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Here we are at the end of tree week—an event which isn’t real anywhere but on this blog and which I didn’t even realize was happening until now. But don’t worry, I’ll be writing more about trees in the future. I really like them. Anyway, to close out this special week I’m going to write about one of my very favorite trees, the yew.
Yews are a family (Taxaceae) of conifers. The most famous member of the family is Taxus baccata, the common yew, a tree sacred to the ancient tribal people of Britain and Ireland. Although their strange animist religion was replaced by Christianity, a cursory look at the literature and history of the English, Irish, and Scottish will reveal that the yew has remained sacred to them–albeit under other guises. The common yew is a small to medium sized conifer with flat, dark green needles. It grows naturally across Europe, North Africa, and Southwest Asia but the English have planted it everywhere they went (so pretty much everywhere on Earth). Yews are entirely poisonous except for the sweet pink berry-like aril which surrounds their bitter toxic cone. The arils are gelatinous and sweet.
Yews grow very slowly, but they don’t stop growing and they can live a very long time. This means that some specimens are ancient and huge. The Fortingall yew which grows in a churchyard in Scotland had a girth of 16 meters (or 52 feet) in 1769. According to local legend Pontius Pilate played under it when he was a boy. This is only a legend: Pilate was not in Britain during his youth. The Fortingall yew however was indeed around back in the Bronze Age long before the Romans came to England. The oldest living thing in Europe, the yew is at least 2000 years old. According to some estimates it is may be thousands of years older than that. It was killed by lackwits, souvenir hunters, and incompetent builders in the early nineteenth century…except actually it wasn’t. The tree merely went dormant for a century (!) before regrowing to its present, substantial girth. It is one of the 50 notable trees of Great Britain designated by the Exalted Tree Council of the United Kingdom to celebrate their revered monarch’s Golden Jubilee.
As noted, the people of the British Isles loved yews but they loved their horses and livestock even more and objected to having them drop dead from eating the toxic plant. This means that they planted the tree in their cemeteries and churchyards (or, indeed, built their churches around ancient sacred groves). According to pre-Christian lore, a spirit requires a bough of yew in order to find the next realm. Many English poems about death and the underworld incorporate the yew tree as a symbol, a subject, or, indeed as a character. Aristocrats also had a fondness for yew because it could be sculpted into magnificent dark green topiary for their formal gardens.
The substantial military prowess of the English during the middle ages depended on longbows made of yew. A good bow needed to be made from a stave cut from the center of the tree so that the inelastic heartwood was next to the springy outer wood. This meant that yews in England were badly overharvested and the English had to continually buy yew from Europe. To quote Wikipedia “In 1562, the Bavarian government sent a long plea to the Holy Roman Emperor asking him to stop the cutting of yew, and outlining the damage done to the forests by its selective extraction, which broke the canopy and allowed wind to destroy neighboring trees.”
Like many toxic plants, the poisonous yew has substantial medical value. The extraordinary Persian polymath Abū ‘Alī al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā’ (who is known in English as Avicenna) used yew to treat heart conditions in the early eleventh century—this represented the first known use of a calcium channel blocker drugs which finally came into widespread use during the 1960’s. Today chemotherapy drugs Paclitaxel and Docetaxel are manufactured from compounds taken from yews. It is believed that the yew’s fundamental cellular nature might yield clues about aging and cellular life cycles (since the yew, like the bristlecone pine, apparently does not undergo deterioration of meristem function). In other words, Yews do not grow old like other living things.
A final personal note: I naturally put a yew tree in my walled garden in Park Slope. It’s the only tree I have planted in New York. It grows very slowly but it is indifferent to drought, cold, or the large angry trees around it. It will probably be the only plant I have planted to survive if I abandon my garden.
Once when I was on a long boring car ride from Rhode Island to New York, I began playing a hypothetical thought game with my friend Mike. I asked what sort of tree he would like to be. My old comrade did not respond by shouting out “purpleheart” or “bubinga” like a normal person, but rather, as is his wont, he asked a series of probing questions.
“Could I move around?” he asked.
“Of course not, you’re a tree,” I replied.
“Well, would I have the intellect of a tree?”
“No, you would have a human’s intellect and senses”
“Wait, could I do anything?”
