Recently I had the powerful experience of standing with a group in the dark around a huge yew tree. Yew trees have a long history, with the species having survived the Ice Age and fossils specimens of yew and their forbears (Paleotaxus rediviva) going back 200,000,000 years. TheFortingall yew in Glen Lyon in central Scotland is certainly more than two thousand years old and some estimates put it up to nine thousand.
This also means there is a huge body of tradition and mythology around them. Its association with death, transformation and rebirth links to the tree’s ability to regenerate new trunks from decaying or drooping branches that take root and it is also one of the most long-lived of trees. Its links with death also relate to the fact that every part of the tree is toxic, except the ripe fleshy aril that is like a soft cone-scale around the poisonous seed.
The weekend was one in which we were thinking about plants that relate to bones and roots, to digestion and the ground of our being. Circling the yew, we considered our links to the earth and to the ancestors and loved one who have gone before us.
Holistic conceptions of health using plant medicines and nourishment are exactly what they say: about the whole picture of the person. And part of this is about our root; how the patterns of health (or otherwise) and behaviour handed down to us inform our stories now.
Journalling about this before the weekend, I realised that I had no legacy of herbal medicines or of good nutrition before becoming a mother myself. I came from an immigrant Irish family whose connections to nature had been severed by poverty and whose environment had become brutalising heavy industry. Brandy was rubbed on the gums of teething babies, Vick’s vapour rub replaced anything home-made and food was whatever was cheap and, preferably, sugar-laden and processed.
One positive legacy of this background was a distrust of institutions of power. Moreover, my paternal grandparents were large-hearted people with huge integrity and a love of reading that they passed on to me early.
But other parts of the family dominated and came with many negatives. Attitudes like:
- work hard, then work harder
- don’t ask for help — you’re on your own
- don’t show emotion — it’s weak
- self-sacrifice is essential
- don’t play, run or make or mess
don’t fill me with delight or make me want to pass on family values.
But I’m encouraged by anthropologist Margaret Mead who pointed out that ‘ancestors’ are not only biological but also ‘spiritual and mental’. Ancestors exist for us in the wider society, in people who influence us and in cultural and creative movements that are more kith than kin.
In this respect I was incredibly blessed. In a church community on the edge of an expanding Teesside town, tucked into woods that I could imagine were a million miles from the eight square miles of flare stacks and cooling towers of the belching industry that was the backdrop of the area, a handful of adults quietly became my kith.
There was a young vicar who saw me as an intellectual successor and fed me theology books, up to date and often controversial, from the age of twelve. There was a Sunday School teacher who became instrumental in my growing sense of vocation, as well as providing a safe second home. There was the local grammar school headmistress who kept a quiet watch and later taught me A level English, an extraordinary woman from a Durham mining village who had been taught by Tolkien and C S Lewis at Oxford and had a passion for ensuring ‘her girls’ didn’t think life should be pinched and mean, but deep and awe-filled.
And there was the man who became my A level Religious Education and Philosophy teacher, who taught me to think unconventionally, question everything and ended each lesson with ‘sufficient to the day is the evil thereof’. Enough. John died a few weeks ago, aged 97. And I can hear him saying that at the end of life — sufficient to the day … Enough!
Later, there were others. Amazing people at university whose kindness, generosity of spirit or constant questing that never settled on easy answers, shaped me further. And an elderly couple in Bristol, Margaret and Rupert, campaigners on issues of equality. Rupert, who had been President of Methodist Conference and was a serious academic introduced me to liberation theology and my PhD thesis in feminist christology was born.
Standing under the yew tree with a group of apprentice herbalists, I realised that my connections back to those who have crossed a threshold that cannot be recrossed, those whose matter has gone into other life, are alive and abundant. And I am filled with gratitude, not only for those who unobtrusively gave me so much and quietly became my kith, but also for the kin, the ones who encouraged a love of story and the ones who, in the midst of their own struggles were often negative and unpredictable, yet have left me with my own quests.
Now, I’m not only a mother but also a grandmother. Standing under the yew, as well as thinking about our ancestors, both kin and kith, we were also mindful of the ancestors we would become. I came away from the circle carrying a round yew seed to plant as a symbol of myself as a future ancestor.
Writing about her life as a musician, Rosanne Cash notes:
Creative work sometimes fosters a prescience — not a psychic premonition, but rather a release from linear time, a fluidity of movement on the continuum.
When we connect deeply, whether to the earth, other lives, in relationships or to our creative work, time bends. We enter a different kind of flow. I’ve written before about kairos, the conception of time that is not about chronology, but the right or ripe time. One of the most important perspective shifts we can make in everyday life is to realise that time, like so many things, is not an absolute.
Time, like any other experience, is as qualitative as it is quantitative, if not more so. We can live more life in one excellent day than others may experience in a lifetime and we can leave a legacy of those excellent days that will go on resonating long after we have returned to the earth. I carried away my yew seed thinking about time, how I use it, how I give it, how its moments in my experience will be memories and legacy for others’ experiences.
Writers are all about story, whether our medium is poetry or essays, short form or novels, story is key. When our writing is flowing and we are experiencing kairos, it can feel as though we are channelling the words that surge through us. There is the odd sensation of the right phrases coming as though from somewhere else. This is how Rowan Fortune puts it:
Writing, for me, is about quiet focus in the rush of a tale’s unfolding, that strange moment when what must be coming from within feels as though it is encountered from without, all preceding the detailed archaeology of editing.
Perhaps it’s because for a short time we have managed to set aside ego and are instead in touch with a deep stream of unconscious normally closed to us as we rush around being busy. But feel it we do, and it’s then that our story has power. The content of that power — in our writing and in how we live — is what we leave behind.
Others have been ancestors to us, how will we be ancestors to the future?
The yew tree is a symbol of life and death, of regeneration and transformation. It is a symbol of deep winter darkness with it’s toxic seeds, bark and leaves. It’s a symbol of ancestry rebirth as its branches bend back to the earth to begin again.
We’re deep into the season of Advent or on our way to the heart of winter, a little more than a week away from Solstice and the shortest day of the year. Winter is an apt time for thinking about the ancestors who have gone before and who helped shape our stories and the ancestors we will one day be. As writers and as guardians of a fragile earth what legacy do we leave?
Go and find a yew tree if you can some time over this winter. Take your journal or a note book and ask yourself:
- What is your ancestor story, both kin and kith?
- How does it shape you and how do you want to respond to that?
- Who is the ancestor you want to become?
Becoming a different story
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