Fly on the Wall—Requiem for a Yew Tree

Academic disciplines are by nature exclusive in their views.  The word discipline says it all; disciplinary actions invoke strictures and disciplinary biases reveal a denuded emperor within any thought structure.  There are no limits to creativity as the re-forming of reality; learning is as much about unlearning prior beliefs than about gaining information.  In the trades, woodworkers and foresters learn to cut wood on a bias and to fit; measure twice and cut once, right?

But different measurements can produce an assortment of meanings.  Here in my humble rural orchard abode an aged but thriving yew tree received the sawblade treatment as part of a larger demolition and reconstruction project of a derelict farmhouse.  It was sad to see the yew go but there are many ways to see and feel in any moment; likewise, we forge the themes of our studies.

Time Defines Meaning Too, at AU and for a Yew

Any organism or idea shortly dissolves under analysis; the living energy of a subject largely depends on us, the viewer or learner.  As one of the more impressive evergreens, Taxus americanus (and other species of the Taxus genus) not only produces bright red berries that are treated as toxic or medicinal depending upon who you ask, but the yew also is one of the most long-lived trees (or shrubs, for it can live in either phylogenetic form thus illustrating promiscuity in the nature of being a being and likewise the academic potential of interdisciplinary studies).

Yew trees are paragons of the virtue of botanic longevity and social meaning.  Perhaps because of their long life, yew trees are ascribed with cultural meanings.  Examples of the yew in a human context include:

“The Third Witch in Macbeth mentions, as a constituent of the cauldron’s brew, ‘slips of yew slivered in the moon’s eclipse’ (Macbeth: Act 4, Scene 1).  Being an evergreen and famed for its longevity, it has also been associated both with death and immortality.  Within the last decade it has been recognised that the pseudoalkaloids of various species of yew are powerful antimitotic agents, useful in certain cancers which are refractory to other drugs.  It is a slow-growing evergreen tree that may reach a height of 25 metres (80 feet).  Its bark is rust red and its leaves needle-like and dark green.” (Lee, online).

“According to Richard Mabey in his Flora Britannica … no other type of ancient tree occurs so frequently inside church grounds …’

And that’s because: “People buried yew shoots with the deceased and used boughs of yew as ‘Palms’ in church at Easter.”

“Robert the Bruce ordered bows to be made from the sacred yews at Ardchattan Priory in Argyll.  These were then used during the Scots’ victorious battle at Bannockburn in 1314” (Trees for Life, online).

The Personal is…Personalized Roots

Evergreens are impressive in winter partly because they remind us that learning is like life: it flourishes both in and out of season if we allow nature to take its course.  Redolent with significance back to Roman times, yew trees seem to resonate with a sense of mystery about life and death.  Creativity, being the metamorphic and corporeal essence of both, seems to gather at the roots of a yew tree.  “Robert Turner in his book Botanoaotia written in 1636, makes a graveyard appear to be a fearful place.  He states;

“If the yew be set in a place subject to poisonous vapours, the very branches will draw and imbibe them, hence it is conceived that the judicious in former times planted it in churchyards on the West side, because those places, being fuller of putrefaction and gross oleaginous vapours exhaled out of the graves by the setting sun and sometimes drawn by those meteors called ‘lgnes fatui’, divers have been frightened, supposing some dead bodies to walk, not that it is able to drive away Devils as some superstitious monks have imagined.” (Turner in Partridge, online).  The Symbolic, the Sacred, the Empirical: Yew’s Got to Know What you Know?

Anyone who’s seen a necklace or other ornament bearing the traditional tree of life, and perhaps wondered about this ancient pagan symbol’s connection to the hippie peace sign or the Christian crucifix, or even to the X and Y axis that somehow unites both trigonometry and watercolour paintings together at an ever-diminishing vanishing point on an imagined horizon, or pondered latitude and longitude (where am  I, man?), or considered the ways and means of constructing a dog or bird or cat or kiddie house on a sunny Sunday, can catch the drift that a tree’s natural form may, just may, be essential to all other forms of human cognition.  After all, we humans have evolutionary ancestors that stride back millions of years and, once upon a time, didn’t even walk straight, at least at a certain time and a certain place 3.6 million years ago (David, online).

A crooked mile may be fun to traverse down at your local brick and mortar college campus but to remain steady in our distance studies means that we must embrace not only meaning and purpose but also a realistic and pragmatic trajectory for our learning life.  Just as the yew goes down many hermeneutic paths, so to is it up to us to interpret reality lest it disappear along with the sands of time and change.

Just as no academic discipline can fully define our lives, the meaning of any organism, like our learning, depends not only on the biopic reality of an ecosystem but also on the very human narrative of life itself.  History runs through, and runs us through biologically as we age, and in that sense we and our learning are no exception to the reality of entropy: all things must, by nature, end.  Human life can seem short and fleeting and so it is within the grand cosmic picture; this is why distance education can drag on or bring us a spark on a daily and/or life-long basis.

David, A.  (2021).  ‘Mysterious Footprints From 3.6 Million Years Ago in Africa Were Made by Unknown Hominim’.  Retrieved from
Lee, M.R.  (1998).  ‘The Yew Tree (Taxus baccata) in Mythology and Medicine’.  Royal College of Physicians: Edinburgh.  Retrieved from
Partridge, T.  (1993).  ‘Trees in Mythology, Legend, Symbolism and Religion’.  Ancient Yew Group.  Retrieved from
Trees for Life.  (2021).  ‘Rewilding the Scottish Highlands’.  The Park, Findhorn Bay, Forres, Moray.  Retrieved from