Imagine a tree who could tell you her life story. An ancient tree, the 2000 year-old matriarch of the forest, witness to a millenium of life before the first man came to her land. A tree whose history becomes inevitably entwined with the history of man, from the first wild man of the forest to today’s visitors to the Abbey Yew in Killarney National Park.

The Story of Yew is the autobiography of an age-old Yew tree, living deep in the forest of a land we now call Ireland. Author Guido Mina di Sospiro gives her ‘voice’ using the license of romantic fiction, but takes care to be scientifically accurate on matters of botany and natural history. This makes for a tale as informative as it is entertaining.

Through an event-filled narrative we learn about the natural wonders of this remarkable tree. Using her vast root system, she communicates with the extended forest through ancient underground fungal interconnections. Above-ground communication is carried through kindred species ( Juniper, Podocarpus, Strawberry tree). She can emit growth inhibitors in her nearby area to discourage unwanted new vegetation, or growth enhancers for desired species. She holds a unique place in the hierarchy of trees, due to her “heightened sense of curiosity”, her longevity and natural resistance to invading insects and foraging animals.

Before the first man came to her wood, she had seen 1000 years of history, drama, intrigue and conflict in her forest world. With the dawn of modern man in the northern isles, a new thread is woven into her story. The first wild man to visit her forest lived in her limbs. The Druids, who considered the Yew a sacred tree, performed their ceremonies in her grove. Then came the first Christians, who saw nature as a force to be used and subdued. “Fill the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, and over every living thing that moves on earth.”

Throughout the book we see history’s impact on the natural world. And nature is more than a silent witness. The spread of the English empire depended on a mighty fleet, and so Ireland, a woodland for over 10,000 years, was converted to a grassland within a few generations. A single ship would require over 2000 trees, or 50 acres of forest. A large warship would require over 4000 trees. The quest for empire came at the cost of natural treasure.

The author personifies the Yew tree as a sentient being. As the tree ages, her reflections on the events she has witnessed and endured run the gamut from the wonders of her youth, the pains of adolescence, the adventures and conflicts of middle age and finally, the acceptance of maturity. Ultimately, she reaches an awareness and embrace of unlimited, all-encompassing love, and the realization that this state of unconditional love makes her no longer willing to participate in the game of life, a game defined by conflict, struggle and competition.

The Story of Yew is rich with interesting facts about the inner workings of the forest; it also offers a unique perspective on mankind’s place within this world. If this book could be distilled to just one word, it would be interdependence. Understanding the interdependence of all species, including man, leads to a greater appreciation of the miracle of life, and commitment to protect its fragile web.

Reading The Story of Yew is like taking a walk through the forest. It is deceptively simple. You can breeze through this little book, a quick read at only 146 pages, and leave feeling refreshed and a bit more in touch with the natural world. Or you can dally awhile, and become easily engrossed in the myriad complexities of a natural woodland. You may find yourself going back and re-reading pages, exploring footnotes, pausing to observe and reflect. But watch the time…..a most engaging tangle of history, botany and philosophy is waiting to ensnare the curious.

The Story of Yew reviewed by:

Greg Seaman