The Sunday Business Post

Book Review

Nothing compares to yew

By Ros Drinkwater

Dublin, Ireland, May 13, 2001
The Story of Yew By Guido Mina di Sospiro Findhorn Press, stg£13
The Story of Yew follows in a fine tradition, that of philosophy made user-friendly, as in Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery and Sophie's World by Jostein Gaardner, both of which have become cult classics.
The pun in the title is intentional -- this is both the autobiography of a 2,000-year-old yew tree and the story of the relationship between us and nature.
It was inspired by the famous yew at Muckross Abbey in Killarney, home of the oldest stand of yew trees in the world, and in the foreword Sospiro sets the tone by asking the reader to put aside his or her assumption of the superiority of the human race.
In the manner of all good fairy tales, it begins by a lakeside in an enchanted forest as yet untainted by human presence.
Here a yew is born to the matriarch of all the trees. The sapling has an innate curiosity, a thirst for knowledge, and she delights in the wonders of the world around her.
Using a skilful blend of classic myth and Irish folklore, Sospiro takes us through 2,000 years of Irish history seen from the yew's perspective, as she matures from an engaging youngster with a delightful sense of humour through a troubled middle age to a wise and resilient maturity.
She is 30 summers old when she shares with her fellow creatures a sense of deep apprehension about the arrival of the strange two-legged, wingless creatures who hunt for pleasure.
It is from this point that the landscape begins the irrevocable change from woodland to grassland, saved from becoming a desert only by virtue of Ireland's abundant rainfall.
The yew's fears are allayed by the Druids' acceptance of her species as central to their religion, but these fears are reborn with the arrival of Christianity.
Throughout her life, man continues to cast his shadow on the forest until the arrival of the railways brings nature-loving tourists, bird watchers and tree watchers and, as the yew sees it, "the first, tangible, long-overdue signs of mankind coming to its senses".
Along the way we meet the yew's many friends, the wisest and oldest cricket in the land who teaches her that daylight can hold more terrors than the darkest night, the wolf who explains how man's penchant for invention fuels his predatory instincts, and the sun-loving strawberry tree, the original philanthropist, always in leaf and generous with the birds who love to eat its berries.
Our heroine digresses, as all good storytellers do, to take us down the byways of history.
The mysterious disappearance of the Roman IX Hispana Legion, she explains, was due to one of the world's great love stories set in motion by an encounter between the Legion's commander, Aeneas, and the Fairy of the Lake. We learn why Ireland has no woodpeckers, how St Patrick banished snakes and how during his Irish apprenticeship, Robin Hood fashioned his first long bow from a branch of the Muckross yew.
In one of the most gripping passages, the yew's access to the consciousness and memories of all other trees allows her to travel back in time to the dawn of creation in the days of the hapless and hopelessly incompetent dinosaurs, a chapter that serves to underline man's inability to learn from history.
Trees, we learn, suffer just as humans do and on the death of her majestic mother, the yew undergoes a 30-year-long period of dormancy and despair before re-awakening to don the mantle of matriarch.
Aged 1,450 years, she endures the ultimate indignity, being cut down by Franciscan Friars to make room for an abbey. However, the miraculous sprouting of green shoots from her lifeless stump is taken as a sign from God and the yew lives on to be declared a National Monument.
What elevates the book from being merely a charming piece of whimsy is Sospiro's grasp and skilful use of hard scientific fact. His detailed explanation of the intricacies of nature, the physiology of trees, their health and growth, their hierarchy, friends and foes, makes fascinating reading. It will come as a surprise to many that trees too fight wars.
Faced with a deadly threat from invasive oaks, the yew embarks on an epic battle -- as thrilling as any human conflict -- involving years of careful strategy and the enlistment of many allies before the final triumph.
Sospiro likens the fate of the forest to a universal plight, one endured by the invaded, the usurped, the wounded and the murdered around the globe. It is our duty, he says, to tilt the balance between good and evil. His book is both thought-provoking and highly entertaining.