Yew trees and churchyards go together and Exmoor has plenty of both. I know this yew particularly well. I see it every time I look out of my study window – and I once had to climb it to rescue my cat. Yew trees, which can live for several thousand years, were sacred to the Druids and early Christians gathered under their branches to worship. It is claimed that this yew tree was planted in the churchyard around the middle of the fourteenth century at the time of the Black Death, a plague which ravaged the known world killing almost a third of the population of Europe alone. The seedlings will have witnessed victims of the plague being buried and villagers going to the church to pray for comfort and deliverance from pestilence. This yew has grown over the centuries into a patriarch presiding over the churchyard and now it has been witnessing another plague ravaging the known world. But it has seen it all before and continues to grow and flourish in the way that it always has done. It has become a symbol of hope.
But a closer contemplation of the yew tree takes us even further. The yew would have been deliberately planted beside the path taken by funeral processions on their way to the Church. It is surrounded by the stories and bones of past generations and has grown into something that would have been unimaginable to the ancestors who rest permanently in its shadow. With birds nesting in its branches and dormice gorging on its berries, it has become a place of thriving and flourishing reminding the community that In the midst of death there is life. It provides shelter to those seeking it. Its very presence brings stability and calm to a world which idolises hyper-activity and is dominated by fear. As well as being a symbol of hope and a reminder that life goes on, its unpredictable shape and growth, which well-intentioned people often try to control, point to resurrection where new life and new possibilities are available to all who seek them.
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