Yew and Me

The Pocket Guide to The Trees of Britain and Northern Europe, Alan Mitchell, illustrated by David More (1990)

Leafing through this book after I first bought it, I suddenly grabbed at it, because I thought one of the illustrations was real and that a leaf was about to slide off the page and drop to the floor. It was an easy mistake to make, because David More is a good artist. That isn’t surprising: good artists are often attracted to trees. I think it’s a mathemattraction. Trees are one of the clearest and commonest examples of natural fractals, or shapes that mirror themselves on smaller and smaller scales. In trees, trunks divide into branches into branchlets into twigs into twiglets, where the leaves, well distributed in space, wait to eat the sun.

When deciduous, or leaf-dropping, trees go hungry during the winter, this fractal structure is laid bare. And when you look at a bare tree, you’re looking at yourself, because humans are fractals too. Our torsos sprout arms sprout hands sprout fingers. Our veins become veinlets become capillaries. Ditto our lungs and nervous systems. We start big and get small, mirroring ourselves on smaller and smaller scales. Fractals make maximum and most efficient use of space and what’s found in me or thee is also found in a tree, both above and below ground. The roots of a tree are also fractals. But one big difference between trees and people is that trees are much freer to vary their general shape. Trees aren’t mirror-symmetrical like animals and that’s another thing that attracts human eyes and human artists. Each tree is unique, shaped by the chance of its seeding and setting, though each species has its characteristic silhouette. David More occasionally shows that bare winter silhouette, but usually draws the trees in full leaf, disposed to eat the sun. Trees can also be identified by their leaves alone and leaves too are fractals. The veins of a leaf divide and sub-divide, carrying the raw materials and the finished products of photosynthesis to and from the trunk and roots. Trees are giants that work on a microscopic scale, manufacturing themselves from photons and molecules of water and carbon dioxide.

We eat or sculpt what they manufacture, as Alan Mitchell describes in the text of this book:

The name “Walnut” comes from the Anglo-Saxon for “foreign nut” and was in use before the Norman Conquest, probably dating from Roman times. It may refer to the fruit rather than the tree but the Common Walnut, Juglans regia, has been grown in Britain for a very long time. The Romans associated their god Jupiter (Jove) with this tree, hence the Latin name juglans, “Jove’s acorn (glans) or nut”… The wood [of Black Walnut, Juglans nigra] is like that of Common Walnut and both are unsurpassed for use as gunstocks because, once seasoned and worked, neither moves at all and they withstand shock particularly well. They are also valued in furniture for their good colour and their ability to take a high polish. (entry for “Walnuts”, pg. 18)

That’s from the first and longer section, devoted to “Broadleaved Trees and Palms”; in the second section, “Conifers”, devoted to pines and their relatives, maths appears in a new form. Pine-cones embody the Fibonacci sequence, one of the most famous of all number sequences or series. Start with 1 and 1, then add the pair and go on adding pairs: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144… That’s the Fibonacci sequence, named after the Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci (c.1170-c.1245). And if you examine the two spirals created by the scales of a pine-cone, clockwise and counter-clockwise, you’ll find that there are, say, five spirals in one direction and eight in another, or eight and thirteen. The scales of a pineapple and petals of many flowers behave in a similar way. These patterns aren’t fractals like branches and leaves, but they’re also about distributing living matter efficiently through space. Mitchell doesn’t discuss any of this mathematics, but it’s there implicitly in the illustrations and underlies his text. Even the toxicity of the yew is ultimately mathematical, because the effect of toxins is determined by their chemical shape and its interaction with the chemicals in our bodies. Micro-geometry can be noxious. Or nourishing:

The Yews are a group of conifers, much more primitive than those which bear cones. Each berry-like fruit has a single large seed, partially enclosed in a succulent red aril which grows up around it. The seed is, like the foliage, very poisonous to people and many animals, but deer and rabbits eat the leaves without harm. Yew has extremely strong and durable wood [and the] Common Yew, Taxus baccata, is nearly immortal, resistant to almost every pest and disease of importance, and immune to stress from exposure, drought and cold. It is by a long way the longest-living tree we have and many in country churchyards are certainly much older than the churches, often thousands of years old. Since the yews pre-date the churches, the sites may have been holy sites and the yews sacred trees, possibly symbols of immortality, under which the Elders met. (entry for “Yews”, pg. 92)

This isn’t a big book, but there’s a lot to look at and read. I’d like a doubtful etymology to be true: some say “book” is related to “beech”, because beech-bark or beech-leaves were used for writing on. Bark is another way of identifying a tree and another aspect of their dendro-mathematics, in its texture, colours and patterns. But trees can please the ear as well as the eye: the dendrophile A.E. Housman (1859-1936) recorded how “…overhead the aspen heaves / Its rainy-sounding silver leaves” (A Shropshire Lad, XXVI). There’s maths there too. An Aspen sounds like rain in part because its many leaves, which tremble even in the lightest breeze, are acting like many rain-drops. That trembling is reflected in the tree’s scientific name: Populus tremula, “trembling poplar”. Housman, a Latin professor as well as an English poet, could have explained how tree-nouns in Latin are masculine in form: Alnus, Pinus, Ulmus; but feminine in gender: A. glutinosa, P. contorta, U. glabra (Common Alder, Lodgepole Pine, Wych-Elm). He also sums up why trees please in these simple and ancient words of English:

Give me a land of boughs in leaf,
A land of trees that stand;
Where trees are fallen, there is grief;
I love no leafless land.

More Poems, VIII.

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