So wrote Henry Vaughan (1621-1695) of the yew tree in his collection of poems known as Silex Scintillans.
Vaughan, born and buried at Llansantffraid-on-Usk near Brecon in mid-Wales, would have known of the venerable yew trees found in the churchyards of his home area, such as at Llanfeugan and at Defynnog. Further afield, he may also have seen the circle of yews that surrounds the church at Llanelli in Monmouthshire or the vast specimen that has almost taken over the churchyard at Llanerfyl in Powys.
On pilgrimage to and from my home in the Brecon Beacons National Park, I quite frequently see wonderful examples of ancient yews, such as those mentioned above which can be found in mid- Wales. However there are also splendid examples in the north of the country such as at Gwytherin and Llangernyw in the Snowdonia area. But wherever I walk, as I chat with people along the way, I find others are often equally intrigued by these extraordinary trees.
But how much do we really know about the ancient yews of Wales?
I’d like to suggest a little quiz so please read the following statements and think about whether they are true or false;
The yew trees in Welsh churchyards are amongst the oldest living things in Europe
All parts of the yew are poisonous apart from the berries
Yew wood from southern Europe had to be imported to make archers’ bows in the Middle Ages because the way it grows in colder climates makes it unsuitable for that purpose
How did you get on? Well, the statements are all true and I hope you got them all right.
But, of course, the mystery of yew trees goes beyond learning about them as botanical specimens or their practical uses in ensuring people didn’t bring their livestock into the churchyard. We, like Henry Vaughan, sense that these trees are beyond price and seemingly immortal and it is their almost mystical quality that seems to attract us.
Until not so long ago, before the era of leylandii hedges and conifer plantations, the yew would have stood out in our landscape as an example of a large and evergreen tree. It is this evergreen quality that seems to have spoken to our forebears of an immortality without price.
It is also often suggested that the yew was an important symbol in pre- Christian culture in Wales and beyond. This can be difficult to establish but it does seem to be true that from the earliest days of the Christian faith in Britain, the yew was seen as a sign of the eternal life that God offers us in Jesus.
Indeed, the very oldest trees would have been saplings in the Age of the Saints and may have been planted to mark an early ‘llan’ or sacred enclosure with a simple church.
Perhaps with those Christian communities of so long ago, we too need to be reminded that God’s love and life are everlasting, just as the yew and its foliage seem to be immortal.At this time of year, as winter draws to a close, we can look to our yew trees to remind us of God’s priceless and eternal love.