The following excerpt is from Maria Rodale’s new book Love, Nature, Magic (Chelsea Green Publishing February 2023) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Love, Nature, Magic
By Maria Rodale
Let yourself be wild.
journey: August 22, 2021
When I was very young, perhaps three years old, I held a red, gelatinous yew berry in my hand. My older cousin shouted, “Don’t eat that berry!” So, of course, I popped it right into my mouth.
I can still see the stainless-steel bowl in the pale green hospital room where I was told I needed to throw up. They gave me syrup of ipecac. I was sitting on someone’s lap. I don’t remember throwing up. But I survived. And I will never forget that experience.
Yes, yew berries are poisonous. Actually, only the seeds inside the berry are poisonous. Still, don’t eat the berries unless you really know what you are doing. (Either way, I wouldn’t if I were you.)
After my cat Pumpkin died, I wanted to plant a bush by her grave, and for some reason I kept thinking about yews. Yews would not stop popping into my head.
Where I live in Pennsylvania, yews have a common and, to me, sometimes comical role in the landscape. Almost every traditional- style house, no matter how big or how small, has at least one yew in the front yard, pruned to its barest shape. Sometimes it’s pruned as a box. Sometimes it’s pruned as a ball. Sometimes it’s pruned crooked, but hardly ever is it not pruned at all.
The first time I ever noticed unpruned yews was at our local Wildlands Conservancy preserve, where there is a circular grove of unpruned yews that must be almost a hundred years old. It creates a magical shelter, and inside are benches to sit on and read stories to kids. It is one of the most magical spaces I’ve ever seen. Of course I had to plant a circle of yews in my own yard, and I never prune them. They surround my trampoline, so in the short term their purpose is to hide the trampoline from view, but longer term, after the trampoline is gone, it will be my own magical circle of yews.
My theory is that the obsession with pruning is a throwback to the idea that a person’s home is their castle, and that humans can control nature. It reminds me of the incredible castle and garden Château de Villandry in the Loire Valley in France. When I took my kids there to see it, they loved the intricate mazes of hedges, but those mazes reflect the huge amount of money that the chateau owner expended to control nature through pruning in an effort to impress the neighbors and entertain guests. It’s beautiful, fun, and gorgeous. But as a gardener myself, I understand that this amount of work cannot be done without quite a large staff. Sadly, it was probably slaves or servants who originally maintained it.
In descriptions of yews, you find two common themes: a) They are toxic, and b) They were often planted in graveyards to keep out livestock. Ahh, that makes sense. I will get a yew to plant by Pumpkin’s grave.
At my local nursery, I was drawn to a plant called Japanese plum yew, specifically a cultivar called Duke Gardens. Since my oldest daughter is a historical romance writer, I’m always drawn to anything that has a duke involved. But when I got home and looked up the Latin name—Cephalotaxus harringtonia—of my new shrub, I realized I’d been faked out. It’s not a “true” yew; whose genus is Taxus. But I planted the plum yew by Pumpkin’s grave anyway.
The night before my planned journey to visit Lightning Bug or Yew, I was reading Finding the Mother Tree by forest ecologist Suzanne Simard and came across this passage in which she writes about her breast cancer treatment:
Dr. Malpass was right. The paclitaxel infusions were easier to absorb than the earlier chemo drugs, and I regained some energy and started to walk in the forest again. Paclitaxel is derived from the cambium of the yew—a short, shrubby tree that grows under old cedars and maples and firs. The Aboriginal people knew its potency, making infusions and poultices to treat illness, rubbing its seeds on their skin for strength, bathing in preparations to cleanse their bodies. They used this tree to make bowls and combs and snowshoes, and to craft hooks and spears and arrows. When the anticancer qualities of the yew were brought to the attention of the modern pharmaceutical industry, there was a bounty on the trees. I’d find the small yews—their branches as long as their stems—stripped naked of their bark, looking like crosses, specters of maltreatment. In recent years, pharmaceutical labs have learned to synthesize paclitaxel artificially, leaving the yews to thrive under the cool canopy of the forests. When the old growth is clear-cut for the big timbers, however, these small scaly trees are left weakened in the hot sun.
Magic, I tell you. Here is part two of my journey to Lightning Bug and Yew.
