The ancient Yew of Much Marcle and her windows to the sky
(1 September 2020)
I visited an ancient Common Yew tree (Taxus Baccata) recently during a trip to my home county of Herefordshire. My deep reverence for trees as sacred (1) meant I was most excited on that sunny Saturday morning, driving up the tiny lanes of Much Marcle to St Bartholemew’s church, where the ancient yew tree put down her roots long ago.
Glennie Kindred writes that yew trees have long been revered as a sacred in many spiritual and religious communities of the past and modern age (2,3). Yew trees are connected with death, rebirth and immortality and for this reason they are often found in the northern hemisphere in churches and cemeteries (4).
After arriving at the church, I passed through a squeaky metal gate and saw at the end of a rough stony path the imposing magnificence of this majestic Yew tree.
Touching the rough reddish-brown bark during timeless moments alone with her, I sensed a hum, an ancient song sung for many centuries. Who knows what mysteries could be told by one who has lived hundreds of years old?
I’ve been referring to the yew as female have noted the presence of red berry-like structures on the needle-like flat dark green leaves. This marks an evergreen conifer’s sex as female, although interestingly in recent years it’s been found conifers can change sex (5).
Walking in a circle around the Yew it was fascinating to look upon her many faces. Textured bark reached up a thick columnar trunk with an impressive girth. Long deep, etched striations led to a conglomeration of branches in the middle of the low base, which led the eye in many directions.
I didn’t know where to focus my attention for a while. That is until a small, perfectly circular window drew me in amidst branches.
Looking into this light, seeing the sky through backlit and thin overlapping branches, showed a place where dreams could be weaved. It seemed a soul could pass to an altogether different place through here, or perhaps through the other spaces, the windows to the sky.
I walked further around to a great feature of the tree: the vast space that offered a generously sized vast doorway. I calmed myself before sitting down... inside the tree!
I had magical moments of solitude inside the tree, feeling safe, meditative, happy, at peace.
I often feel this way when around trees, although this time of course it was from under the shelter of an ancient one's bows. This was the womb of the tree offering an intimate awe-inspiring connection with the earth.
Looking up was another revelation as there was a Sistine chapel of textured flow. Wooden ribbons blended in artful ways. Ever-larger circular shapes surrounded more windows to the sky.
I was aware of the many people before me who would've gathered here, long before the wooden benches created by man and machine. For this reason, and given the tranquility and beauty of the tree, it didn’t surprise me to see flower and plant offerings left by recent visitors.
I felt a call to share a song, a small gesture of gratitude.
I could’ve stayed there for an eternity though to do so would forward my progress to another place since a Yew tree’s foliage is poisonous. There were also more visitors approaching through the church gates. Thankfully I did have a few opportune moments to wrestle with my tripod and do some self-portraits. with intriguing results.
I didn’t realise such a long exposure would happen when setting up, though this made sense given my priority was to reduce noise by keeping the camera’s sensitivity (ISO) low.
This shot was not displeasing in the conditions on that bright sunny day. There was a double image of me, one solid and the other ghostly figure hovering above. For a second attempt my intention was to lessen this effect and move much quicker to the benches.
I swear I moved quicker this time and saw the red button stop blinking and take the shot by the time my body was settled in stillness. Yet, there was once again another even less defined image following the long exposure.
The billowy shape at the back of my camera showed an ephemeral me shaping itself with the contours of the Yew's doorway. The previous image appeared to show me disappearing inside the tree's depth whilst this image revealed an echo of selves merging with the backdrop of the tree in oneness, a slippery blur of the colours of my clothes and skin.
Take from this what you will but the shots feel just a little mystical to me (even if it is realistic to say these were merely camera controlled long exposures (6).
Sadly, it was necessary to move on soon after so I said silent farewells to this wonderful ancient one, making promises to return when the days had shortened and there are fewer hours through which the tiny timeless portals to other worlds might reveal themselves to me once again.
1. Trees have long been considered sacred within many spiritual and religious traditions and amongst different communities. Some examples include in Hinduism, it’s said Krishna's resting place was a Banyan (fig) tree. Siddharta Gautama (the Buddha) achieved enlightenment whilst sitting under a fig tree, or Bodhi tree as it’s known in Buddhism.
For reading on this see Cusack (2011) The Sacred Tree. Cambridge Scholars Publishing: Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Any readers who are spiritual and love trees (such as myself) would enjoy Glennie Kindred’s work on trees in the next two references. This work draws upon ideas from within paganism and refers to turning of the Wheel of the Year (see https://thewayofthebuzzard.co.uk/your-wheel-of-the-year-guide/ )
2. Glennie Kindred (2007) ‘The Yew: Sacred Tree of Transformation and Rebirth’. http://www.glenniekindred.co.uk/articles/print/herbstrees13.html (Accessed 22.8.2020).
3. Above link but see also Glennie Kindred (2019) ‘Walking with Trees’ (Permanent Publications).
4. National Churches Trust. ‘Yew Trees’. https://www.nationalchurchestrust.org/what-see-outside/yew-trees. (Accessed 22.8.2020)
5. In 2015 the BBC reported a summary of research by scientists in Scotland who had found an ancient yew tree to have changed sex owing to new growth of the berry-like structures. See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-tayside-central-34700033 (accessed 31.8.2020 at 1600)
6. I’ve done minimal edits to the image using Lightroom Classic just to bring out the colours and light and dark tones, as well as the clarity of the tree's textured bark and shimmering leaves.