Country diary: As close to immortality as British nature can get | Trees and forests

The yew in the churchyard here has a legend as the oldest tree in Britain, although its exact age is a matter of dispute. Many propose that it is older than Christianity and some that it could even predate Stonehenge.

Perhaps a more revealing comparison arises with an “artefact” from about the same period (circa 3000BC). It’s the man called “Oetzi”, whose leathery, ice-preserved remains were extracted from a Tirolean glacier in 1991, along with his deerskin boots and bearskin cap. Oetzi carried a mark of high prestige in his little copper axe, but this state-of-the-art technology also had a handle made of the same wood as the tree in Fortingall. The Scottish yew has thus endured from the age of copper to a time when children (like those standing next to us as we visited) take Snapchat shots on smartphones.

The yew is a male tree producing flowers and pollen, although one part recently turned female and now yields fruit. Photograph: Mark Cocker

The tree, in truth, is much reduced since 1769, when it was lassoed by Daines Barrington and measured at 15.9 metres. Souvenir hunters began hacking off parts of its monumental girth until concerned locals threw up a wall – some see it as a prison – to protect the remains. As I pondered my tree, I wondered how best to capture its full eldritch condition.

Should I photograph the blackening heartwood, some of whose laminar swirling shapes suggest the eddying surface to a pollen-stained river, but also the flames licking up from a wood fire? Or does its true exceptionalism lie in the cone-like flowers that are still sprouting at the twig ends and, at this very moment, look for all the world like any rain-sodden greenery in this landscape?

My dilemma reminded me of a pronouncement by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, known for a series of fragmentary sayings, many paradoxical in nature. Life, he proposed, was akin to music produced when the strings of a bow are laid crosswise upon a lyre. Harmony arises in the tension of these diametrically opposed strings. “The name of the bow is life,” he wrote, “and its work [the music] is death.” The Fortingall yew, which is closer to immortality than any other resident in these islands, is perhaps the most death-like life I’ve ever seen.

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