Contributor: Fiona Stafford
Location: St Mary’s Church, Selborne, Hampshire
Description: The great yew tree at Selborne features in one of the Romantic period’s best-known books: The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne by the ‘parson-naturalist’ Gilbert White (1720-1793). First published in 1789, White’s account of his Hampshire parish has never gone out of print. But the long literary life of White’s book is as nothing to that of the ancient yew, which endured for centuries before being toppled by a January gale in 1990. The celebrity of the Selborne yew in the Romantic period may be seen as both idiosyncratic and as part of a wider celebration of ancient trees – and by extension ancient places and deep-rooted national culture — that especially characterised Romantic culture in Britain and across Europe.
What remains of the tree is immediately visible on entering the churchyard at Selborne. A stout wooden megalith pocked with dark crevices, tufted over with tousled greenery, brambles spewing from a narrow chasm, which looks like a magic cave, arrested as it starts to open. The yew was declared dead in 1991, but still the giant trunk plays host to colonies of insects, birds and fungi. Inside St Mary’s Church are a few relics made from its wood: an — altar, a font cover, a slice of timber, polished to reveal sinuous lines of rich, red-russet. Outside, a young yew, taken as a cutting, is slowly becoming a tree. Dating yews is notoriously difficult, but this ancient tree was already mature when the church was built in c1180. No wonder White placed it among Selborne’s ‘Antiquities’ rather than ‘Natural History’, even though he underestimated its age, thinking it only ‘coeval with the church.’
Yews are mentioned in the Natural History section as sources of berries enjoyed by ring ousels, but not as significant individuals. In the section on ‘Antiquities’ (often excised from later editions), the old yew merits an entire letter, just after the description of St Mary’s. The tree is described in matter-of-fact style: ‘the body is squat, short, and thick, and measures twenty-three feet in girth, supporting a head of suitable extent to it’s bulk’. The illustration of the Church shows the dark, shaggy outline of the yew and its very fat trunk. The canopy looks disproportionately small, because the branches were once routinely pollarded to supply armies with longbows. By the eighteenth century, the dominance of gunpowder and the Church meant that the ancient tree was left to grow in peace and so the image in White’s Selborne is of rural tranquillity. Grimm’s engraving shows a seat around the trunk, inviting parishioners to sit and chat on a hot afternoon or rest quietly at dusk to meditate the tombs.
White was a clergyman, but intensely curious about the here and now. Identification of the tree’s sex (male) prompts him to speculate as to why church yews were so often male. He discusses the species’ toxicity, evident in the demise of several unlucky village cows after a yew-berry snack and whole herds of cattle after munching the needles. Horses, carelessly tied to yews, often died before their owners realised the danger and yet sheep, turkey and deer cropped the trees ‘with impunity’. White’s approach is that of a scientist, gathering evidence, puzzling over apparent inconsistencies, sifting the evidence from widely held, but often erroneous, beliefs. He was puzzled by the ubiquity of churchyard yews – had they been planted as burial places? Shelters? Or as ‘emblems of mortality by their funereal appearance’? The Gentleman’s Magazine had an article on yew-boughs used in Palm Sunday processions. The yew-letter is a fine example of White’s enquiring mind at work, drawing fascinating hypotheses from things seen daily but rarely so closely observed.
This distinctive quality has assured his place in literary history. Richard Mabey, a leading contemporary natural historian, has celebrated White as ‘the founding father of ecology (and of “nature writing”)’. For Mabey, the Selborne yew has special personal meaning. His biography of White explains that his subject came to life when he visited Selborne and found ‘a living landscape’ rather than the ‘sentimental museum piece’ he had expected. Central to this revelation was the ‘vast thousand-year-old yew tree’, which had changed so little since White’s day and was still growing in the churchyard. Mabey witnessed the impact on Selborne of the terrible storm in 1990: the chaos of evergreen branches, the effort to winch up the fallen giant, the prayers around the tree, the short-lived shoots and eventual resignation to its death. As twigs became relics and craftsmen created wooden souvenirs, the tree was dispersed among many local collections. Mabey rescued ‘two raw logs’, which he took with him to Norfolk years later, when suffering from deep depression. Eventually the Selborne logs were transformed into art by a sculptor, who took his design from the highly individual character of the wood. In this process, the wood seemed to become a ‘creative critic’, leading Mabey not to New Age ideas about tree spirits, but a new concept of mind: ‘a much broader entity than consciousness…not possessed by individuals, but shared between them.’ This yew-inspired revelation is strongly reminiscent of Romantic poetry – a modern, natural version of Coleridge’s ‘one life’, Wordsworth’s sense of ‘something far more deeply interfused’.
The Natural History of Selborne made the ancient yew famous, but, unconscious of its celebrity, the tree continued to stand in the churchyard long after Gilbert White was buried there. Beneath the old stump is The Trumpeter’s Stone, marking the grave of John Newland, one of the ‘Captain Swing’ rioters of 1830. When laid to rest, Newland joined forefathers who had been there since before the Conquest and would eventually be unearthed by the fall of the tree. The life-span of yew-trees makes even the most momentous human events mere episodes in a much larger, if rather slow-moving, historical saga. As centuries pass, arboreal objects become subjects under whose shade people come and go, making little impression. And yet, the shock of the Selborne yew’s fall brings home the vulnerability of all life on earth. Hence, even after its death, this great Romantic fragment is shooting out fresh meanings for the 21st century.
Creator: yew seed, congenial soil, sun and rain
Subject: Gilbert White, author of The Natural History of Selborne (1789), Richard Mabey, biographer of Gilbert White and leading contemporary writer and broadcaster, known for his work on natural history, nature-writing, and conservation.
Media rights: photograph by Fiona Stafford
Object type: Ancient Yew Tree stump
Format: dead wood, recent ancillary growth of vegetation and fungus
Related objects: Chateaubriand’s Cedar
Publisher: St Mary’s Church, Selborne
Gilbert White, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (London, 1789).
Richard Mabey, Gilbert White (London: Century Hutchinson,1986); Nature Cure (London: Pimlico, 2006); Turning the Boat for Home (London: Chatto and Windus, 2019).
Fred Hageneder, Yew: A History (Stroud: The History Press, 2011)
St Mary’s Church, Selborne http://www.stmaryschurchselborne.co.uk/home