Going nowhere and scooping up the light.
It is the silver tree, the holy tree,
Tree of all attributes
– “The Olive Tree” by Karl Shapiro
An Elegy for an Olive Tree
Ancient cradle of memory,
what was the first song?
Was it your fragile branches murmuring grace to the earth low in the June breeze?
Was it a farmer’s plea with nature to spare you,
who can survive all,
in a deep, chilling freeze?
Or do a thousand years blend into a refrain
of oxen grunts and simmering stone,
of brave steady steps walking past you towards the unknown?
Of children’s laughter and sifting leaves,
or that soft echo of prayer for a harvest beyond beauty,
A hymn sings out from your limbs.
Did those now gone hum along
when they tended the melody with reverent hands?
Could you teach the words to one who does not know this land?
Bent-backed giver –
so different from the proud cypress carving the horizon –
when the wind moves,
is it you calling the land to learn herself by heart?
You have witnessed time peel her lyrics away,
yet still urge her praise for new life each day.
Every curve in your trunk mirrors the toil of the forgotten
and bows to the patient guards of your ephemeral blossoms.
In your constant nature of abiding,
do you ease them of the frigid fear of dying?
Their resolve lifts as prayer into sea-dipped skies,
returned as blessings on the elegance of purposeful lives.
Holy tree archaic and alive,
I am young yet ever-fading.
Generations of those who embraced you are gone,
but I find comfort in how their devotion thrives in your roots
and lives on.
Olive trees grow with those who hope,
stay for those who leave, and
tend to those who to them tend.
In the veins of small hard fruit,
three-thousand years of silent answers
pulse alive and
Bloom of unchanging peace,
you hold the past while calmly awaiting the future,
e non chiedi nulla.
Tuscany possesses an immensely poetic landscape. It is even musical to observe with its crescendos of hills, perfectly arranged vineyards whirring past roads, and lights of solitary houses twinkling at purple dusk. The land is always speaking, singing, or capturing our attention somehow and we’ve responded by closely experiencing this imminence every moment we’ve been here. However, I’ve discovered over the course of this month that the most lyrical and elegant aspect of the land is also the most unassuming: the olive tree. Before this Maymester, I understood the olive tree was a profound symbol of peace and new life for many different cultures, yet wasn’t aware of the magnitude of their lifespan and how it contributes to their spiritual meaning. Simone at Oliveto Fonte de Foiano in Bolgheri told us a rare few can reach 3,000 years old (!) and he suspected some of the olive trees in his orchard to be around 1,400 years old. By all accounts, when Brunelleschi was constructing the Duomo and Michelangelo was sculpting David, those olive trees swayed in the breeze just the same as they do today.
The olive tree’s adaptability helps explain its extraordinary endurance. Olive trees can sustain long, fertile lives in various areas because they are extremely adaptable to different climates, with the exception of freezing cold. Due to their versatility, olive trees have been at the receiving end of generations of labor, patience, and devotion from different groups of people who have migrated to Tuscany. What I attempt to express in my poem is how the olive tree reflects these patterns of migration and adaptation and how each one is a living testament to the many diverse hands that have tended it over the years. Thus, olive trees quietly connect us to the past in ways other historical artifacts cannot. They are breathing statues of memory, consistently evoking the sensations of antiquity and transcendence.
Since olive trees have been such a vital aspect of the land for millennia, they have greatly contributed to the identity of Tuscany and are deeply rooted in the souls of the Tuscan people. During our last cooking lesson at Lele’s, Enrico explained to us how seventy percent of the olive trees died in the “Great Freeze” of 1985. It was a huge desolation for the Tuscan landscape and it took years for the trees to recover. The base of the dead olive trees had to be cut to allow space for the trees to sprout anew and Enrico reflected on how the exchange of abundant pale-green elegance for shorn stumps rendered the land similar to the jarring grey sparseness of the moon. It was both physically and emotionally displacing to lose so many ancient olive trees because of how integrally embedded they are in the identity of Tuscany and how uniquely they assist in the formation of a genuine identity for people who have moved here and desire to call the land their home. Enrico expressed that even though he wasn’t born in Tuscany, he feels deeply that this land is his true home due to his close relationship with the olive trees.
Nevertheless, in keeping with our closing discussions of authenticity in class, the olive tree also reminds us of the transience of all that we cherish, especially the transience of authenticity and our own identities on this earth. Olive trees may be known for their vast lifespan, their history entwined with their branches, and their ability of adaptation, yet 1985 showed us that they too are as ephemeral as their small white blossoms that eventually fall away to reveal olives. Since they are so old, they are admired as an entirely authentic aspect of the Tuscan landscape, but they present one of numerous unanswerable questions that we must take with us and consider: can anything remain truly authentic forever?
Today, whenever I see an olive tree, I am reminded of the poet Shel Silverstein’s children’s book, The Giving Tree. Similar to the steadfast and caring apple tree in the story, something gentle and melancholy lives within the olive tree as well. Its lifespan capability certainly contributes to this evocation, but the olive tree also reminds us that outward exuberance should not be the first thing we value. The olive tree expresses itself humbly, almost hiding itself with its drooping branches, yet it is more than worthy of all the dedication it receives because of how entirely it gives itself to mankind and the earth. It has linked generations upon generations with its medicinal benefits and boundless nourishment. The olive tree does not seek respect in a world of chaos and deafening technology, yet still rightly receives extraordinary devotion and spiritual praise because it remains simply holy and giving.