A TREE THAT COULD SAVE YOUR LIFE

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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.

7 thoughts on “A TREE THAT COULD SAVE YOUR LIFE

  1. Allison

    Thank you for this essay on the Yew Tree. May it completely heal our beloved Judith bestowing all gifts upon her and may our gratitude be such that it heals the clear cutting of the trees. We are all one and all connected.

    Reply
  2. Reginah Brown Dove WaterSpirit

    “Bear Heart, 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.”
    ~ Will Taegel

    Recently my Sri Lankan friends came over to my place to clip all the Amarith ‘weeds’. They cooked them and brought me delicious dishes. So much for ‘weeds.’
    Reginah WaterSpirit
    Brown Dove

    Reply
  3. Mary Pat

    I appreciate this piece so much and honor the gifts from the Yew tree bestowed up Judith and Will. What a much more powerful relationship the plant world could have with humans if Big Pharma sought out the wisdom of indigenous peoples and followed their practices. When it comes to medicine, I trust nature above all else.

    Continued blessings on your healing journey and thanks for including us in the process. We are One.

    Love,
    Mary Pat

    Reply
  4. Jane Jack Morales

    Dear Will,
    When Judith mentioned the drug came from the yew tree from her neck of the woods, the first thing I did was look it up on google images. I just wanted a picture of it. Like a family photo, my new Facebook friend.

    Just now I was out walking and one of my neighbor hawks flew over my head. At the time he flew over I was thinking about how many people I know, including me sometimes, use those books about totems to figure out what an animal appearance might mean for them. And I was remembering how when I was trying so hard to figure out why my neighbor coyote was approaching me Judith said,”Maybe she just wants you to see her.” And I thought about how I then practiced seeing and not asking anything for a long time. And I was thinking about Wendall Berry saying to Bill Moyers something like…the first thing you do when you approach a piece of land is ask, “What do you need ?”… which lead me to decide that those totem books are a good beginning in learning about the Mother Tongue but that now we must grow up a little and learn first hand, intimately, what our more than human neighbors do and what their habits are, and what their needs are, and then we can love them better. Then we can listen confidently, listen for ourselves, for their communications. Listen patiently and deeply and for a long time like you did with the titmice.
    Thank you for sharing your prayer.
    I see us gathered around a little yew tree….listening…..loving.
    Wendall Berry also said something like….we can save this planet and ourselves but you have to know patience, meanwhile you must set an example.
    I am immeasurably grateful for the way the two of you set an example.
    With LOVE
    Jane Jack

    Reply
  5. Jyl Scott -Reagan

    I remember reading about the yew tree a few years ago. I also knew a tiny bit about clear cutting practices. But I had not made the connection. I am so grateful for the yew tree – for the healing these trees give. And for the awareness that grows. We see how deeply connected we are to all living things. May we find ways to be as healing for the trees.

    Reply
  6. Sarah Jackson

    This is a most interesting essay to me…I welcome the exapansion of my awareness on the Yew tree. Amazing information. Truly. How generous is this tree ! How many other aspects of Nature are nurturing and reaching out to us? I imagine the number to be limitless… thank you Will and Judith for sharing your healing journey.

    Reply
  7. Lillie RowdenLillie Rowden

    In my heart is deep gratitude for the gifts of the yew tree. My prayer to the Sacred Mystery is that its gifts continue to heal Judith and all others in need of its gifts.

    Reply

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