29th April 2001
And that’s the wonder, the wonder of yew
Edel Coffey meets a man who is obsessed with a tree.
Bambi and Watership Down may stand out as some of the most memorable emotional children’s tales but apart from these stories, tales of life seen through the eyes of animals are few and far between. But what a story from a tree’s perspective?
The Story of Yew, the tale of a tree, is reminiscent of the most imagination-provoking childhood tales. Its mythical context and factual content are appealing to the child within and the adult without. And its author was equally pleasing when I met him.
With his goatee beard shot through with hints of silver and a pink carnation threaded through his lapel he has all the eccentricities of a CS Lewis character.
Sitting in the old-style decadence of the Harrington Hall lobby, Guido Mina di Sospiro talked freely and animatedly about his new book, his research for it and everything in between.
Born in Buenos Aires, Mina di Sospiro was raised in Milan by an aristocratic family, which dates back 800 years to the time of Charlemagne and it was in Italy that his infatuation with the yew tree began.
“When I was young our grand-aunt had a house in Lake Como with very grand trees,” he says in his American accent heavily layered with Italian. “It was the forbidden house as she only opened for a certain period of time every summer so we used to go there for just a week in September. It was magical, and there was a yew tree there that just struck me.
“Then in 1989 we had an English friend over who went around the grounds telling us what all the trees were. When she described the yew, that was the conception of the book. I eventually ended up studying all the trees on the grounds.”
Mina di Sospiro’s research eventually led him father afield than his grand-aunt’s grounds in Lake Como, and when his piles of books in the subject were beginning to take over his Florida studio, where he lives with his wife and three sons, he decided it was time he embarked on the second leg of his research.
“I upped and went to England and Scotland where they have these fantastic yews but I needed something more. I needed the lore as well, so I decided to try Ireland. Cormac Foley of the Killarney National Park showed me two yew trees, male and female, which had grown embracing each other and I knew then that I had found my holy grail.”
Mina di Sospiro is an unlikely candidate to write a novel chronicling a tree’s experiences, having studied film in California with the Hitchcockian writer Ernest Lehman and music with the late Hungarian composer Micklos Rozsa. But he explains the attraction of the yew thus:
“Our society has a trend of glorifying uninteresting people and frankly I just don’t care about them,” he says. “This mythical tree with all its connections with to the other world was so much more interesting to me. The yew tree was the centre of druid and Christian worship but we’re living in a secular world where nothing is sacred anymore. The Story of Yew is told from the perspective of the tree.”
Just like the classic Watership Down it provokes the imagination as well as the emotions and Mina di Sospiro’s eccentric spirit infuses the story with an enthusiasm that even the most hardened cynics will find hard to resist.