The inspiring story of a walking pilgrimage across Britain to gather stories of yew trees and raise money for Cambrian Wildwood. Cancer treatment uses a medicine derived from yew, which prompted this journey of gratitude and discovery. The relationship between our health and health of the land is explored.
In July of 2021, Lindsay Alderton set off on a pilgrimage to visit some of the iconic ancient yew trees of Britain. Starting at Llandre, not far from the wildwood site, her journey began with walking over 150 miles during her first 6 weeks. Lindsay is fundraising for the Cambrian Wildwood, inspired by our work connecting people and nature.
“I was lucky enough to stay in Machynlleth during the Autumn/Winter lockdown of 2020, and it was during this time I learned about the amazing work of Coetir Anian,” she says, “To meet the challenges of these times, and the interlinking nature of the climate and mental health crisis, we need more projects like these which centre human and habitat health.”
Lindsay is sharing the story of her pilgrimage on her social media. With her permission, we have taken some of her words and pictures to convey the first leg of her journey.
During my treatment for breast cancer in 2019, I learned that the chemotherapy I was receiving is derived from the yew. I resolved then to make a pilgrimage to meet and thank the great yews of this land when I was well enough. From that point on a story of fear was transformed into one of curiosity and wonder, especially on learning more about the yew’s astonishing capacity for regeneration and renewal.
How might the healing of the body support the healing of the land?
How might the radical imagination help reframe narratives around sickness and fear?
And how might making deliberate acts of praise bring us into right relationship with the Earth?
These are some of the questions I’ll be exploring during a walking pilgrimage across Britain.
It will be a journey to give thanks to this extraordinary tree, and to celebrate its place in the cultural landscape – historic, ecological and mythical.
First day walking the yew tree pilgrimage today and accompanied by amazing cancer nurse Mandy Edwards, who lives near Borth. Humbling to hear of others who found strength in coming into kinship with the yew as an alternative to the battle narrative usually associated with cancer.
Even if survival wasn’t always the outcome, Mandy said, and not negating the terrible heartbreak of losing lives too soon, she still saw patients finding some sense of larger meaning coming into connection with the Earth. Perhaps it is healing from this notion of separation which is so paramount for these times.
Set some intentions and made some prayers at the 2,000 year old yew in Llandre, a yew that appears to be three different trees but actually they all spring from one single trunk under the ground, the result of being struck by lightning in the Middle Ages.
To get to the yew at Llanrhystud you have to clamber through a graveyard of waist-high meadow grasses, tapestried with long-limbed daisies, yarrow and yellow rattle. It was dusk, full moon, no one else was about. I felt a sense of foreboding, as if I was doing something wrong.
The churchyard was overgrown, ancient gravestones dappled in lichen, and the further I descended into the wilderness the more at home it started to feel. Death, like life, was being reclaimed by an ecology which predated protocols of politeness.
During the latter stages of chemotherapy a similar reframing – one of being rewilded – had been helpful to support the cumulative cognitive bewilderment from 18 weeks of treatment. At this stage language itself had become loose around the edges, with thoughts like drunken sailors slippery at sea.
To imagine the yew at that point as a teacher, a healer, a bringer of fierce medicine, became a lifeline and map through a larger ordeal. What it asked for was not battle, but surrender. To trust that even the utterly incomprehensible has its place. It asked for a deeper letting go into a language beyond words.
Finally through the grasses of the graveyard I kneel before the yew, in my hand a small token crafted during the previous day walking. After awaiting a few moments and listening in for consent, I place the quartz encrusted driftwood, deep as a prayer in the body of this living ancient.
Trees have always held a special place across various human cultures and the yew, with its extraordinary capacity to live for thousands of years, has much to teach humans about healing and regeneration. They have an amazing capacity for renewal and endurance, being able to return to life from apparent decay, and have borne witness through the eons to the fluctuating patterns and shapings of history and civilisation.
Many yews are so old that they predate the accompanying churches. Some say earlier Earth-honouring indigenous cultures venerated these groves, and the relationships between all living things, as sacred. The yews pointed to nature’s power of renewal, the cycle of seasons, birth and death and new birth.
So were the yews planted, or were they already growing on these sites long before human intervention? Not knowing their precise origins isn’t such a bad thing. It makes space beyond essentialism for a plurality of different stories. It decentres human experience as primary and makes space for a different kind of relating with that wild and fleeting thing – mystery.
It was lush to mark the 70th mile of this pilgrimage by walking to the infamous bleeding yew in Nevern with Sonia, a local storyteller. Sonia, who runs women’s circles for healing connection with self, community, land, is also founder of the awesome Caravan of Storytellers.
Two weeks of walking along coastline, held between vast bodies of sea and sky, brought a whole new appreciation of the chattering woodlands.
