One day I was on a picnic with the President/CEO of Roseburg Forest Products, Allyn Ford, and we fell into a jolting conversation. RFP is a closely held corporation that owns 650,000 acres of viable timberland in Southern Oregon and Northern California, or about the size of one of our smaller states. I consider Allyn to be a friend and one of the more enlightened capitalists in the lumber industry. When I asked him about his view of sustainability, he replied, “The more we know about forest lands, the more we can do to keep them healthy. The healthier they are, the healthier our business. Call us tree-huggers if you like. I don’t mind. I love trees. Wood never ceases to amaze me, and I am always finding new ways to put trees to good use.”
I checked his statements out with locals and informal research. Allyn’s foresters plant over 5 million new trees each year. He reuses 300,000 lbs. of residual material annually to make high-grade particle board. Through sustainable energy practices some of RFP’s facilities are off the grid. When I inquired about the health of the forest land he owns, he replied, “We have more trees now on that land than when I took over from my father. I plant more than I cut.”
That’s the good news, and I appreciate Allyn’s efforts. Every step in awareness and respectful practice assists and underlines that we, as a human species, are in this endeavor together with the forest. Indeed, as you know from previous blogs, I identify myself as an aspect of the forest. When the forest is healthy, I am healthy. You, too.
The bad news is that RFP and other less enlightened lumber companies utilize a method called clear-cutting, and, embracing that method, have decimated a tree that could save your life. Let’s see how.
The Inconspicuous Oregon Yew Tree
The Pacific or Oregon yew is an evergreen usually growing to a height 24-30 feet and a diameter of about 30 inches. Sometimes in droughts yews appear as shrubs in the forest floor and can easily be overlooked. The Oregon yew, thus, grows inconspicuously and very slowly beneath a conifer forest canopy; it requires dense shade. It grows best in cool, moist flats, and its seeds are disseminated mainly by wind and birds. It also is a favorite browse of deer, elk, and moose, who in turn distribute the seeds fertilized by their waste.
To the 20th Century trained forester and profit hungry lumber industry the yew appeared as useless, a trash tree. It merited no attention whatsoever because it didn’t produce lumber, wood as the lumber industry calls it. As large lumber companies clearcut, the yew tree became a casualty. No big deal, they thought. Collateral damage.
The lumbermen would have done well to talk to my mentor, Bear Heart, who once said to me,”So-called trash trees and weeds often are big medicine not yet discovered by white folk.” But like most of our mainstream culture, the lumber industry pays little attention to indigenous wisdom.
Indigenous Medicine and The Yew
A significant number of indigenous tribes well knew the value of yew trees. They used the bark, foliage, and fruits of the yew medicinally, as Bear Heart knew from his trips to the Northwest. Bella Coola Indians used leaf tea for lung ailments. Chehalis natives employed leaf preparation to accompany sweat lodges in the purification of body/mind/soul. Cowlitz created yew poultices for wounds. This indigenous partnership with the yew tree’s healing powers reaches back into the mists of prehistory, several thousand years ago. It is a well-known fact that there was little, if any, cancer present with the indigenous people when the European invasion began. Native shaman knew the anti-cancer powers of the yew and a variety of other plants.
Mainstream Culture “Discovers” the Yew
In the early 1960’s Jonathan Hartwell of the National Cancer Institute realized that native peoples used plants as sources of anticancer drugs. Plants were shipped from the field to chemistry laboratories where experiments were performed to see if the native narratives about the yew tree had any value. They did.
The history of modern medicine notes that in 1967 Monroe Wall and M.C. Wani discovered the healing properties of the Yew tree and named it taxol or paclitaxel. In an astounding example of the arrogance of Western Civilization’s historians, these two men were credited with isolating the natural product from the bark of the yew, a practice obviously known to indigenous folks for thousands of years. Those of us who as elementary age students believed Columbus discovered America should take note and develop a healthy skepticism concerning current historical accounts such as this account of the yew tree’s so-called “discovery.”
