July / August 2001 / No 207
VOICE OF A TREE
Eileen Campbell writes of a remarkable work of imagination
One might question the sanity of Guido Mina di Sospiro — a man obsessed by the yew tree; in writing this extraordinary ecofable he explored not only botany and natural history, but also mythology, religion, literature, history and folklore. He also travelled far and wide to stand before the yew trees of England, Wales and Ireland. He sought out some of the most distinguished naturalists, botanists and ecologists to satisfy his curiosity, and many of them shared their knowledge and gave encouragement, and even endorsement, to this unique book. No one has been daring enough to give voice to a tree before — and this is precisely what Guido has done — written the autobiographical story of a 2000-year-old yew tree, indeed a female yew tree, in which he claims to “voice the unvoiced”. In so doing our own story is also revealed.
Guido Mina di Sospiro has always loved trees. He was born into an ancient aristocratic Italian family, in Buenos Aires, but was raised in Milan. He was, to use his own words, so “awed and humbled” by the great trees planted in the grounds of his grandmother’s villa on Lake Como, that he felt he must learn everything he possibly could about them, so as to be worthy of such a legacy. And the call of this most ancient of trees — so deeply rooted in mystery, guardian of the dead in churchyards and evergreen symbol of hope and renewal, living for thousands of years and thus a symbol of stability in a changing world — resonated deep within Guido.
The idea of a book, sparked by the yew on the estate at Como, lay dormant until Guido miraculously escaped a near-fatal car accident at the age of twenty-seven. As he lay recuperating and wondering why he had survived, he decided it was time to devote himself to The Story of Yew. And so, leaving Los Angeles behind, where he was working as a rock music critic, he went to Miami to become a writer.
Inspired by writers as diverse as Thoreau, Whitman, Lucretius, and Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Rupert Sheldrake’s A New Science of Life, and the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Yeats and a host of others, Guido produced The Story of Yew. In fact, he has worked now for over a decade in a soundproof studio-cave, shaded by trees and creeping fig and visited by wild animals. Whilst he could have lived a privileged life, he chose instead to dedicate himself to writing one book after another without any of his work being published until now. He sees his mission as the re-enchantment of the world through his stories. He regards The Story of Yew as both “a remembering”. Through the insects, birds, animals and her own biological mother, the yew tree comes to understand the forest and the yew’s place in it. The Story of Yew is the story of the World Tree, of all trees, and of the human race.
In reading this marvelous and inspiring novel, I’m reminded of John Steinbeck’s declaration in East of Eden — “If the story is not about the hearer, he will not listen. And here I make a rule — a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.” The Story of Yew — because it is so intimately entwined with humankind, is about You. Every chapter is a parable whose meaning touches us all — trees, animals, bacteria, cells, atoms. It will most certainly endure.
Eileen Campbell works for Penguin Books.