Yew: A History

An edited version of this review appears in the Summer 2012 edition of the Scottish Forestry Journal.

I had a few concerns on being asked to write a book review of a subject which I have scant knowledge of. Would it be aimed at the existing experts in the field, and go completely over my head? As one who still relies on his memory of old Monty Python sketches to identify trees, I needn’t have worried. On receiving the copy of Fred Hagender’s Yew: A History I could immediately see that this book was aimed at a wider audience, not just the expert. The books cover, warm sunlight through a yew glade, drew me in, and it is wonderfully illustrated throughout with fantastic photography. What could have been a very dry subject comes alive through these stunning pictures, turning textbook into coffee table book, something that makes you want to sit down and read it.

The book is split into two parts, Nature and Culture, the former dealing mainly with the botanical aspects, the latter on the yew trees effect on everything from folklore to war, to trade and to religion.

The first section I found absolutely fascinating. As someone with no more than a basic knowledge of how trees work I found it to be laid out in a very logical manner and despite a very necessary use of technical and Latin terms, it was very easy to understand. Some writers like to use very long and obscure words, to give the impression of superiority over the reader. It can be very off-putting to have to sit with a dictionary while reading a book, breaking up the rhythm and spoiling any flow. This isn’t the case here, and having having put so much into the research and writing of this, the author has ensured it will be read and understood by as wide an audience as possible. This section covers more than just the tree from root to branch, also dealing with this poisonous trees relationship with the birds, animals, insects and other plants it shares its habitat with. I knew that yews could grow to a considerable age, but I was not aware of their technique of regeneration, one that would put Doctor Who in the shade! This understanding of the regenerative process is vital, as the author shows. Many ancient yews were killed through kindness in the past, their hollowed trunks being seen as a precursor to their collapse, and either filled with rubble or banded together with steel to help lengthen their life, which sadly sped up their demise instead. This part really is required reading for anyone who looks after one of these trees.

The second section deals with the yews relation with humans, and two parts of the book really stand out here. The English desire for yew wood for longbows for war which, had it not been for early fore-runners of the green movement, would have seen the species wiped from the face of the Europe is presented in great detail. It’s present day equivalent is also mentioned. This time medicine, not war, threatens the future of the yew. The need for the yew in the worldwide battle against cancer opens up new challenges, and the need to balance the medical needs of the sick with the survival of a species of tree which is notoriously slow growing is an interesting one. The author then rounds off this study with a thorough look at how the yew has affected worship throughout the ages, and has survived, like the tree itself, across a spectrum of belief systems and religions, with similarities in patterns of worship, seemingly absorbed and passed on from culture to culture for thousands of years. That the yew trees found in numerous British churchyards predate the Christian church itself throws up a myriad of questions as to why, and some of the theories which are put forward, dealing with folklore and legend are less convincing, the roots of his arguments not as strong as those of the trees which he writes of. However the author has scoured the globe to shine a light on long forgotten races and tribes to try and find out, in some cases more successfully than others, and his attention to detail cannot be faulted.

My only complaint, and a minor one, is that as a work of reference it should be reasonably straightforward to check the index, but this wasn’t always the case. As a layman I found it necessary to go look up some of the more technical terms that I had read in the text which I was unfamiliar with, such as cambium, and was a bit surprised to find it unlisted in the index. Only on nearing completion of the book did I discover a separate botanical glossary, where those terms are listed. Similarly I was aware of the Fotheringall Yew, Britains (and probably Europe’s) oldest yew tree, and wanted to see if it was recorded in the book, but could find neither reference to Fotheringall or Scotland. It was only on actually reading the book that I found mention of it, in a section on churches.

That aside, this is undoubtedly a unique work, covering a huge range of issues. Whether your interest in the yew, or trees in general, is fleeting or more determined, this book is an illuminating one, well laid out and easy on the eye. Make room for it on your bookshelf.

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