The Irish Times

Features

Friday, April 27, 2001

Mina di Sospiro, author of The Story of the Yew, which is set in Ireland, finds shelter and comfort among the boughs of a yew tree in the Iveagh Gardens in Dublin. As a child he was 'interested, fascinated, bewitched' by the beauty of the yew trees near his family home in Italy.
Photograph: Dara MacDónaill

He only has eyes for yews

By Eileen Battersby
A great yew tree in Killarney's Muckross Abbey gave Italian aristocrat Guido Mina di Sospiro the perfect setting for a philosophical tale. His dislike for modernity helps to explain why his heroine is a 2,000-year-old tree
Self-confessedly in love with knowledge, symbols and trees, Guido Mina di Sospiro looks like an academic and possesses the demeanour of a concerned medieval prince. With a bright green yew frond in his top pocket and a welcoming smile, he makes no secret of his dislike of modernity, a dislike he expresses with more sorrow than aggression.
"I revolt against it. Modernity has many problems, among the most serious is its lack of tradition; its loss of tradition." It is not surprising that he chose to write an eloquent, philosophical and wonderful tale from the viewpoint of a 2,000-year-old female yew recalling her life. "Trees are so much more interesting than most inconsequential humans, don't you find?"
He belongs to an ancient Italian family with a history reaching back to the eighth century Carolingian Europe of Charlemagne "on my father's side, and on my mother's to an ancestor Bernardo da Quintavalle, who was the first follower of Francis of Assisi". Part of the family name, di Sospiro, is that of a town close to Cremona in Northern Italy. Having read the book, The Story of Yew, in a proof copy unaccompanied by biographical notes, all I have been told about him is that he is a count. He smiles understandingly and corrects this, "I am a marchese" - the Italian for a marquess - "it's somewhat higher in rank". Having been so precisely and matter-of-factly put right on matters of aristocratic lineage, I present my lowly credentials. I have a fine pair of venerable yews - a female and a male - in my garden, but . . . I was born in Los Angeles.
Again he smiles understandingly. "Ah, I studied there, at the University of Southern California. I lived in Los Angeles for what . . . 10, 12 years. Now I live in Miami."
He understands far more than your average aristocrat, Italian or otherwise, about most things. The US no longer surprises him, although when he first arrived in California in 1980 to study orchestration and conducting, he encountered culture shock at its most surreal. "I thought to myself, 'My God, this looks like CHiPs' - you remember that terrible TV show?" He may be a dreamer and, as he says several times throughout the interview, "a storyteller", but he is also extremely practical and methodical. And, as soon becomes clear, he pursues - with polite relentlessness - information, ideas and people, such as the late Alan Mitchell, an international authority on trees, and Rupert Sheldrake, a behavioural scientist whose work he admires. He is unusual: at once far older than his 41 years, and also much younger.
"Yes" he says. "I feel this, very young and very old." He is also persistent, tenacious and encyclopaedic without being pedantic. He has a sense of humour. Words like "mania" and "obsession" don't alarm him. He accepts them as accurate.
"When I was writing this book, I was one of the five most knowledgeable persons on the planet on the subject of yew trees." He sighs. Perhaps from satisfaction, or possibly from regret at the limitations of memory - although his is certainly impressive.
The Story of Yew , for all its beauty and magic, myth and symbolism, draws on scientific fact. He set out to write a story and to beguile but he also wanted botanists to endorse it. They have.
Although born in 1960, he describes his Italian childhood as Victorian. "It was very strict. I don't think I ever played." Does he regret this? "I don't think so, there were other good things. I was also so curious. I had to know. I asked tough questions. I even made the priest cry. But, yes, it was very disciplined. My father decided I had to learn to fence when I was five. At sabre." As anyone with an interest in fencing will know, this means little Guido was expected to begin with the largest fencing sword, bypassing foil and épée. Among the family's several homes he knew as a child is one on Lake Como to which he, his Spanish wife and three sons "migrate to each year, we are like the birds". When he was small, his grandmother ruled over it. "The house was open every year on the first of May and then closed - regardless of how good the weather still was - on the 1st of October. That was the way."
The lands of the Como house, about 80 kilometres north of Milan, are a paradise for trees. "They grew right beside the lake, so they are pumping water all the time. They are huge. You look at one and think, `it must be 500 years old', but in fact it is only maybe a century." Among the trees at Como is a giant oriental plane tree, the largest in the world. "It takes 11 people to to embrace its trunk. You must come to see it. The house, I Plantani [the plane trees], is named for it." Trees such as this remarkable plane on his land have left him feeling a need to be "worthy of my family's legacy". He first became aware of trees when he was "about eight, or nine". An English girl came to visit the family. "And like every good English girl of that type, she knew her trees and began identifying them. When she came to the yew, she made the pun on yew and you. It was enough." Young Guido became "interested, more like fascinated, bewitched. It was as simple as that."
When it came to writing a book with a tree as witness to the natural world and the threats perpetrated by man, he obviously needed a tree with a long memory. The yew, as the heroine of his book discovers early in her long life, is "the high and mighty". Her mother, the matriarch of the forest, tells her, "You must have noticed already, small as you are, that no harm has come to you from the elements or from the creatures of the air, the earth, the water. Long, very long ago, we were made in order to outlive all creatures, and reign over them."
As with French novelist Jean Giono's gorgeous allegory, The Man Who Planted Trees (1954), he wanted to write a book with a sense of place. Giono set his imaginary tale in Provence. Giono hoped to entertain as a storyteller but also, more importantly, to encourage readers to think.
"I know that book, I love it," says Mina di Sospiro, who also wanted a specific setting. He visited many ancient yews in England, Scotland and Wales. Yet he failed to find the place he was searching for. It was the late Alan Brady, then director of the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin, who asked him, "Have you looked at the Killarney Yew?" Brady was referring to the great tree that stands in the middle of Muckross Abbey.
A visit to the abbey, only a mile from the limestone outcrop hosting the largest wild yew wood in these islands, gave him "the package I needed".
While local people believe the yew was there before the monks arrived about 1448, tree experts suggest it was planted after the foundation of the abbey. Mina di Sospiro gave the tree a life that began some 1,500 years earlier: in the book, having been violently cut down by the monks, it survives beneath the ground and, as yews do, resprouts. The Christian themes of birth, death, regeneration and survival are strong, as is the author's practical disapproval of man's cruelty.
Mina di Sospiro lives in a high-tech world and, with his hurricane-tested Miami studio, is super efficient, yet writes in formal prose and would probably be happier living as an 18th century thinker.
"Yes, 18th, no 17th century, better 15th century. I would most like to be a medieval man."
* The Story of the Yew by Guido Mina di Sospiro is published by Findhorn, £12.95 in UK.
The Story of Yew