“You could wave your arms–although it might be the breeze–and of course you could slowly grow…expand your roots deeper into the mountain, that sort of thing” I sagely relied. “I suppose you would be granted extremely long life though, unless you chose to be a…”
“Fie upon that!”* he interjected angrily. “I refuse to play your stupid game. I don’t want to be imprisoned for centuries in some sort of hell tree!”
So that was that. I still don’t know what kind of tree my friend would be (although, now that I think about it, that scenario does seem to be fairly dire). In hopes of enticing him to give me a better answer, here is a gallery of sentient, anthropomorphic trees I found around the internet. The one at the top of the post is a painting titled “General Sherman” by the disconcerting contemporary artist Mark Ryden from his 2007 “Tree Show” and the first one below is “the Brain Tree” a character from an online game who dispatches players on virtual scavenger hunts. As for the rest, I’m not sure. They were not properly attributed to the troubled individuals who designed them. I fear you will just have to let them wash over you without knowing who made them or why. So, without further ado, here are a bunch of anthropomorphic trees:
Wow, that…that got really creepy. It’s just possible (though unlikely) that Mike was right.
(*It should be noted that I have paraphrased this long-ago conversation–partly due to the distorting effects of memory and partly because of coarse language.)
This is Das Paradiesgärtleina, a superb gothic panel painting created in 1410 by an unknown German artist known only as the “Upper Rhenish Master”. Various Saints are oriented around Baby Jesus in a lovely walled garden. The Virgin Mary is at the top left reading a book. To her left Saint Dorothy plucks cherries (then, as now, symbolic of purity) from a stylized cherry tree. Saint Barbara draws clear water from a font, as Saint Catherine helps Baby Jesus play a psalter. To the right St. George sits on the grass with a small dragon dead beside him. He is earnestly talking to the Archangel Michael who has a black demon chained at his feet. St. Oswald, leaning on a tree trunk, seems almost to serve as St. George’s squire. It has been surmised that this painting might depict a knight (in the guise of St. George) entering into heaven.
The real delight of the painting lies in its lovely details. This painting carefully and individually depicts over 27 plants, 12 species of bird, and two insects. Very few paintings depict nature with such precision.
Here is a list of the identified plants:
Lily of the Valley
Here is a list of the birds:
Great Spotted Woodpecker
The work is painted in a tradition of Maria im Rosenhag (Mary in the rose bower), but the Upper Rhenish master has made the convention his own by presenting a garden where virtue and joy, personified by the holy family and the saints, exert easy control over the natural and the supernatural alike.
The question of what makes living things unique from each other is a subtle one. Is a bee hive one colony organism, or is it a thriving city with fifty thousand hard-working, like-minded souls? Is a siphonophore an individual or a group? What about a blood cell or a sponge cell (which can form a whole new sponge)?
As another example of this question (and in keeping with this site’s recent tree theme) consider the quaking aspen, Populus tremuloides. This lovely slender tree is native to cooler regions of North America south of the permafrost. The aspen has glossy bright green leaves and pale smooth bark with occasional black score marks and scars. Along with the poplar, cottonwood, and other aspens, P. tremuloides is a member of the willow family (Salicaceae). It is a plant frequently used by landscapers for its winsome beauty.
So what is remarkable about this tree (aside from its hardiness and prettiness)? Quaking aspens colonies are among the most successful clonal colonies on Earth. Indeed, the largest living organism currently known is a quaking aspen colony in Utah known as “Pando” (which means “I spread” in Latin). Spread over more than 100 acres, Pando masses more than 6000 tons and consists of over 47,000 individual trunks (these clone trees are properly called ramets). Such a colony should be thought of as an immense root network as much as it is thought of as constituent trees. It spreads and propagates by underground suckering. Even if forest fire destroys all of the ramets, the colony can swiftly regenerate from its hidden, protected roots. This ability to survive forest fires and other cataclysms is one of the reasons quaking aspens out-compete hardier (but slower growing) conifers.
