A Yew is Forever
A millenary tree, perhaps even immortal. Who knows how many things it has seen and heard. A writer has given it a voice…
By Guido Mina di Sospiro
(Originally published in the magazine Specchio della Stampa)
The first idea to write the memoirs of a tree came to me in Bad Ragaz, Switzerland. I was learning to walk again after a car accident. The pain was intense, so I wobbled ever so slowly beneath majestic trees in the clinic’s park. Trees—their quiet, shade and apparent imperturbability—had always fascinated me. Since a child I perceived in them something numinous.
I began to read botanical texts and to visit gardens. As I lived in Los Angeles, I had at my disposal a remarkable variety of species: in Beverly Hills, for example, native trees from Canada grow side by side with shrubs of Australian origin. This chaos did not put me off, but rather intrigued me. I soon realised that among the species there is a hierarchy, based on two factors: longevity and, to a lesser extent, size.
Trees—which are considered aphonic, inanimate and little more than pumping machines—seemed, on the contrary, overwhelmingly worthy of a ‘dendrocentric’ story: a millenary tree that narrates its own life. And among all the trees I investigated I chose the yew (Taxus baccata). ‘It already thrived 250 million years ago, before the appearance of the dinosaurs, well before the appearance of man,’ I read in a treatise, which added, ‘a living fossil, virtually unaltered from time immemorial.’ What did this living monument want to tell us? Why had it survived to our days?
In the meantime we had moved to Miami. In my study engulfed by tropical greenery I began my research. As there were very few texts specifically on the yew, I took to corresponding with directors of botanical gardens and of natural history museums. Their replies were not encouraging. They objected to the age of the narrating yew tree: 2000 years. No one believed that the tree could have such a long life. But the yew displays anomalies of growth: while the central nucleus of the trunk rots, layers of new tissue englobe the dead wood. So the yew renews itself from the outside to the inside. Carbon-dating is therefore impossible, as is counting the growth rings.
My research had turned into a search, a quest for a vegetable Grail: a living specimen with the prerequisites of age and majesty that the story needed. Thus began a series of journeys to England, Wales and Scotland. Countless times I found myself before venerable yews, as sodden as I was, forgotten in some churchyard in the country. Celtic druids had planted them as symbols of immortality, a custom Christianity inherited with the difference that while for the druids the yew was the axis mundi and the intermediary between this and the other world, for the Christians it was an accessory to the church. I met many an ancient yew, but still did not find what I was looking for. Perhaps I myself did not know what I was looking for.
As the last resort I took the Irish chance. I wrote to Aidan Brady, director of the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin. His response was far from encouraging: ‘The Britons have felled all our trees. I doubt that a tree older than 1000 years grows in Ireland.’ There was a postscript: ‘Have you looked into Killarney?’ I flew to Dublin. Aidan put his collaborators at my disposal, and wrote two introduction letters: for the Curator of the Killarney National Park and for Alan Mitchell, the world’s leading expert on ‘champion trees’ of the British Isles.
I detrained under the rain, in the evening. In Killarney it rains all the time, and when it doesn’t rain, it rains harder. It seemed to me that moss sprouted from the nostrils of the few passers-by and that lichens grew on their cheeks. I awoke the next day under a cloudless sky. It was March, yet it was warm. There was a palpable euphoria in town. ‘It’s rained non-stop for five months,’ I was told; ‘finally a sunny day!’ I entered the park—gorgeous—set between lakes and mountains. I knew that the yew tree awaited me inside the cloister of a dilapidated Franciscan abbey. It was my last chance. I must confess that I walked right past it, avoiding the abbey. I returned to it shortly after, accompanied by the Park’s Curator.
And I knew it at once: I had found what I’d been seeking for years. The tree in itself was a majestic specimen, but the whole context spoke volumes. A few hundred yards away, the largest pure yew stand in Europe; farther on, by Dunloe Castle, two yews, a male and a female, that had been embracing one other for centuries. Beyond the hills, Serpent Lake, in which Saint Patrick had drowned the Island’s last snake. Moreover, Cormac reminded me of the strange fate of the IX Hispana Legion, stationed in Britannia, that mysteriously vanished from history. Had it attempted to invade Hibernia, contemporary Ireland? My story, I felt, had written itself. Cormac introduced me to Danny Cronin, a sprightly nonagenarian who, by dint of pints of Guinness, told me tens of legends. Some of them were to find a place in my book. Ireland had bewitched me.
