Pacific Yew
by James Ross Kelly

I was once paid
to survey Yew trees
in Old Growth forests
in Oregon near Crater Lake, as
mammoth Douglas fir & White fir
covered the landscape, rolling sides
of Mountains, the Yew were generally
in wet areas, crevices of creeks,
they grew as attendant soldiers to the large conifers
the Yew only fifty to sixty feet the oldest of them
lining the feeder streams that stretched downward
to Creeks that all ran to the Rogue River
the surrounding clearcuts were littered with their
brothers & sisters as they are sexed male & female
loggers put them into large piles
to be burned as unmerchantable

In Canada they made them into beautiful
hardwood flooring, after closing a bar in
British Columbia I was drinking beer
at a timber faller’s home & complimented
him on his floor as it was gorgeous red hues
& blond running throughout the lengths of the boards,
& I asked him what kind of wood
it was, as I had installed wood floors
for about as brief a time as I had logged

“THAT,” he said, with a flourish
as he waved his Molson,
“Is Canadian Yew wood!”
& he said it as if it pronounced from the Queen herself

The females have tiny red berries
but were no different in appearance
than the males, but that they were
dioeciously conifers with separate sexes
was something that seemed an oddity,
yews were generally few & far
between but in the right conditions
they would form stands that followed
the creeks downhill & appeared
as un-uniformed limby
gnarly red barked ever green twisted
with holes & grown
over defects that were as old as
the tall Douglas fir
their large European counterparts were used as chapels
by early Christians
who took them from
Pagan worshipers that found their otherworldly
appearance in deep forest as thin places
to be contingent with other worlds
& I who had formerly spent
my short forestry career in clearcuts
where all this had been raped,
well, the three weeks I spent with
Yews, kind of sealed this notion
They were otherworldly

That, yes, this separate place
was an amalgam
of earth, with a presence
all its own, we were surveying Yew
because its bark had been found
to be a cure for breast & ovarian cancer,
the worry at the time was
that we had cut too much of it
& the need for it for medicine would
be its demise in a few short years
notwithstanding the fact we had burned up
More than was left, calling it “trash wood”
perhaps every incurable disease has
its counterpart, in this manner
the European Yew were almost wiped out because
of its prize as a commodity for long bows,
As a millennium of war raged on that continent.

This is really more understandable
rather than the overuse because it was
“just in the way,” of D8 Cats
& the ever-present need to tidy up
& burn the leftovers so we could entertain
the notion of growing back trees like corn that
had in a rather elegant fashion been growing to cure
the beloveds—the grandmothers,
the mothers, the young women whose
lives were to come into an age of
life out of balance

Education formed for reductionist drones
so that in corporate discounting of the lovely,
& the obscure
into spreadsheets & bottom lines
while the checkerboard square clearcuts
of Pacific Northwest took away
the great bands of yew & the spotted
owl—who were never seen
as created harbingers of loveliness,
& health & the sure goodness of
hidden away answers
to all our problems.

PHOTO: Old-growth forest near Crater Lake, Oregon. Photo by Ana Shuda on Unsplash.

EDITOR’S NOTES: Dioecious trees have male or female parts—a male tree has male flowers that produce pollen; a female tree has female flowers that produce fruit. Paclitaxel, derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolia), is used in the treatment of breast, lung, and ovarian cancer, as well as Kaposi’s sarcoma.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: There is a lot of work in Natural Resources that is about healing the Earth—understanding how wrong we have been is part of healing. This poem is from my book, Black Ice & Fire  (UnCollected Press, 2021).

james ross kelly

James Ross Kelly lives in Northern California next to the Sacramento River. He has been a journalist for Gannet, a travel book editor, and had a score of labor jobs—the in-between, jobs you get from being an English major—most of them in Natural Resources of some kind. He started writing poetry and short stories in college on the GI Bill, and after college continued to write and gave occasional readings in the Pacific Northwest during the 1980s. Kelly worked as an environmental writer for the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon and Southeast Alaska, where he retired in 2012. Born in Kansas, Kelly was a long-time resident of Southern Oregon, where he grew up. His work has been featured in Silver Birch Press (Los Angeles, California), Cargo Literary, (Prince Edward Island, Canada), Fiction Attic, Rock and Sling (Spokane, Washington), Edify (Helena, Alabama), Flash Fiction (San Francisco), Rue Scribe  (New Mexico), True Chili (New Mexico), The RawArt Review (Ellicott City, Maryland), The Purpled Nail (New Mexico), The Galway Review (Ireland), Willows Wept Review (Florida), and Blood and Bourbon (Nova Scotia, Canada). HIs first book of fiction, And the Fires We Talked About, a collection of short stories, was published by Uncollected Press/RawArt Review in 2020. His first book of poetry, Black Ice & Fire, was published in February 2021 by Uncollected Press/RawArt Review.