My last apartment in Louisville was in a white Victorian house with black wrought-iron railings and green trim around the windows that reminded me of mosques in South Asia. There were other things, too, that made it seem like somewhere other than Kentucky. Rather than the standard lawn in the backyard, there were gravel paths winding among rose bushes, topiary and classical statues. And then there was the tree growing next to the side porch.
The tree was an evergreen, with several twining trunks whose peeling bark revealed a satiny reddish skin. She — for I thought of the tree instinctively as feminine — was particularly lovely in the rain.
Because I passed her every day coming in and out of the house, I started to feel we were getting familiar, and yet a few months after moving in I still knew nothing about her. All my internet searches for “evergreen tree with peeling bark” only turned up garden diagnostics for ailing pines. Finally, when I had to call my landlady about some other matter, I asked her about the tree.
“Oh that, yeah, I never knew what it was either, but the girl upstairs, her boyfriend is an arborist, and she told me the name. I think it’s – taxus ?”
Taxus baccata, the common yew. Even my initial, very cursory research revealed it was a special tree: referred to both as a tree of life, for its longevity (yews are only considered "ancient" starting at 900) and its habit of propagating by extending its branches to the ground. It is also known as a tree of death, as its bark, needles and berries are all poisonous to humans. During the Middle Ages, it's said that yews were used to make longbows. And yet, as so often with plants, poison and medicine is a matter of degree and preparation: in our time, the yew has become valuable as the primary component of anti-cancer drugs.
I felt drawn to the mysteries of this tree, whom I had privately begun calling “my Beau-YEW-ty”. Sitting with the tree one day, I remembered a talk by Woman Stands Shining at The Festival of Faiths in Louisville the previous year. She had said, “If you make an offering every morning to the Earth and ask to be of service, I guarantee your life will change.”
This inspired me to add a new ritual to my morning practice. After praying fajr, I would make a mug of tea, put on sandals and tiptoe downstairs into the bird song and bluing sky of dawn. I said, “Good morning, my beau-YEW-ty” to the tree and poured out of a bit of my tea onto her roots. I lit a stick of incense and pushed it into the ground wetted by my libation. Only then would I allow myself to drink some of the tea myself (it felt important to reserve the first sip for her). Then I went out into the garden to ask some of the other plants if they would be willing to give a few flowers to their sister for my morning offering. If it felt like a yes I would gently tug on a petal to make sure it gave way easily; if not, I would move on to another flower. Once I had collected at least three petals I returned to My Beau-yew-ty, laid them at the base of her trunk, and gave her a big hug.
I did this for nine months, until I moved out of that apartment and left Louisville at the end of 2019. My life did indeed change during that time. But before I explain how, I want to mention one more thing.
When I hugged my yew tree each morning, I asked the Divine to heal and be healed in beauty. In Sufism, we say that beauty is our point of contact with Allah, the Ultimate Reality. And for me it feels important to insist on that definition, and re-establish the sacredness of beauty. Like love, like friendship, like freedom, beauty is a blessing that calls us as human beings to an awareness of a higher purpose, and yet it has been debased by consumerism into a curse that further enslaves us to our egos. For women, it has been especially damaging to turn beauty into a cultural ideal of a pleasing and submissive body, because with that our sense of inherent value as beings, as members of the magnificent diversity of creation, is lost. Part of healing in beauty, then, is to honour the body not for its function in culture but as our inborn connection to the Earth and all of her other creatures.
Now — what did this ritual change for me?
At the start, I was probably imagining large-scale changes on the order of a new job, a new partner or new living situation. And in fact, I did go through the process of relocating to Europe in the second half of 2019: first, having a series of conversations with my teachers and friends about the decision, and then applying for my Czech visa (which, notably, was processed in just 30 days, record time for bureaucracy).
But there were other shifts too, and these were more subtle. They were new perceptions and awarenesses that coloured the substance and quality of my daily experiences, changing my life from the inside out rather than the outside in.
One of the first was a different sense of trees. If I went for a mindful walk in the park, for example, making a conscious effort to be present in my body — feeling the different textures underfoot as I moved from asphalt to dirt paths or a wooden bridge, sensing the change in air temperature as I went deeper into the woods — then I could also feel the forest as a gathering of living beings. Even if I wasn’t interacting with these trees the way I did with my tree at home, I still knew they were sentient individuals, much like walking through crowds of human beings in an airport. (You didn’t have to talk to them to know that they could talk.)
Something else happened which was connected, I believe, to my intention to be healed in beauty. Old wounds began to come up, including traumas from childhood that had been repeated in my adult life. It was a heavy and painful slog to revisit these patterns. At times I felt like Persephone in Hades, assailed by the cries of ghosts still suffering the torments of their deaths. But I knew that only by feeling the grief and anger I had suppressed could those ghosts finally step into the waters of Lethe, the river of forgetting, and be released. No coincidence it was a yew — tree of churchyards, tree of poison, tree of medicine — who was the gatekeeper into my own underworld.