As Pando’s ramets wear out and die they are replaced, but the colony itself stays alive. Most botanists estimate Pando to be 80,000 years old, but it could plausibly be a million years old or older (it could also be younger or could have split into multiple colonies—there are uncertainties dealing with something so huge, strange, and ancient). I suppose I should say “he” rather than “it” since Pando is a male (although the poor fellow probably hasn’t flowered in 10,000 years). Many aspens no longer reproduce sexually—possibly because the environment has changed since the ice ages but also because they are—or were—so successful at spreading asexually. Across the west and in parts of Canada, clonal colonies of Aspen are now beginning to die out. Scientists are unsure whether this is because of fire restriction policies of the twentieth century (which were slowly giving an edge to pine trees), further climate change, or because of some wholly unknown factor. Whatever the case, people love quaking aspens, and are planting them everywhere. There was one in front of the stucco row-house in the suburbs where I lived during junior high. Perhaps some of these landscaped specimens will grow into immense clonal colonies themselves over the millennia.
The pre-Christian people of Scandinavia believed in a magical universe of great complexity. They conceived of the cosmos as an immense ash tree, Yggdrasil. Not only did the tree’s great roots wind beneath this world and hold it up; the roots tapped into other realms of existence beyond human reach—perhaps beyond the influence or full understanding of the gods themselves. One root of Yggdrasil tapped into Muspellheim, the realm of fire and heat (home of the hungry fire god who waits to come forth and destroy all existence), while another great root wound down into Nidavellir–the enigmatic realm of the dwarves who scheme and build and fight. One root was in Svartálfaheim, the even more enigmatic realm of the dark elves where unknown evil races carry on a mystery existence. The deepest root of Yggrasil was believed to reach down into Niflheim, the frozen realm of the dead, where Hvergelmir, an eternally cold fountain, nourished the entire tree. Niflheim was the land of primordial cold—the first place to exist (and the last place which will be left as the universe fades and dies).
Niflheim was also the Norse underworld (although, as the first paragraph indicates, there were many different underworlds and otherworlds in Norse cosmology). Niflheim which means “Land of Mist” was the frozen land of the damned and the unhappy dead, where non-heroic souls were slated to spend eternity. Those who died of sickness old age, or common injury were destined to go to the great grim hall of Hel, the death goddess of the Norse pantheon and the ruler of Niflheim (who deserves her own post). Truly destitute, evil, or abject spirits washed up on Nastrond, the haunted shore, where they would wonder through the dreadful cold, tormented by defeated frost giants and great ice monsters.
The fountain Hvergelmir was the very deepest part of Niflheim. This fountain was believed to be the original point of creation of all things—the oldest part of the universe from whence all things initially came and to whence all things must eventually return far beyond Ragnarök, after the final destruction of all possible existences. The frost giant Ymir’s body was composed of water which came from Hvergelmir (and the universe was made out of Ymir’s body after Odin, Vili, and Vé, slew him and cut him apart). Just above Hvergelmir, the giant serpent Níðhöggr gnawed unceasingly on Yggrdrasil’s roots in the hopes of someday bringing down the entire tree (Yggrasil was constantly threatened by dragons, giants, deer, rot and all other manner of danger). Hvergelmir was guarded by Ivaldi and his sons, dark warriors charged with defending Hel’s realm against the frost giants. But neither Ivaldi, nor his sons, nor Hel herself and her legions of damned could do anything about the fearsome Níðhöggr slowly eating away at the fundamental roots of existence.
It has been a while since I posted anything about my garden. Late spring’s great suffusion of roses is long gone. My roommate pulled up my last toad lily during a one day reign of terror. She also killed the hapless iris, pulled up the tulips, and unpotted several unlucky caladiums (however that terrible incident is now long passed). Currently the garden’s plants seem wearied and wilted by July’s melting heat. All of them are quiescent except for one: the mighty and sovereign king of the garden is unfazed by hundred degree heat and blazing sun. Neither drought nor inundation can touch it. It is the main feature of my garden (even if it is technically in the neighbor’s yard) so I have decided to blog about the hateful but extraordinary Norway maple tree (Acer platanoides).
The maple is magnificent. It is taller than the four story brick townhouses around it and it spreads as wide as it is tall. From March to December it is covered with big beautiful yellow-green leaves. It has a strong handsome trunk and a lovely shape. But, to quote Wikipedia, “Unfortunately, despite its good looks and urban hardiness, [the Norway maple] releases chemicals to discourage undergrowth which tends to create bare, muddy run-off conditions immediately beneath the tree.” That ‘area beneath the tree” compromises the majority of my flower garden—and the tree doesn’t stop with herbicidal chemicals. Throughout the entire year it drops all sorts of stuff. First it drizzles a layer of sticky sap in spring, followed by bushy chartreuse flowers, and then by countless thousands of helicopter seeds. The seeds burst into life everywhere and must be constantly weeded out of all pots and beds. In autumn the maple drops enough yellow leaves to smother the garden outright. Winter brings showers of twigs and limbs.
