The Forest Network Newsletter

Friends of the Irish Environment


“The Story of Yew” by Guido Mina di Sospiro, published by Findhorn Press,2001. (You know that mad ecological community in Northern Scotland).
At Easons, Price £16.05 Hardback

This is the story of a 2,000-year-old female Yew tree located in the Yew Woods at Muckross, Killarney. Actually, the tree it is based on is estimated to be only about a quarter of this age but di Sospiro takes the license that it was cut down by the Franciscans (ironic) to build the Abbey and resprouted miracle-like from its stump. Apparently, this is possible with these unusual conifers. Alan Mitchell, the famous British Tree expert, guided the author through the botanical aspects of the book. You are asked to suspend your Cartesian dualistic view of the world (not too difficult I suspect) and imagine the Yewess (Top of Celtic Tree hierarchy) as a superior being to humans who witnesses the end of the Iron Age, a Roman legion, early Christians, Medieval, and Monastic settlement and their cumulative effects on the natural environment and how Killarney survived as a remnant native woodland. (What di Sospiro describes as the desertification of Ireland). This is intertwined with religious and mystical references, which gives it a holistic flavor.

The book also describes the natural processes in woodland evolution and competition including mycorrhizal fungi and how the Yew managed to suppress the growth of Oaks by inhibiting the symbiotic relationship between the Oaks’ roots and the fungi. Di Sospiro recognizes that pure Yew stands are rare and are relatively poor as far as biodiversity is concerned. The book certainly helps the less scientific to understand some of the processes involved in woodland ecology. It is recommended by Botanists both in Ireland and abroad (e.g. Dr. Botanic Man himself).

I managed to finish the book in two weeks (a record). But it is not very long in truth and it is easy to read particularly as it looks at the history of a part of the country with which we all should be familiar. I would even consider using some of the references in academic work.

I would recommend for adults and children of 10+ (there are some somewhat gory bits but what’s new about this these days).

William Maher