In England, Alan Mitchell gave me an icy-cold welcome. He was a ‘fully paid-up materialist’ and therefore sceptical about my idea of giving voice to a tree. And yet, when I later wrote to him, he replied with an eight-page letter in which he made a display of his lifelong learning. This man, who is no longer with us, had catalogued 100,000 champion trees, thus founding the Tree Register of the British Isles. The author of a guide which remains one of the most authoritative, he had unexpectedly become my ally. Alan guided me through all of the story’s botanical aspects. And he introduced me to Allen Meredith, a possessed Welsh visionary.
Like me, he had been researching yew trees for years. After testing me so as to ascertain whether my love for the yew was genuine, Allen revealed a secret. We went together to Tandridge, in Surrey. There he had discovered a very ancient yew, eight yards away from the local church, whose foundations were Saxon. In the crypt one could observe that the stone vault had been built by the Saxons around the tree’s roots. Alan Mitchell came back with us to the ‘scene of the crime’ and after many an inspection he could not deny the evidence. ‘Yes, this tree is to be revaluated.’ And he divulged the news to the scientific community around the world: the Tandridge yew was between 2,000 to 2,500 years old.
Among other things, I realised that the vegetable kingdom is far from bucolic. Trees not only wage war on their neighbours by strangling their roots, or by shading them so as to prevent them from photosynthesizing, but also by resorting to allelopathy. And that is, the inhibition/suppression of growth through toxins. A chemical warfare. This inspired the seventh chapter, which tells of a centuries-long war between the usurping oaks and the evergreen species. To write it competently I went to New Hampshire to meet the legendary Alex Shigo. A tree surgeon, he has dissected 16,000 trees, and has then studied them under the microscope. He is responsible for the ‘new tree biology,’ whose basic concept is ‘compartmentalisation’: trees live on until they manage to ‘compartmentalise’ infections. We talked for days and corresponded for months. Even if devoid of a brain, plants seemed ever more intelligent to me.
Once I had completed the manuscript, I wanted to talk about it with other personalities. Sir Ghillean Prance, for example, then the Director of Kew Gardens. Ghillean is a living legend: forty species that he has discovered in the Amazon bear his name (Prancii). I had sent him the manuscript and I didn’t know what to expect. ‘He’ll tell you about it when you’ll come to visit him,’ I had been told by his secretary. He welcomed me into his study at Kew Gardens; asked me to have a seat; took a good look at me, and then said: ‘I loved it!’ A great friendship was born.
Another personality who read the proofs was Rupert Sheldrake, the biologist who has been ‘excommunicated’ by the scientific priesthood. He had dared to write A New Science of Life, a book that the prestigious journal of science Nature had decreed should be ‘burned.’ He opened his house’s door in Hampstead; he was smiling. His wife Jill, for years the partner of the composer Stockhausen, was vocalizing: Mongolian chants in which she produced multiple notes at the same time. I asked Rupert permission to incorporate some aspects of his theories, such as the communication among trees by way of botanical proximity thanks to morphic resonance. Permission granted, friendship blossomed.
In the meantime a research conducted by various laboratories on 114,000 plants had narrowed down to a single substance that showed promise as an anticancer agent, one obtained from the bark of the Pacific yew. Taxol is now partially synthesized, as it is extracted in part from the leaves of the common yew without endangering its survival. And it is one of the most effective anticancer drugs. Whereas taxine, which is found in all of the tree’s parts except for the berries (arils), is an alkaloid that causes convulsions, paralysis and cardiac arrest. A paradoxical plant: the tree of death and of longevity; executioner and healer; Kalashnikov of the Middle Ages (only arrows hurled by longbows made of yew could pierce body armours) and symbol of immortality.
Finally recognized as a technically immortal being, in the United Kingdom the yew tree has been regaining the respect that is due to it. Its effigy has even been printed on a stamp. My book was published in many countries to much acclaim. I was surprised when the Encyclopædia Britannica quoted in its entirety a very favourable review of it. We had come full circle: the depositary of official culture bowed before the evidence of our discoveries. Several scientists are agreed today in pointing to the Fortingall yew, in Scotland, as the most ancient living organism in the world: eight thousand years old—and still in great health!