By Staff Writer Eric D. Lehman • Feature Photographer Duncan George
Appears in the Spring 2016 Issue of The Wayfarer. Order a print or the full e-edition here»
After walking the walls of Stirling Castle, my wife and I drove through a rainy green country on the outskirts of the Trossachs, stopping at a Roman fort covered in long grasses and hummocks of wet earth. We wound through high steep hills of heather and swollen streams, dropped into the whisky town of Aberfeldy, crossed the river Tay, and found ourselves on narrow walled roads that forced us to scrape along, carefully passing oncoming cars by squeezing into gate openings. At last we found a small chapel, built on the site of a pagan temple, and walked into the churchyard noting that the steady three-day rain had momentarily paused. I felt solemn but expectantly joyful, spotting the green crown of our destination—a living thing far older than the seven-hundred-year-old castle or millennia-old ruin of the Roman Empire we had just visited.
In the 1700s the Fortingall Yew must have been impressive, with a fifty-two-foot circumference around a hollow center. But like many such trees, it was hacked away by Victorian tourists, and only two smaller trunk pieces remain. It stands on a site of worship that has existed since at least the arrival of the Celts, and probably long before. According to different sources, it could be anywhere between two and seven thousand years old. In fact, some people claim it as the world’s oldest living thing, though that title is disputed even in the British Isles, with the Ballyconnell Yew in Ireland and the Llangernyw Yew in Wales competing for the prize.
The fact the designation of oldest living thing is under debate is surprising to some people. But there are many elements to consider. Right now, the oldest individual that has been positively dated by science is a nameless bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California slightly over 5000 years old. At one time the title was held by its neighbor, a similar pine called Methuselah. The list continues, including the Zoroastrian Sary, a 4000 year-old Mediterranean cypress in Abarkuh, Iran, and Alerce, a Patagonian cypress in the Andes Mountains of Chile over 3600 years old.
So what is the problem? First of all, there are many trees that cannot be calculated accurately because of the way they grow. This includes the various Yews, which lose their heartwood, and therefore cannot be dates using the “tree ring” method. Others are “clonal colonies,” genetically identical trees connected by a single root system, such as the Pando, a colony of quaking aspen in Utah that may be an astonishing 80,000 years old. The Jurupa Oaks in California, the Norway Spruces in Sweden, and the Huon Pines in Tasmania are all clonal colonies that date back many thousands of years. Numerous plants other than trees have similar lineages, and allowing fungi to compete in the title bout causes even more issues.
However, purists will point out that these types of plants are not individuals, like we are. The aspen clones are not exactly descendants of an original tree, but not exactly the same one that stood thousands of years ago. And though this purist argument may misunderstand the nature of plants entirely, putting our own species-centric idea onto their growth patterns, there is certainly something about an individual tree that stirs our imagination. Nobody worships or respects a colony of aspens the way we do the venerable Nomon Sugi tree in Japan, the enormous “Hundred Horse Chestnut” in Sicily, or the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in Sri Lanka, a branch of the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment, the oldest living human-planted tree in the world with a known planting date—249 B.C.E.
Unquestionably, “meeting” an ancient individual tree has always filled me with awe. Since I was a boy I had sought them out, long before the internet made it relatively easy. When I was in my early twenties I took trips out west in part to see the venerable Bristlecone Pines of the eastern slopes of the Sierras, and the Giant Sequoias of the western. I found local beeches and oaks that had known the early Puritans in New England. I checked off a long list of trees that had been known or even planted by my favorite writers—Wordsworth’s cemetery yews in Grasmere or Dante’s acacia tree in Paris.
But for a long time I dreamed about seeing the Fortingall Yew, perhaps because it lived far in the backcountry of one of my favorite places on earth: Scotland. I had been to this magical land at age fifteen with my parents, but we had not seen the Yew. It was an oversight I meant to remedy. However, when my wife and I finally made plans to visit to Scotland twenty years later, we decided to hike the West Highland Way. This hundred-mile trek appealed to me for various reasons, but its length and demands would require me to miss any number of important sights, one of which was the Yew. This rankled me up until the moment on the path outside Drymen when sharp, crippling pain shot up my back and down my leg and we had to cancel the remainder of the hike. While that failure was a disappointment, one of the first things I thought was that I would get to see this legendary tree. As soon as we drove the rental car out of the parking lot near Loch Lomond, I told my wife we were going to see the Yew, and we had driven through the rainy Scottish countryside with a profound sense of anticipation.
However, at first glance, the tree did not seem to match expectations. The crown of needles spread out above a barred enclosure, built to prevent souvenir hunters from destroying it completely. Peering through the bars Amy said that it felt more like a small grove than a tree, and in a sense that is what it is—the remaining shoots of a once fifty-foot wide grove created by one tree continually growing and then rotting down the middle. Unlike a sequoia or olive tree, it was not particularly beautiful. “All he has is its age,” Amy said. An age impossible to date exactly, only estimated by its former circumference, and its position at a religious site that had been there since the Iron Age.
Nevertheless, it is undeniably a very old tree, a symbol of perseverance, of permanence, of longevity, all of which resonate with the impermanent, temporary state of human life. In some people it may stimulate an instinctual respect for our elders or a connection to the past. Others may see a lesson or a cure for the ills of mortality. We can interact with a tree that was alive when Rome was founded, and muse on the flash of light that is our civilization. Or we can put trees like this one into stories—say that one provided shade to George Washington, or another a napping place for Christ.
But a tree like this is more than a symbol or piece of a story, it is an individual of an alien species, with a life we can try to understand through science, but in some ways will remain forever beyond our comprehension. We have no true point of reference, no correct way to approach it from our limited viewpoint. In fact, it is far more accurate to say that we are part of his story, since such an ancient being absorbs us figuratively and literally, taking our molecules into his great roots, our breath into his leaves.
That rainy summer day I felt a sincere privilege to be part of the story of the Fortingall Yew, when under his sacred branches I gave my wife a woolen scarf to seal our highland love. We shared a slug of good single-malt whiskey and I poured a little on the ground for our silent witness. And as we touched his branches and wished him good luck, I could swear he blessed us, though to him we are but drops of rain. We left the churchyard, knowing that we would probably never see this ancient being again. I can only hope that in some small way my life provides a little life for him, now and a thousand years from now. It seems worth my bones to do so.
Eric D. Lehman is a travel and history writer, with reviews, essays, and stories in dozens of magazines and journals. He is also an award-winning author of many books, including Afoot in Connecticut, The Foundation of Summer, A History of Connecticut Wine, Insiders’ Guide to Connecticut, A History of Connecticut Food, Becoming Tom Thumb, and Homegrown Terror. In his spare time, he pursues Henry Miller scholarship and teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Bridgeport, where he directs the school literary magazine, Groundswell, and the faculty essay series, The Commons. He lives in Hamden with his wife, poet Amy Nawrocki, and his two cats.
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