The trees around the Norway maple are afraid of it and are trying to escape. The black cherry in my yard is bending away from the maple and trying to escape through the neighbor’s workshop roof. Next door, a little ornamental tree is leaning away at a 45 degree angle. All smaller plants within twenty feet of it that are not in pots wind up dead. Every time I have put a trowel in the ground I have uncovered one or more of the tree’s roots. I imagine it in slow motion over the years, wracking surrounding stone and concrete and leaving the lesser trees dead or growing away from it as best they can. Its as though a fifty foot tall green Viking sprouted up over the course of a decade.
Naturally the Norway maple is an invader. People brought it from Europe and Southwest Asia where it is one of the dominant trees. They planted it here until it suddenly dawned on them what a mean & aggressive plant it truly is. Now it is banned in several states.
Though seemingly impervious to diseases, insects, and other plants, the mighty maple has two implacable enemies. Summer thunder storms are capable of breaking its huge limbs as are the nor’easters which range up and down the Atlantic coast later in the year. A bough dislodged by a virulent winter gale smashed the fence to bits last winter. Finally humans are a threat to the tree: dodgy electricians (I’m not saying ConEd) ran a big electric wire right through its central fork. Whenever the maple sways in the wind, it blackens and sparks around the wire. I worry that someday the electric company and the elements will conspire to bring the whole thing smashing down in a maelstrom of rock hard limbs and sizzling wires.
Ulfilas (ca. 310 – 383) was a missionary and translator who lived during the tumultuous era when the Roman Empire morphed into an entirely different sort of society. His parents were Anatolians who were enslaved by mounted Gothic raiders during one of the wars of that time. After growing up among the Goths, he was raised to the rank of bishop by Eusebius of Nicomedia, the priest who baptized Constantine the Great (the “thirteenth apostle” who remade Europe and lands beyond into Christian domains).
Bishop Ulfilas again left the Empire to proselytize among the Germanic tribes of the Goths. When threatened by an overbearing chieftan, he was allowed to take his Christian followers into the Roman territory of Moesia (in today’s Bulgaria). There, Ulfilas created a Gothic alphabet, based largely on Greek, but with Roman and Runic letters also involved. Bishop Wulfila (as Ulfilas came to be known in his new alphabet) translated the bible into Gothic, the oldest known Germanic tongue. [As a personal aside for my readers, English is of course a Germanic language.] Wulfila was an Arian Christian who rejected the Trinitarian Christological dogma which is nearly universal in Catholic and Protestant churches today.
Here is the alphabet Bishop Wulfila created:
Why am I writing about this? It serves as deep back-story for my exploration of the aesthetic & cultural concept of “Gothic”. The history of that word is a sprawling epic which twists its way through western history with bizarre twists and dark flourishes as strange as any found in Gothic art.
Catfish are an ancient order of fish. Fossilized catfish from the Cretaceous period have been discovered–which means catfish coexisted with dinosaurs (and survived the cataclysm which wiped those great reptiles from the earth). The fossil specimens pictured here are from the Green River formation, an Eocene era Lagerstätten in Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. They are from approximately 48 million years ago. These catfish lived in Lake Gosiute a large lake abounding with fish including freshwater stingrays, paddlefish, trout, perch, gars, suckers, mooneyes, bowfins, and great shoals of herring-like Knightia (a fish well known to fossil collectors and rock store owners). The catfish are discovered in what were the depths of the lake, where they could avoid the sinister Borealosuchus, an extinct crocodile which thrived in the warmer climate of the Eocene.
Q. You used to do quirky movies like Raising Arizona and Leaving Las Vegas. Why the shift to the mainstream?
Cage. Part of the reason why I’m even here tonight is that I believe world peace begins at home. And if I can in my own little way contribute to that, if I can keep families smiling, that’s one less angry child that goes out in the world and makes a mistake like drugs or violence.