Tree Stories 5 – Yew

Yew is now published on its own page – please use link above under ‘Tree Stories’.

Yew arils, last few remaining in December

Yew arils, last few remaining in December

My first encounters with yew as a witch did not go well. Yew did not wish to speak to me, and when I walked around a local graveyard, having visited the church first and enjoyed several faces peeking out from the stonework, I found a barrier. Yew did not wish me to go any further. I had never had trouble from a tree before, and when I tried to communicate with yew, on several occasions after that, it was closed to me.

I will admit, I was fascinated. I started to read about yew, to understand its nature better and see if I could approach yew on its terms. The first thing I discovered was the incredible age to which yew trees can live. Until relatively recently it was thought that they lived to about eight hundred years or so. Then came a study of a tree in a churchyard in Tandridge, Surrey, in the 1980s. The foundations are Saxon, and it was found that they were built around the tree’s roots, indicating that the tree was fully grown over a thousand years ago. It is now thought to be around 2,500 years old, but that is only an estimate. The Fortingall yew is thought to be the oldest yew tree in Britain, with current estimates being 3-8,000 years old. However the hollow trunks that older trees develop make it impossible to count rings, so no one can be sure.

Yews can be very slow growing, around an inch in 25 years in normal circumstances, creating a very dense hardwood. However they will regenerate by producing shoots or aerial roots from almost any part of the trunk, including the inside if it becomes hollow. They can also send up suckers to start new trunks, or even layer themselves where a branch touches the ground. Therefore the tree that you see might not be the ‘original’. In fact fossil yews 1,000,000 years old are virtually the same as those growing now.

Every part of a yew tree is poisonous except for the red flesh of the arils, a type of hollow berry open at the end. Few animals can eat yew leaves, although deer are one exception. For some years hedge clippings were collected by drug companies to make the cancer treatment paclitaxel. However it has now been realised that the active part is a fungus that lives on the yew, which is able to be grown in a laboratory. Hopefully this will reduce the cost of production over time.

In the middle ages, yew was considered to make the best longbows. This unfortunately led to the chopping down of many yew trees across England – which is why most remaining ancient yew trees are the churchyard yews, of which it is estimated 500 are older than the church next to them. Further destruction to mature yews occurred when there was a law passed in 1492 to require four longbows to be imported with every tonne of goods, which led to the devastation of yew trees across Europe.

Yew is believed by many to be Yggdrasil, the World Tree in Northern traditions, as it fits the description of an evergreen ‘needle-ash’ best. It is generally associated with higher knowledge and wisdom, and divination. I had not personally associated it with tarot cards until I began thinking about a story inspired by yew. However the darker side of tarot seemed to be what was wanted, and I definitely had to back off to write this one down! Rather than try to contrive something with the cards, after creating the characters and having a rough outline of the story, I asked for a tarot reading to use. I seemed to take on the character of Amy as I shuffled, and the cards that were dealt were exactly as used in the story. The particular deck I used is ‘The Sacred Circle Tarot’ by Anna Franklin and Paul Mason.

I have mentioned before that I had been collecting sticks from each of the trees in the ogham. (A project put on hold after M was born.) I was interested that once I made a connection with yew, within a week I found a suitable sized yew stick lying on the pavement below an overgrown yew hedge. However yew is sometimes used to make a whole ogham set, because its exceptional durability makes it a very potent wood for magical purposes; yew wands are also good for this reason.

To me the yew is not a tree of death, but of reincarnation and eternal life. Yews have been cut down when it was believed they were dying, yet that was only the end of their first incarnation.

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Animism

I have for some years thought of myself as an animist, that is one who sees everything as being conscious and connected to Spirit. You, me, animals, plants, rocks, weather, all is conscious and all responds to us if we take the time to notice or to communicate. However it is one thing to agree with an idea, another to really connect with everything around me on equal terms.

The first ‘object’ I remember having a strong relationship with, after the usual childhood dolls and soft toys, was my bicycle. I rode a Claude Butler Mistral for nearly ten years, covering many thousands of miles to school or college, many of which were on my own. I used to talk to it, treat it as as partner on the eight mile journey home each day. After a while it started answering me back. Ringing its bell when there was someone behind me, getting fewer punctures or mechanical failures as it got older and I encouraged it more and more. I was quite sad when it had to be retired after a pothole incident in which I took flying lessons. I am still building a relationship with my Orbit Gold Medal that replaced it, though again find that the more it is encouraged and talked to the more the tyres stay hard, the chain rides without jumping, and the bike gets me to where I want to be without difficulty.