* * *
The lightning bugs ceremoniously escorted me across the river of death to a giant Yew on the other side. She was enormous and sinewy—the mother of all yews. I went into her arms, and she embraced me. It was a little tight, but also comforting.
She said, “When you die, my roots will surround you and transform you. Death will heal you. Death is the ultimate healer.”
At this point, as I lay on my magic blanket, my arms reached up and wove about like her branches, as if I were Yew. I spoke aloud:
“When you let yourself be wild, only then can you truly live.” I put my hands on my heart and cried.
Yew continued, “People are always trying to control us [yews], to keep us in boxes. But it’s them that are boxed in. They are building their own coffins.” She sighed. “Humans are so exhausting.”
I lay down underneath Yew and watched the fireflies lighting up the night. It got very quiet. Then, beneath Yew, Pumpkin appeared. She came over to me with her little wings and sat on my heart, purring. “It’s all about love, Maria. It’s all about love. And everything is beautiful,” Pumpkin said softly to me.
I cried some more.
“And also,” said Yew, “plant two real yews next to Pumpkin’s grave.
One on either side.”
* * *
I will. You know I will.
And I did.
But still, I can’t help wondering about all the pruning people do.
Why are people so afraid of wildness? Of life?
Through my work in publishing and media, I learned a lot about people—by being a manager and by studying customer research. I also learned a lot simply by talking with neighbors and family. One thing I noticed is that we are all afraid. We are afraid of what we don’t know. We are afraid of the future. We are afraid of change. We are afraid of bugs, germs, and diseases. We are afraid of what our neighbors will think. We are afraid of going to hell. We are afraid of looking weird or fat or of being different. We are afraid of not having enough money or friends—or if we have enough, we are afraid that someone will steal what we have. We are afraid of being alone and going places by ourselves. We are afraid of not being enough (although some of us are afraid of being too much). We are afraid of being teased, made fun of, or worse, rejected. We are afraid of speaking up. We are afraid of feeling vulnerable and ashamed. We are afraid of not being loved. We are afraid of death. We are afraid of dying.
Our fears often play out in our landscapes, whether it’s the lawn that’s perfectly manicured, the bush that’s meticulously pruned, the use of insecticides to kill pests that scare us, or the use of herbicides to kill weeds that embarrass us. The war on weeds. The war on bugs. The war on wildness. The metaphor of war on anything puts us into a position of offense or defense, perpetrator or victim, with a constant fear of losing. Failing. Doing the wrong thing. Losing control.
Sometimes I am still afraid too. I was afraid to talk to insects during a journey, for example, but as it turned out, the experience wasn’t bad, it was wonderful. Facing my fears head-on—by observing and working with nature up close, getting to speak with the things that scare me so that I can understand them instead—has enabled me to embrace wildness in a whole new way. I can now appreciate the messy wildness of a young forest that is healing from trauma. I can smile at the unruly plants in my garden and understand that they are just trying to help me and do their important work. I see firsthand that nature collaborates more than competes. I see that nature is confident and patient. And that, my friends, has made me more comfortable and accepting of my own wildness. I am much more likely to laugh at myself. I see now that much of the stress I have felt in life was unnecessary and of my own invention.
I am happy to see the “rewilding” movement in environmental conservation and agriculture worlds. It aims to allow nature to do its own thing and encourages predators and other essential species to return and do their work. It takes a “passive” approach to managing wild areas, and I completely support it. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met over the years who believe it is our job to “manage” nature, especially forests. I’m starting to think our real job is to learn to manage ourselves—but by “managing,” I mean freeing ourselves from so many self-imposed constraints. (Although we white people have a lot to learn from how Indigenous people were stewarding their land before we so rudely interrupted them, thinking we knew better. We didn’t.)
Every single day we are alive is a gift. Perhaps death is the ultimate healer. But for now, I’d rather be alive. I will embrace my wildness.
Pumpkin’s grave, the two yews, and the Duke Gardens bush are right outside the window by my writing desk. She used to sleep on the chair next to me when I wrote. Now she sleeps outside, buried in a basket. As of today, the bushes are tiny—about a foot tall. But I know they will grow. And I have no desire to prune them. Their wildness will be a reminder to me that when I let myself be wild, then, and only then, am I truly alive.
Thank you, Yew.
Photo by Adam Rhodes on Unsplash