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Hanging Out With Very Old Trees

There are several Saxon yews dotted around the ancient woodland, and along the trackways and holloways of my local area. There's one very special one, tucked away deep in the woods, that I'd like to tell you about.

Thick trunk of an ancient yew tree with fallen branches and new growth against a background of green light
Ancient yew in the forest with windfallen branches

Sunlight shining through silhouetted old yew branches
Sun shining through old growth

To get to it there's a thin and winding path, more of a well-trodden animal run that you go along. There are plenty of signs of wildlife here - you can see deer and badger prints if you keep an eye out. This little muddy track twists and turns, and you know you're getting near the yew when you pass the big mossy log on the left with all it's various shades of green earth fur. The log has that kind of colour chart effect. You know the one - everything from golden yellows to deep emerald greens with everything in between?


Walking a little further, all of a sudden it comes into view, this big old yew. This tree stands timeless. There it is, stood in its own space, casting shadow and shade all around.


Looking up at the thick trunk of an ancient yew tree
Ancient yew

There's a feeling here. It's like a place of time between times, something you can't quite put your finger on, a liminal place - like a veil you could almost touch or reach through to step back a thousand years or more. As you look up high, the yew's tallest branches are swaying and speaking in the wind, talking on another level to the other trees or whoever's listening. This old tree has so much character, and you can wander slowly around, observing the twists and turns - the dead and alive all at the same time.


I like to study the surface of trees, to look for the obvious faces and features. Most of the time though, I just intuitively take pics and then look when I return home. Then they just jump out. I sometimes wonder if there are the souls of people stored in these trees? If these are the faces that I see in them. I know it's easy to dismiss, but we're talking really old trees here that the ancestors must have had feelings for, and revered. You can find many of these old yew trees in church grounds or graveyards in England.


Forest background with ancient yew and windfallen branches in the foreground
Windfallen branches and new growth

We measure the trunks of these bigger trees to determine a rough age. Many yew trees grow with a fluted form to their trunks so the surface has a lot of undulating growth. You can best visualise this if you think of a classic slice through a tree trunk, and seeing the annual growth rings and how the outer bark edge is wavy. Obviously we don't want to see it this way in real life because it means the death of an ancient tree, but you get the meaning, yeah? Using a tape or large length of cord around such a yew means it can only touch the outer limits of the lobes and that there are gaps devoid of surface wood in the measurement, so the tree will likely be older than the measurement if you also take that into account - sometimes much older.


Looking up inside the hollow trunk on an old yew tree
Looking up inside a hollow old yew

There are other factors to take into consideration too - how much light the tree gets, whether there are other trees really close by, how nutrient rich the soil in that area is, how much moisture there is through the years. Specific habitat factors vary so much and really do influence the growth of trees. Over the long life of an ancient tree, these factors can have a big influence on the circumference of the trunk, and the overall size of the tree.


Gnarly inside surface of an ancient yew trunk
Inside an ancient yew trunk

There's another reason why a cross section of an ancient yew wouldn't be good for aging it - counting the annual growth rings can't always give us the answer we're seeking. Many yews over four hundred years of age will have begun to hollow in their middle, so there are no older growth rings to see or count anymore. This hollowing process comes about naturally by fungi that causes rot in the heartwood. This is very normal for ancient yew trees (and other species) and is part of a natural regeneration process which can take hundreds of years and more to complete.


With many ancient yews the hollow is big enough for a person, or two, to climb into. Staring into the hollow centre, the deep dark pit and then the light streaming in from above is an amazing sight! It's an incredible thing to be able to sit inside a tree of this age - you get a different view of the woods, and often a bonus feeling of connectedness and peace. Just sit and take it all in, just breathe, be in the moment. It's a different kind of tree hugging.


Deep green yew leaves with small pale brown flowers showing
Yew leaves and flowers

As the hollowing process continues, and with trees this age, you'll often see some of the longest limbs touch the earth at their furthest points. They stretch out in all directions, like arms clad in deep green leaves. They cast shade onto the ground below, and very often nothing else will ever grow in this area. This probably further adds to the folklore of death about this tree.


The branches touching the earth eventually take root and form another tree, or is it the same tree but just very slowly moving across the woodland? Some ancient yews really do give the impression that they are slowly, slowly walking across the land. I really think this is where the myth and folklore of Ents comes from - you know, the famous tree of Fangorn forest.


Gnarly roots of an ancient yew tree with woodland showing in the background
Ancient roots

Everything they do is done at a different pace, a different speed to humans and other life. When the life of a tree spans over ten centuries or more, one summer must seem like the blink of an eye, and a person's life must seem fleeting. Most growth on an ancient yew is imperceptible and as such over the course of an average human lifetime it would appear to not grow at all.


The gradual putting down and rooting of branches, the growth of a new part of the tree, the movement of yews across the land is like a slow-motion game of Grandmother's Footsteps lasting lifetimes.





Entwined roots in the shadows with sunlit leaves behind
Entwined yew roots in the forest light


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16 Comments


Thank you. This made my heart and soul very happy.

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This is a beautiful read. Thank you for sharing!

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Thank you for sharing this lovely post !

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The legend is that it was planted in the year of the Spanish Armada

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A Yew tree that has the spirits around it. This tree is in the churchyard of the Priston church near Bath.


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woodlarker
woodlarker
Oct 30, 2023
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Beautiful!

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