The oldest trees in the United Kingdom are English yews. Many of them are thought to be at least 2,000 years old—and it is quite possible that some individuals may have been on planet Earth for 4,000 years, the very oldest being the Fortingall Yew in Scotland. Yew trees were often planted in graveyards—they were thought to help people face death—and early churches were often built close to one of these dark, and to me, mysterious trees.
Almost every part of the yew is poisonous—only the bright red flesh around the highly toxic seed is innocent and delicious. It was my mother, Vanne, who taught my sister, Judy, and me that we could join the birds in feasting on this delicacy. How well I remember her telling us this as we stood in the dark, cool shade of a huge yew tree, whose thickly leaved branches cut out the brilliant sunshine outside. The tree grew outside an old church, but, the churchwarden told Vanne, the tree was far older than the church. We plucked the low-growing berries, separating out the soft flesh in our mouths and spitting out the deadly seed.
Of all the trees in the world, the one I would most like to meet, whose location is top-secret, is the Wollemi pine. It was discovered by David Noble, a New South Wales parks and wildlife officer, who was leading an exploration group in 1994, about 100 miles northwest of Sydney, Australia. They were searching for new canyons when they came across a particularly wild and gloomy one that David couldn’t resist exploring.
After rappelling down beside a deep gorge and trekking through the remote forest below, David and his group came upon a tree with unusual-looking bark. David picked a few leaves, stuck them in his backpack and showed them to some botanists after he got home. For several weeks the excitement grew, as the leaves could not be identified by any of the experts. The mystery was solved when it was discovered that the leaves matched the imprint of an identical leaf on an ancient rock. They realized the newly discovered tree was a relative of a tree that flourished 200 million years ago. What an amazing find—a species that has weathered no less than 17 ice ages!
The Tree That Survived 9/11
My last story comes from another dark chapter in human history. A day in 2001 when the World Trade Center was attacked, when the Twin Towers fell, when the world changed forever. I was in New York on that terrible day, traveling with my friend and colleague Mary Lewis. We were staying in mid-Manhattan at the Roger Smith Hotel. First came the confused reporting from the television screen. Then another colleague arrived, white and shaken. She had been on the very last plane to land before the airport closed, and she actually saw, from the taxi, the plane crashing into the second tower.
Disbelief. Fear. Confusion. And then the city went gradually silent until all we could hear was the sound of police car sirens and the wailing of ambulances. People disappeared from the streets. It was a ghost town, unreal.
It was eight days before there was a plane on which we could leave.
Ironically, we were flying to Portland, Oregon, where I had to give a talk, to a boys’ secondary school, entitled “Reason for Hope.” It was, without doubt, the hardest lecture I have ever had to give. Only when I was actually talking, looking out over all the young, bewildered faces, did I find the things to say, drawing on the terrible events of history, how they had passed, how we humans always find reserves of strength and courage to overcome that which fate throws our way.
Just over ten years after 9/11, on a cool, sunny April morning in 2012, I went to meet a Callery pear tree named Survivor. She had been placed in a planter near Building 5 of the World Trade Center in the 1970s and each year her delicate white blossoms had brought a touch of spring into a world of concrete. In 2001, after the 9/11 attack, this tree, like all the other trees that had been planted there, disappeared beneath the fallen towers.
But amazingly, in October, a cleanup worker found her, smashed and pinned between blocks of concrete. She was decapitated and the eight remaining feet of trunk were charred black; the roots were broken; and there was only one living branch.