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Monday, 9 January 2012

Dreaming of Yew

The yew is a tree with rough bark,
hard and fast in the earth, supported by its roots,
a guardian of flame and a joy upon an estate. 
     So says the Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem. 
     The yew has a healthy grip on life and, despite its longevity, is often associated with death.
Knotty Yew! K Howell 2012 Pastel on Paper 9cm x 11cm
             Commonly found in churchyards, yew may have been planted as a reminder of long life, or to discourage farmers from allowing livestock to wander onto church property, the poisonous foliage being a disincentive. Which brings us to the fact that almost every part of the yew is poisonous. This might account for its charm. The beautiful red berry-like arils are an exception. They taste quite nice. The seed inside is highly toxic, but obviously those can be avoided. Birds don't digest them, just pass them on through their droppings.            Yew wood was commonly used in the production of longbows, but since much of yew is knotty and twisted, suitable yew staves were being imported to England as early as 1294, part of a trade that was to deplete the forests of southern Germany and Austria of mature yew trees by the 17th century. Happily, the rise of firearms relaxed the demand for the supply of yew wood. Imagine where we'd be without guns.            Yew bark is extraordinary. The gnarled, twisted trunks create their own landscape to negotiate. Hence the study.            As Wordsworth wrote of the dualistic nature of these splendid trees:
Of vast circumference and gloom profound This solitary Tree! -a living thing Produced too slowly ever to decay; Of form and aspect too magnificent To be destroyed.
     Do you have a favourite yew? 

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