Taxol was then developed commercially by Bristol Meyer Squib. The 1970’s saw continued research into the uses of taxol as the wheels of its usage moved quite slowly in the United States in spite of the known promise of the yew’s power of healing to indigenous peoples.
In 1977 The Mainstream Wakes Up
In 1977 Susan Horowitz of Albert Einstein College of Medicine discovered that taxol interfered with cell division by binding to tubulins in the cells. Unlike other cancer drugs, which prevented tubulin from assembling into microtubules, taxol bound to assembled mirotubules and blocked them from disassembling. Without going into microbiological details, mainstream science was at last taking note of the unique healing qualities of the yew tree. The partnership of the yew with microtubules is fascinating, and I will return to this in some detail in a future blog.
Clear-cutting Yew Trees Continues
Meanwhile, back in the forest clear-cutting the yew tree continued. Senator Frank Church was concerned and in 1975 offered the Church Guidelines for clear-cutting in National Forests; the guidelines stipulated that clear-cuts would not exceed 40 acres in size on federal lands. In 1976 a law was passed by Congress greatly restricting clear-cutting in National Forests. But on private lands, like the ones owned by RFP, clear-cutting remains the silvicultural timber harvest method of choice, the yew tree be damned. The timber industry is currently attempting to remove most of the restrictions on federal lands. While it is true that the lumber industry plants millions of trees, they pay little attention to the understory where the intrepid yew grows.
The Amazing Yew Tree Continues To Heal
In spite of this gross crime against itself, the yew tree patiently continues to heal humans. It is estimated that 250,000 people are treated annually with taxol. It is used in lung, ovarian, breast, head and neck, prostate, and Kaposi’s sarcoma. The little tree and its offsprings earn over one billion dollars a year for American drug companies. Still, because the clear-cutting continues, the treatment is expensive, costing between $10,000 and $100,000 for each patient, depending on the number of treatment cycles.
How Plants Heal
Increasing numbers of researchers such as Stephen Buhner agree with my eco-field hypothesis that there is a mother tongue exchange of information and meaning within a specific landscape. Within certain space configurations there is a constant flow of, shall we say for the moment, conversations, ones mainstream culture is just now beginning to understand.
The Miracle of the Mother Tongue
The Oregon yew tree has been reaching out to humans through the millennia and ancient people knew the language. For me, conversations with the yew tree and its kin are the most effective form of prayer I know. I mentioned in an earlier blog that Judith, my life partner, was diagnosed with cancer a few months ago. Together, we are choosing many forms of healing, including surgery and chemo therapy, as well as alternative forms. Prayer is at the top of the list.
But what form of prayer?
Each day I talk to the yew trees. I apologize for the arrogance of my fellow humans, including myself. I acknowledge the innate intelligence oozing forth in the plants as healing potential for those beset with cancer. Even though we continue to cut them down, they share generously with us through a sophisticated neural network their ability to survive, a survival strategy that doesn’t compete with us but collaborates with us.
To our delight taxol is the chemo therapy of choice by our oncologist at the moment. Judith’s prayers are immediate and sensual. So are mine. I hold her hand for a moment as she reclines in a chair with a bag of yew tree medicine(taxol) flowing into her body. Its intelligence is palpable. Our conversations in the mother tongue are not abstract. They are sensual and immediate. Soon, my courage and endurance waiver, and I leave the room. Judith persists in a longer conversation with the yew.
Sleeping With The Tree
If prayer is aware intimacy, then I link intimately with the yew tree. At night I lie next to Judith, and I can feel the wisdom of the tree surging through her body. I benefit. Its energy reaches out and embraces me. Sometimes, tears flow. Sometimes, giggles break through. Both come in waves. Western medicine offers us no guarantees. I understand. In the meantime I am in discourse with the plant world, and I would never have known this kind of intimate depth without this kind of struggle.
So, in that way, Judith and I are already healed, that is, more fully aware of our connection with the Whole. Such is the potential of our species as we painstakingly make our return to the circle of life.