Houses are said to stay up better if they are lived in. The usual assumption is, I believe, that having someone there all the time means that problems can be spotted and sorted out while they are small. However I now think it is because a loved house will look after its occupants and not disintegrate as readily as one that is neglected and sad. I have been trying to connect to our house quite a bit recently, as we try to complete our slightly stalled building projects, and am finding it very rewarding. The colours I want to add seem to become richer, more vibrant. The place feels happier. Things happen.

Communicating with plants came relatively late to me, long after bicycles anyway, mainly because it never occurred to me it was possible. The more I understand the particular nature of a species, and love it for all of its qualities, the easier it seems to be to attune to it. Oak I connected to the first time I tried, along with several others that I have played around since childhood; Yew took me a long time and took me on quite a journey to really understand it and the great age to which it can live (thousands of years, not hundreds as was commonly believed). I still find it easier to connect to mature trees than younger ones, sometimes it feels like talking to children or teenagers when in a newly planted woodland! But I have found that once a connection is made with a particular tree or species it is much easier to reconnect on future occasions. It is like greeting a friend.

I have learned a lot about weather in recent years, and have had proof on several occasions now that it is conscious. One day I may write more, but the time doesn’t feel right yet; however there are many traditions around the world where the shaman’s job was to work with the weather in order to help keep the balance in the local area. I am now trying to do this in my small corner of Derbyshire.

However, watching M I now realise how little I really know about connecting to all things. She has learned that we wave to people when we say goodbye, and copies this. However she doesn’t often wave to people, it is more likely to be to the dogs we pass. Or rubbish that I don’t want her to touch. A playground we have been at, or bench we have sat on. More recently a single leaf or a feather she has picked up and looked at gets waved goodbye to before we can continue our walk. Even the sunrise she has been watching will get a wave before she turns around. In short, anything she has made a connection with is honoured as a friend.

It may well be that she ceases to do this as she grows up and becomes more involved with the earthly plain, but they will always be there for her when she is ready. What a wonderful way to live life.

Aconitum

Aconitum napellus

Aconitum napellus


I first started growing Aconitums in the garden when I discovered it looked a bit like delphiniums but didn’t get eaten by slugs. Also known as Monkshood, thanks to the flower shape, or Wolfsbane thanks to its poisons; all parts of the plant are highly toxic.

There are few traditional uses for Aconitum, poisons for spear tips or arrows to kill wolves or tigers being the main ones, but some have used it on the skin as a painkiller for severe joint pain apparently, and horses can eat it when dried to give them a powerful narcotic stimulant. Used with Belladonna, Henbane, Hemlock and soot, it is said to produce a ‘flying ointment’ for witches – the landing may be a little more insecure than most of us would wish however! Modern witches have created a number of uses for Aconitum such as consecrating knives to banish old energies and give protection, burning at funerals, or when calling upon Hecate with whom the plant is associated.

Recently I have discovered Aconitum can be used for a very effective homoeopathic remedy for colds. Many homoeopathic remedies are based on poisons; my interpretation is that because of the way they are diluted and shaken to have a high energetic presence of the poison, the body is triggered into a reaction. However, as there is no actual physical poison there, the body’s reaction is used instead to fight the disease, in this case a ‘common’ cold. Magic. But not something I would want to prepare for myself…

So why grow it?
Besides being a way of becoming familiar with a great plant, it is actually very garden-worthy. A. napellus, pictured, grows to nearly six feet tall in my windy garden, yet never needs staking. It is a very pretty plant with a full four seasons of interest – the fresh young growth in Spring, flowers in Summer, good leaf colour in Autumn, and finally dried stems and seed cases through the Winter. It seems to be fairly undemanding, neither taking over nor being easily squeezed out, and grows happily in the middle of borders which conveniently ensures it is not brushed accidentally.

I see its parallel with Yew in the world of trees. Equally poisonous in almost all parts, Yew teaches us about death and transformation, letting us see the dark side of the cycle as a positive experience and allowing us to be reborn. Aconitum can be used to clear what needs to be cleared at a stroke, and see the fundamental truths. It is fast acting, being fast growing, but carries the power of renewal from the deep taproots. Having cleared, there is a store of energy there which can be used to create something new out of the ashes.