is some way from the churchyard. 

Though notoriously difficult to pin down the age of a yew, a rough estimate based on its girth puts it between 600 to 700 years old. That takes us back to the late 14th Century, a period when the village lost almost a third of its population to plague. There is a tradition of yew trees being planted over plague pits, to purify the ground and keep the tainted corpses pinned in the earth. A map from the 18th Century suggests the site of the tree was on one of the main roads leading out of the village. It’s impossible to prove, but the facts fit.
For me, it’s the double quality of the yew that keeps its symbolic dimension so potent. The poison that killed our chickens is extracted to produce Taxol, a life-saving drug used in chemotherapy. The only part of the yew that isn’t toxic is the sweet red berries or arils that surround the toxic seed encouraging birds and animals to eat and pass them unharmed enabling new yews to grow. The dense foliage provides homes to nesting birds and roosting bats but was also believed to harbour sprites and demons. The yew is a constant reminder that life and death are two sides of the same coin.

Modern scholars now think that the World Tree – Yggdrasil – of Norse Mythology was a yew not an ash. Our yew has something of that symbolic immensity to it: it feels like a guardian, a luck-bringer, a home to bats and thrushes and hedgehogs, but also a daily reminder of mortality and the limits of our human scale. 

To be honest, having that in your back garden is worth not being able to keep chickens.

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