While reading on the blogs of some gals, who are currently going through chemo, I have been reminded of the immense respect and love I now feel for the beautiful Pacific Yew tree. These complex and gnarly trees are in a fabled family associated with mystery from way way back. Like two hundred million years ago way back. Everything about them is steeped in references to death and the liminal threshold to the otherworld. Not least of which because everything except the luminous cup of the fruit is poisonous. The leaves, the seed, the bark, the wood – all deadly poison.
“The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.”
Sylvia Plath, The Moon and the Yew tree
In December 2013, the same week I started chemo, including Taxotere – a famously Yew derived drug, six Elk were found dead in Clatsop County. An investigation proposed that they had died after eating English Yew branches in a Warrenton cemetery. (Arguably the elk were hungry due to recent habitat disruption in the form of clearcuts to make way for big box stores- My question is, Is it possible the elk were in fact acting as environmental protesters? Suicide by non-native plant?) Obviously laying on the couch thinking about dead elk with the taxane chemo freshly flowing through my body was not reassuring. I had a choice, either reframe how I felt about it, or be consumed with dread.
“The Yew is considered to be the most potent tree for protection against evil, a means of connecting to your ancestors, a bringer of dreams and otherworld journeys and a symbol of the old magic.” *
So I set out to learn about Yew Trees. Her dark beauty adorns the Clatsop County courthouse, Shively Hall, and numerous cemeteries around here. Though not just around here, she is planted throughout the Northern Hemisphere in churchyards and other sacred places because of her strong symbolic connection to both death and rebirth. Though most often it is the English Yew which is planted, even here in the Northwest. There are Yew trees in Europe estimated to be over 4,000 years old.
The Pacific Yew is an understory tree, very slow growing with very hard wood. It was of great importance to the Indigenous peoples of the Northwest. Recognized for its spiritual potency, healing powers, and practical uses for everything from fish spears to drum frames and canoe paddles and bows. All yews are known for their ability to split open and yet continue to live unhindered by disease. They often rot out on the inside, continuing to live long lives while hollow, making aging one via growth rings near impossible.
One of the first things I learned is the estimate that it requires the bark from approximately ten Pacific Yew trees in order to make enough Taxol to treat one breast cancer patient. Which made me question if I really wanted to receive the drug. Was my life really worth the lives of ten rare and sacred trees? I was reassured by my oncologist that a massive ten year effort in the 1990’s resulted in sourcing the Taxol from cultivated sources, rather than wildcrafted from old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. This line of questioning is in part what inspired said doctor to joke to my nurse navigator that he felt like he was in a Portlandia episode sometimes during our appointments.
Yew wood from various species was used to make bows in the both the old and new worlds. In Medieval times arrows in Europe were tipped in poison made from the leaves. Remember the scene in Henry the V in which the Welsh longbowman save the day? Those bows were Yew. Longbow usage faded with the decline in the Yew tree due to over harvest. The advent of practical guns finished the tradition off, and the understanding on how to make and use them was mostly lost. I find the risk to the Pacific Yew from over harvesting for use as a cancer drug has many correlations with the near demise of her European cousin for use in the cancer of War.
The elk died the swift death of a yew dipped arrow by eating of the foliage in the cemetery. While what I was facing with Chemo was something different.
” …and slips of yew Slivered in the moon’s eclipse…”
a witch in MacBeth
Yew was an ingredient for the cauldron chanted by the third witch in Macbeth. Speaking of the potency of the in between spaces, the power of uncertainty. This whispers of another darker use of the yew, one that is more like the dark decent into chemo, than the swift death of an arrow. All of which makes me feel that I am coming more from a Shakespearian perspective than a Portlandia one. Including Yew in a chemo witches brew draws from a deep pool of spirits, of both the darkness and the light. “Here, we give to you this poison, so that you might live.” Is that not Shakespearian? Is that not like the Macbeth witches promising both kingship and downfall?
And what of Yew’s qualities of protection? Might befriending Yew allow her dark cloak to obscure one from the very eyes of death? Perhaps, but there is a price. Side effects of Taxol turn your nails into something to rival the nails of a corpse, give nausea, pain in joint and limb, extra sensitivity to light, numbing of hand and foot, sores on lip and in mouth, the loss of hair, and death of your very blood cells. After weathering all that, the hope is that the cancering cells will have slipped away into the afterlife, leaving your healthy cells to recover and proliferate.
It seemed to me that even if the drug is synthesized it retains its connection to the deep roots of the Ancient Yew. That even if 10 trees didn’t die to save my one life that many have died for human concerns over the centuries. I started to thank the spirit of Yew when I went in for my infusions, visualizing moonlight shining down on my body. I pictured the beautiful leaves, and the blood red bell like fruits. When I go for walks up at Shively I bow and give thanks to the two sentinel Yews growing there even now.
Chemo therapy is a dark sorcery. It is apt that in my case it made use of a plant with a long history of both protection from evil, and with evil deeds. My nails and hair have grown back, and the numbness has mostly abated in the two years since my last draught of poison. But I am not unmarked by my dealings with Yew. She has earned my respect, and my enduring gratitude. I have come to believe that she has a gentleness like the effigy in the Sylvia Plath poem, like her soft deadly needles. That she may offer redemption when all else seems lost. Surrendering into the embrace of Yew is not for the faint of heart, one does not emerge unchanged from venturing into the liminal spaces guarded by her. But I am finding the changes are worth the risk.
“Our ancestors revered the Yew above all other trees. It has always been held sacred and understood as a link with death and rebirth. It was used by early man for making weapons, tools of death, and now thousands of years later it is providing a possibility of averting death for cancer patients. It is a powerful reconnection to humankind for this tree when you consider that each person with cancer has to face their own death, whether they are cured or not. One of the most valuable abilities of the Yew is to provide the opportunity for people to turn and face death, to progress beyond fear to a communication with what is beyond our reality, which will bring understanding, clear insight, enriched by a deeper experience of life.” *
*Both quotes from a page on the yew at: http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/yew.htm
An excellent article to learn more about Pacific Yew, especially its ethnobotanical profile can be found Here.