In the Olive Groves

Here is what I remember about the olive harvest.

I remember that everyone gathered in the fields, oldest to youngest, women with their hair in kerchiefs. We would spread great nets underneath the trees and the young men would beat them with sticks and the olives would fall down in a pattering rain, occasionally smacking the less wary on the head. Olives, small though they are, can pack a surprising punch when they are rattled from the branches of their trees and they hurtle toward the earth in indignation. They do not much care whether bystanders are innocent or not. By the end of the harvest, most of us were mottled with small markings and some of us carried small scratches to boot, from climbing the trees and rattling the branches to shake down their fruity cargo.

I remember that the nets would be shaken and picked through to remove the bulk of the detritus so that the olives could be graded. They were carried in huge sacks to the community press where they were carefully inspected, everyone wary-eyed in case a bad batch should slip their way through and taint the pressing. This is not small matter. When you are pressing olives from hundreds of trees together and even one has a bad harvest, it spreads like a taint not just in the oil, but through the press itself, and high grade olive oil becomes little more than garbage.

Smaller batches would wind their way into crocks packed with oil and salt. We cured our own olives in the dark kitchen, simple salt cured and brine cured, checking them periodically and trembling with anticipation for the day that they would be perfectly, deliciously perfect, perfection in a jar the way that people have been bottling perfection for centuries, turning one of the most bitter and inedible experiences on earth into one of the most delectable ones. Sometimes I would sneak the lid off and try them even though I knew better, and had the audacity to be surprised when I got a mouthful of intense bitterness tempered with harsh salt and brine. Some things take longer to learn than others, evidently.

I remember the rich oily scent that hovered over the olive press. By the end of the day our hands would taste of pure, mouth puckering bitterness from handling the olives, but the oil smell would be thick in our hair and our clothes and everyone’s hair turned thick, rich, and glossy. I remember that everyone would fill jugs from the community press before the dealer came to collect the oil, jugs of all shapes and sizes that would skulk in the back of kitchens across the village.

For days, the whole town would eat, breathe, and live olives. Everything else was set aside. Even the fleet didn’t go out. It built up in a wave that would eventually crescendo. A fever pitch of activity and restlessness that started days before, with thoughtful inspections of the trees and deep conversations and muttering and gesticulating, cigarettes drooping out of mouths and brisk arguments about past events. The town would hum with anticipation as each day we waited for the word.

At the end of the day, everyone would be exhausted, dusty, too tired to do anything more than flop around the nearest convenient patch of flat ground to eat bread and cheese and olives. Even the musicians had defeated expressions and fingers too sore to operate their instruments and sometimes people struggled so much with the corks on the wine bottles that they gave up and smashed the necks, pouring a libation on the ground to wash away the glass shards and then filling random cups that appeared almost from nowhere.

And yet, somehow, everyone would get up the next morning and do it again, and again, and again until the harvest was in, at which point everyone was too exhausted to even throw a party to celebrate. People moved in a dream state through the orchards, tidying up bits and pieces, wiping down the press, preparing everything for the next round. Always looking to the future, the next harvest, the next time, because there would always be one. There would be a dissection and comparison of this harvest to the last, pondering and tasting of oil and, of course, arguments with the dealer about the final price. Arguments between each other about how to split the haul. Philosophical debates about the meaning of it all.

Olive trees can live for hundreds of years, bearing fruit productively, especially if they are given tender and dedicated care, encouraged to grow and thrive and supported instead of being left to their own devices. It can take decades for trees to bear fruit reliably after planting. Olives are an investment, not in the short term, but in the long term. They are a commitment to a future that the planter may never see. They are a way of establishing permanency, of saying that, yes, we will still be here in 100 years. 200. We will still be spreading nets and beating the trees and pressing in the community press, in the stone building that is older than the elders put together.

They are a heritage. A whispered promise. It is this that drove us to the harvest, that gathered our collective efforts, because it was something bigger than ourselves. Something almost outside our experience altogether; we were merely the caretakers of the trees and we had a duty to care for them well while they were in our custody.

We will keep finding pieces of previous civilisations every time we plow, broken amphorae and pottery and bangles. This is what planting olives, and harvesting them, means. It is a pledge to a future generation; here, we have planted these for you.