March 05, 2006
The olive tree has a long history here in Greece where I live. Athena, in her Name-the-City contest with Poseidon, gave an olive tree to the Athenians. Poseidon’s concept of the sea was runner-up—and the olive has been the symbol of Greece ever since.
I’ve never been as rhapsodic about trees, olive or otherwise. I know Joyce Kilmer wrote an ode about trees, which every kid had to learn when I was at school. But with regards to Mr Kilmer, I’m from the northeast of the United States where trees in literature or in life are viewed in a more utilitarian light: they act as a wind break, serve as fuel for drafty fireplaces, or provide torture for boys who need to rake leaves in the fall. Trees certainly do not play an important role in the ethos of the United States, Johnny Appleseed not withstanding.
Since coming to Greece, I realized olive trees were nice to have around. They provided a thick shade in summer, their leaves didn’t fall annually, and olive oil was good on salads. But the tree itself never assumed a mythical place in my psyche. When called upon to rationalize my coolness to the olive trees, I always cited the appearance of the tree. It’s not a tall or stately “whispering in the wind” tree. The usual olive tree is short and squat. Olive trees have gnarled trunks which twist and turn and support a straggle of low branches.
Similarly, olive trees grow endemically. They root on the sides of steep goat-defying hillsides and send out shoots under rocks, which thunder down hillsides when trees mature. Roots from olive trees spuriously displace sidewalks, house foundations, or walls when the tree is located in more urban areas.
The fruit of an olive tree—if you haven’t seen an olive outside its role as hors d’oeuvres or in a martini—is not to be rhapsodized. A mature olive is either black or green and has the density of a bullet. The same can be said for the olive pit which is a jawbreaker.
In Greece, the harvest of olives is to witness an attack on the tree by swarms of people who thrash the tree with long rods to knock the fruit loose so it will fall into a net. Human hands then transfer the olives, (worms and insects, too) into 100-pound bags. These are trucked to the olive press where a Rube-Goldbergian system of faucets, troughs, and water sprays await the grinding of two Cyclopean stones, which crush the olives, bugs, and worms into a paste which is steamed and then cooled until the oil flows from the final faucet. Witnessing the production of olive oil is a Stygian task: noise, heat, and confusion are all ingredients of good olive oil.
With these disclaimers, it must be said that the olive tree may be likened to Cinderella who, though clad in plain clothes, was industrious and practical before she caught the eye of the prince. In the same way, the olive tree, not being particularly beautiful when compared to the cypress or plane tree, certainly surpasses either of those trees in its usefulness and efficacy. With few exceptions, olive trees produce regularly. Olives ask little in the way of pampering. During the hottest of summers and the coldest of winters, olive trees not only endure, they produce.
Along with its indestructibility and its utility, olive oil has served Greece with a livelihood. Olive oil, no matter how unattractive and uninspiring in preparation, has served as the Mediterranean aspirin for years. Got a headache? Stomach bothering? Can’t sleep? Aches and pains in the legs, arms, chest? Have a spoonful of olive oil. Useful in cooking, oiling hinges, lubricating farm implements, or as medicine, olive oil is the WD-40 of all times.
The olive tree and the olive, then, are far more than the sum of its separate parts. The olive has been a part of Western culture for more than 4000 years. Homer probably survived on olives when he was writing (what else would an itinerant poet eat?). Odysseus certainly used olives for survival during his long trek home and the Trojan horse was undoubtedly made of olive wood.
Today, groves of olive trees spot the countryside of Greece and Mediterranean countries, providing food and livelihood. Even today in Athens, people buy olive trees in ceramic pots. Perhaps it is part of the DNA of the Mediterranean ….but the tree and its fruit serve as a talisman of good luck, fortune and smiles.
Johnny Appleseed never had it like that.
Pigis Afroditis 3
Melissia, 151 27