By Casey Peters
The Christmas tree is one of the central totems of the holiday season. A wide variety of conifer species are commonly sold as Christmas Trees around the world including firs, douglas-firs, spruces, pines, and cypresses. But I would like to call attention to a lesser known genus of tree that deserves greater attention* during the holiday season, the yew (Taxus spp.).
The Common Yew (Taxus baccata) pre-dates Christmas as a symbol of wintertime celebration. Pagan festivals honoring the winter solstice such as the Roman festival of Saturnalia used evergreen plants, persistent through the winter months, as a symbol of life. When the Christian holiday co-opted those pagan traditions, the yew was imbued (imb-yewed?) with the significance of that particular brand of religion. According to Wikipedia, “Yew trees continually put out new stems which coalesce with the existing trunk resulting in trees of great age. The merging of old and decaying wood with vibrant young shoots has led to the yew being traditionally associated with reincarnation and immortality.” Ancient yews are often found in churchyards and cemeteries in Northwestern Europe, and the largest are hollowed out to contain chapels.
I would love to hear from other people about the things that first inspired their imagination and curiosity about the natural world and natural history. Creating a collection of those recollections could make a nice little project.
*For my last post, I wrote about the historical aspect of natural history. That got me to thinking about my own history of contemplating the history of the natural world. I surprised myself with some nice memories that I haven’t visited for a very long time. It is amazing how much of our past remains in our minds, and how long memories can stay dormant before swimming to the surface of our consciousness.
It might be science, it might be nons(ci)ense, but it still smells.