Thursday, 3 November 2011

New metaphors for sustainability: the yew tree

Our series of new metaphors for sustainability will continue through November. Today, Peter Harrison, writer, artist and co-founder of Propeller Arts Collective finds solace in the shade of the yew tree.

A simple definition of sustainability is the capacity to sustain. For me, this immediately poses a problem. I’m aware that everything comes to an end, nothing can go on forever. There’s something not quite real about the word, implying the possibility of being liberated from death. But also there are nurturing, practical, organic aspects to the word, implying maintenance and growth.

Trees are living processes. Yew trees live for centuries. Although it is difficult to accurately date yew trees, it is estimated that the Llangernyw Yew, in Conwy, Wales, is over four thousand years old. Yews are associated with immortality, renewal and transformation. Yews are living entities that sustain while the world around them changes. The yew in Conwy sheltered people from the early Bronze age. It is tempting to think that one of those people stood under the tree imagining life four thousand years in the future. As generations came and went, the tree continued. Yews represent the passage from life to death, and beyond, into the land of shadows.

The timeless quality of yew trees can also be personally experienced. Stepping into the low-hanging canopy of a yew, there is a marked change in temperature and volume. The air is cool and still. The world is quieter. A space under branches. Natural sanctuaries in which to reflect, to slow down and contemplate life beyond the moment.

This is an uncertain world. In past centuries, when death was a more present, daily occurrence than it is now, maybe yews gave people hope that the world will continue. Hope that although one day we will die, part of the world we knew and loved will sustain.

photo: the Llangernyw Yew, Conwy, Wales

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