Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Breathing Trees

Morning sun rising over Gulf of Policastro, Italy. 2014

I’ve written some rather light posts so far. So this one will be different. Not heavy, mind you, just different.

My first WWOOF placement was at Il Rifugio Del Contadino, at Bosco di San Giovanni, in a region of Italy known as the Cilento. A place that looks like heaven-on-earth, and is in fact populated by angels andevery once in a whileheavenly music.

Pino and company, warming up a rainy day.
I spent my first few days there rising earlier than anyone should. Especially anyone who’s jet-lagged. But then I’d go to the porch for breakfast with my new friend and fellow WWOOFer, Filippo, later joined by the Maestro Cesare, and even jet lag couldn’t keep me down. We’d sit at the table outside on the veranda with our espresso, overlooking the Gulf of Policastro as the sun came up, hearing Rosina (my new donkey friend) calling out, happy to be freed from her nighttime quarters and grazing under the fig tree again.

My new fratellino, waiting at the breakfast table outside.
Rosina, by her favorite fig tree.

We’re about to do the olive harvest.
A sad olive harvest, to be sure.
In spring, when the trees were flowering, the weather wasn’t kind. And no flowers means no olives. That’s how it works. The weather was poor on the harvest end of things, too.

We had some olives, but they were small and dried out. And very, very few. A tree might have them on one side, but be utterly bare on the other. The olives were so small and desiccated that the little pettini (combs) we used to manually pull them from the branches were actually too big. The olives would slip through the teeth. We ended up pulling them off with our gloved hands.

Cesare, going out on a limb for his olives.
They're working hard. . . and I'm taking photos.
(What? Documentation is important . . . )
It’s a lot of work.
We took a lot of breaks.
I drank espresso.
They smoked cigarettes.

Filippo and Cesare, taking a necessary break.

Things were bad. We took to climbing and shaking the trees. Well, Filippo and Cesare did. I tried it once.
Once. Enough said about that.
The olives would plop to the nets we’d placed on the ground, then we’d gather them up into crates. This is when I learned the word Buco . . . hole.

Putting out the nets.
Shaking the tree, but not in the Peter Gabriel sense.

We discovered that a bunch of the nets had holes in them. Big holes. The olives went through the nets, and onto the ground. More work to gather them a second timewe had so few, we couldn’t afford to let any escape.

It hurt, this work. A lot. My neck was in bad shape. But after a few days of this, I needed to add another holeto my beltthe desirable side of the belt. Which is nice. Losing weight on a trip to Italy . . .I’ll bet that’s a first.

While working, Cesare coined a beautiful English-Italian mash-up, for my benefit. We were "Raccogling" the olives. That's the Italian verb "raccogliere", to harvest, with a little English "-ing" on the end. It's a bit like me saying we're "harvestiendo" in English. I can't wait for it to make it's way into the local dialect, to the future bewilderment of experts in linguistics.

At Cesare and Issa’s place, and especially nearby, I saw some of the oldest and largest olive trees I’ve ever seen. Cesare showed me one on his property that’s probably 500 years old. There are even older ones on the other side of the village, he tells me. 
This one year, this one bad harvest, is barely a blip on their radar. Barely even the punctuation in the long story they tell.

They are a presence. Strong. Like burly sentinels, calmly keeping watch, breathing. 
In their infancy, they breathed the same air as Michelangelo while he worked on the Sistine Chapel. 
Perhaps they felt the ripple, the gasp of breath when it all became clear to Copernicus.

As Caravaggio painted The Seven Works of Mercy, these trees inhaled.  
Their exhalation is long and slow, measured in centuries, not seconds. 
And now, as they release that breath of Caravaggio from deep within, it reaches Cesare . . . 
He’s not only a farmer, but a gifted painter, taking inspiration, literally and figuratively, from the land where he’s chosen to plant himself.

Figure by Cesare Siboni
Cesare hard at work, some years ago.

This is Terroir, moving in the world.

And it moves me.

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