Saturday, October 22, 2011

"Return to the Holy Yew"

This blogger & the ancient, possibly pre-Christian Yew at St. Mary's Churchyard,
Cusop, Herefordshire, on the border with Wales August 16, 2010.
I've had a few, clear spiritual experiences in my life. I don't often share them as I hold them most sacred. This one, I think was a spiritual manifestation, and I share it here mainly because, unlike the others, it doesn't make any sense. Maybe somebody can help me figure it out.

During our trip to England and Wales a year ago last summer, I awoke one morning early with a start. I remembered no dream but a very clear and distinct message in my head, "Return to the Holy Yew." I told it to my wife and later that morning to our other travelling companions sharing the farmhouse at Blaendigeddi Fawr high on the slopes of the Black Mountains.

It was extremely odd because I had only the vaguest idea of what a yew tree was. I seemed to recall some connection to the word "yeoman," the heroic archers of medieval Britain whose name came to be attached to the lower class of freemen property owners. None of our group in the farmhouse that morning could readily describe a yew tree. And I surely had read about it before but hadn't retained any conscious knowledge.

We had seen them, of course, and during the next few days in our whirlwind of discovery in ancient ancestral lands, we learned more and more about the yew. That same day, my dad's cousin found a pamphlet in one of the churches describing the ancient yew in Cusop churchyard that is estimated to be 2,000 years old! That is the tree I am standing by in the picture above which, at the time, we thought was just a really cool, big, old tree! The next day I inquired in the Powys Archives whether all the yews we were finding in churchyards had any religious significance. The Archivist responded that it was just an old custom. Another woman at a microfilm machine piped up, "Oh no! There is a superstition that they protect against evil spirits and that is why they are in churchyards!" This was getting more interesting.

With our attention stirred, we began to notice the yews everywhere. Well, at least everywhere in churchyards, but that is where a lot of our family history interest was focused.

Our party under a yew at St. Mary's, Hay-on-Wye, Wales, August 16, 2010
My aunt under a yew on the backside of St. Mary's, Hay-on-Wye, August 16, 2010
A beautiful yew at St. Michael Archangel, Cwmdu, Wales, August 19, 2010
The next week when my wife and I were in Glastonbury, I found a book I had to buy from a witch (well, at least I think she thought she was a witch as she portrayed herself that way - Glastonbury is a little odd). Anyway, The book is Tree Heritage of Britain and Ireland: A Guide to the Famous Trees of Britain and Ireland, by Andrew Morton (Airlife Publishing, Ramsbury, Malborough, Wiltshire, 2004). From that book and sources on the net I began to put together some yew-lore from sites such as The yew - sacred tree of transformation and rebirth,and this "Druid" site on the yew.

The yew is an evergreen of biologically ancient origins. As an evergreen, it was a natural, pre-Christian symbol of eternal life adopted by the Christians. In fact, many Christian churches were built on the site of ancient pagan religious practices consisting of groves of yew on small hills. Circular churchyards in Wales and other Celtic parts of Britain and Ireland are thought to represent this. The yew wood itself is poisonous and supposedly, the scent of the evergreen boughs under the hot sun can induce a sense of euphoria, maybe even leading to hallucinogenic results (I swear I wasn't sniffing yew before I went to bed that night!) And the yew was the source of the best wood for bows in medieval times. They would use the wood surrounding the inner core because of its strength tempered with the elasticity of the newer, outer wood. Kings would encourage the protection of yew trees for the superior qualities in longbows. And it was those British yeomen, with their longbows of yew, who helped defeat the French at Agincourt.

Not being the expert horticulturalist myself, I had never realized until I returned home from Britain that I had some unidentified evergreen shrubbery around my house that looked an awful lot like the yew boughs. I cut off a piece including some of the red berries and took it to the local nursery. Sure enough, it was Hicks yew. They advised me that it was a shrub variety that would not grow as huge as the ones we saw in British churchyards - not that I'm going to be around 2,000 years to find out. It is a comfort to find the yew around my house. Here's hoping it protects us from evil spirits!

Our Hicks yew shrubbery
Reflecting on my odd "message," I connected that it had come the night after we had visited that ancient yew at Cusop. (By the way, Cusop is pronounced "KEW-sup") I'm still hoping that there will be some significant meaning to that churchyard. There are a few links to Cusop in my family history. Maybe the message was from one of them. I'm still working on it.

And I do so want to return.

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