As we walked an ancient Pilgrims Path, Sonia talked about stories and how they live as much in the silences in between as in the words spoken. No two people hear a story the same. Every person constructs different images dependent on their inner worlds.
Each of the pilgrims visiting the yew at Nevern have brought with them different stories, along with different interpretations of what the tree’s blood red resin might mean.
As I looked up at the tree, I remembered Robin Wall Kimmerer’s words from Braiding Sweetgrass:
‘Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift’.
The central pledge of this pilgrimage is to say thank you. Because in saying thank you there is a reorientation of the worldview that says that trees, that anything beyond the human, cannot feel or experience love. And yet all evidence points to the contrary.
Trees demonstrate a generosity of giving that is central to my existence, to all existence. There is no way to separate plant life from human life – trees breathe us into being.
‘Their exhale’ in the words of Dr Natasha Myers, ‘is our capacity to inhale’. Call it what you want but that behaviour feels a lot like love to me.
The yew at Defynnog, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, might be the oldest living tree in Britain. 60 foot wide and split into two vast trunks, it is said by some experts to be more than 5,000 years old. But to age an ancient yew is extremely difficult. They hollow out at the centre as they age, growing at different rates over the different stages of their lives.
What is agreed upon though is that this yew has grown through the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the creation of Christianity, the Roman invasions, the enclosures, the brutalised people who went on to brutalise and colonise others. And as the impacts of trauma upon trauma from one generation to the next continues to ripple out into this cult of consumerism at war with the delicate ecology that life is dependent on, this yew continues to speak in a language much older than words. Much older than time.
So saying thank you is more than just an act of good manners, some sentimental gesture. It is a refusal to further disenchant the everything that is breathing me alive.
Learning that the chemo drug Docetaxyl was derived from the yew tree was a massive relief. It significantly reduced the terror I felt at undergoing treatment. Before every chemo session I’d make prayers at a local yew and then imagine its medicine entering my veins when I was sat in the hospital ward. It helped soothe the central nervous system, already on high alert, still in recovery mode from body-altering surgery. It gave a larger narrative for the anxious mind to settle into, one beyond battle, fight or flight.
Early on in my chemo treatment I learned that the yew is not a tree that you hug. It is gnarled and moody and has branches which point outwards at spiked and awkward angles. If you get too friendly you may get impaled.
Whereas an oak can appear to emit comforting grand-parenty vibes, a yew demands a very different kind of relating. It isn’t up for empty platitudes. It balks at sentimentality. It wants to know you’re capable of tasting suffering, your own and the world you’re a part of. It asks that you don’t turn away from your grief and your rage. (Maybe they’re not solely ‘yours’). It gives permission – beyond the tyranny of pink ribbon cheerfulness – to feel a fuller breadth of feels when it came to navigating breast cancer.
The all-seasonal plumpness of the yew’s berries speak to passion and vigour and the potential of youth. But within the fleshy exterior sits a highly poisonous seed, a kiss of death enveloped in a ruby red pout.
Often hollow at the core the yew knows that emptiness does not equate to absence. And that through the blackest of nights a harvest still grows. Even after thousands of years it displays an ongoing loyalty to the laws of transformation.
It doesn’t care if you’re pretty. If you show up scarred with your hair falling out in clumps. With throat sore from all the no’s you’ve had to learn to make your own. It doesn’t mind if you need to take off your shoes to feel the soil of your soul. The dirt of your prayer. The dead in your bones.
So far over 140 miles walked since starting off this summer with the winding paths, villages and yew trees scattered along the Ceredigion coastline, then onwards and inland to the infamous bleeding yew at Nevern. Crossing the Brecon Beacons and taking in the breathtaking beauty of the Black Mountain range with wild camps and swims at glacial lakes before encountering the yew at Defynog. Onwards to the daunting circle of giant yews at Pencilli, stopping along the way at a series of staggeringly ancient yew sites that Wales is famous for.
Next up the Samaritans Way starting at the Avon Gorge, then walking across the Chew Valley, the Mendips and Cheddar Gorge. All sorts of in love with the wizened yews that are scattered across the Somerset Levels, wild prophets weathered by time – then arriving at the 1,700 year old yew at Compton Dundon and the entwined twin sibling yews at the holy springs of the Glastonbury Chalice.
Along the way I’ve been blessed to encounter so many people who’ve shared their stories of cancer with me, along with the narratives that have supported them to traverse the heartbreak of losing people they love. It is a deep privilege every time this happens.
I’ve also met with others who have worked with the yew so as to create less fear when going through chemo, and to restory the narrative from one of battle to one of connection.
Sometimes the world offers up beauty so fierce it makes the pores of your soul ache.
To learn more about Lindsay’s pilgrimage visit: https://www.instagram.com/knowingmeknowingyew/
To donate to the fundraiser for Coetir Anian visit: https://www.gofundme.com/f/yew-tree-pilgrimage-for-human-habitat-health