The Yew, our memory guardians
There is a lot of lore around Yew trees, but I can assure you that it’s mostly mistaken, only ever part-right, the consequence of the world seen through half-opened eyes. The only thing the lore makers have gotten right, is that Yew lore is different from the lore of other trees. All tree species have their specific magic, power, and meaning.
People who are much more learned than I will tell you that Yews are associated with death and rebirth, and therefore eternity. They will tell you that Yews represent timelessness and the intelligence of the night. The Yew, they say, protects us against evil, which it very well might, but only through its true function.
The Yew is associated with death for two reasons: because it is toxic, and because it makes a remarkable longbow. However if you follow time’s arrow, you will find a very different meaning for the Yew. The Yew is associated with rebirth and therefore timelessness, not because they are very long-lived, but for the reason they themselves choose to live so long: memory. Long life is necessary to contain it.
The truth is that the Yew is the memory tree and this works in at least two ways.
Firstly, Yews contain our memories. This is why a wood studded with these ancient trees feels so dark: because they are full of several billion histories at any given time. When the world had fewer people, Yew forests didn’t seem so dark; but now, these old trees are required to contain so many lives that we feel their weight and burden as we walk amongst them. If you flinch and turn away from the weight, you will come to think of the Yew a place of darkness, fearing their strength and power. However, if you stop and wonder why darkness is your first impression, you will very quickly realise that Yews are a shelter: a strong place of tree iron which scaffolds and girds our myriad lives. They are dark because they are full of the all of us and what is it you contain?
The reason there is so much dead wood about a Yew, is because these are our forgotten memories. They are the ones you push down and block out, or simply fail to find the value in over time. The Yew holds them there about itself, even as you try to forget. This is why it is dangerous to take a dead Yew branch for a wand or staff without first checking from whose power you will draw your magic. It goes without saying that you should never take a living branch.
Yew trees grow so haphazardly because our lives do. It is hard to know if the Yew would grow so if it had chosen a different job, or a different species of memory to house. It is difficult to know if a fox’s life is so chaotic, but I strongly suspect a rabbit’s is. So the Yew must follow our erratic twists and turns and in this way, become itself a representation of the myriad changes in direction of our lives.
There is also another way in which the Yew is the memory tree: if you walk by Yews for long enough, you will come to remember your own life in unexpected ways. You will literally find past selves which the Yews have sequestered, and slowly assimilate them back into the core of you. You will notice, as the Yew passing accumulates, that the centre of you grows more bulbous and solid and with it, your potential to sprout anew with all the loves you thought lost to your past. This is why there are so many Yews planted along the old ways, as the early pilgrims knew what we have forgotten: that to walk with the Yew is to be replenished and renewed by history.
So there you have it. The Druids were right to worship in the groves of the Yew, and if you have your wits about you, so will you. It is true that we all have memories we wish we could forget, lives we wish we never lived, knowledge we wish we were innocent of, but this is not a reason to fear the Yew or to think of them as a place of darkness. The Yews are the guardians of our memories and that is a reason to turn to them in gratitude and wonder, and to give them thanks for doing the work we are often not strong enough to.