We have been pruning in our olive groves these last few weeks, pruning back thirty of the big old fellows and every single one of the juniors and these now number over two hundred and forty, I think. It is backbreaking work, but it is also extremely satisfying, particularly if the weather is kind. Earlier this year in
February, Michel and I signed ourselves up for a day’s training in the skills of pruning young olive trees. Fundamentally, it is not that different from the cutting of the older boys except that the youngsters are still forming and the cuts will make a difference to their structure, to the silhouette of the tree. Decisions must be made. There is a real sense of responsibility involved here. After all, the gnarled masters are over four hundred years old and they are more grounded than we will ever be. Not a great deal of damage can be wrought against these longlifers. But for their adolescent companions, we need to be sure that we style them in a manner that will enhance their growth, their longevity, their good health. I would like to think that in four hundred years’ time, another young couple, such as we were when we discovered and purchased the jungled ruin that is now our Olive Farm, will look upon this hillside of trees and smile in admiration, will feel compelled to do what we have done here, to play gardener or steward to this patch of Mediterranean land for a brief spell.
In France, we say that a well-pruned olive tree is one that a swallow can fly through without brushing its wing tips against the silvery foliage. I used to think that this was nothing but a little piece of romance, yet another example of Provençal poetry. Well, it is, of course, but it is also sound reasoning. It is a fact that an olive tree needs space between its branches to breathe. It needs sunlight to offset humidity and the risk of fungal infections. It makes no sense to allow the tree to grow too tall because you cannot reach the upper canopy when gathering-time comes. There is nothing more frustrating than standing alongside a forty metre-high tree, head tilted heavenwards, staring at kilos of oleaginous fruit that you know will be fodder only for the starlings and wretched magpies because you can never reach them. So, we cut back the tree’s bolting canopy height. The men do this. I cannot. I do not venture up into the central body of the elders. In the earlier days, I used to climb ladders to handpick the olives, but not anymore. Invariably, I tipped over my loaded bucket as I twisted and turned within the gnarled and knotty branch systems and lost the lot.
So, the pruning of the youngsters was my allocation. I could reach their tops. I could handle them, no wrestling involved. Our day out with the farmer-cum-olive expert who lived near Aix was inspiring. He spoke with a thick twangy accent and talked about the trees – lusty overgrown seven year olds that he did not own nor had he encountered before – as though in a spiritual relationship with them. And he talked of Tree Language, which pleased me greatly.
All that was required in terms of gardening tools were various sized secateurs and a handsaw. I could handle that. It all looked so easy.
Except that the reality was quite another matter. Our trees are twelve years old now and they vary greatly in size. On certain parts of the hillside, they are three times my five-foot-five inches height whereas, elsewhere, they just about see eye to eye with me. Still, they all required shaping, structuring, preparing for the centuries of giving and growing that lay ahead. It was a daunting prospect and I approached it with trepidation. Where to begin? The principles were clear and I knew them now by heart but when faced with the graceful lives shooting skywards before me, I grew nervous and uncertain. I snipped here and there, but little more than twiglets did I remove. Quashia, our Algerian gardener, scoffed at my attempts so I left the task until I was alone. On a warm Sunday morning, I ventured up the hillside and silently set to work. My sole companions were the dogs idle at my feet and the songbirds flitting and chirruping in and around the groves. I stretched into the first tree and slowly began to lift out the branches that were closing in the central system of the canopy. I took away those that were shooting up vertically as I had been taught to do, but after an hour or more I stopped following the rules. I began to listen, to allow the trees to talk to me, which they did. It was exactly as the expert had explained. The trees have needs and they will tell them to you, if you listen. At the end of that first day, alone in an amber-lit world of the sun setting beyond the hillside, I looked about me. The trees appeared to be lighter, freer, less encumbered. I could almost say, they were dancing. I have rarely felt so at one with nature. We, myself and the trees, had accomplished our day’s work.
Later in the week, when the men were working the land and we had raked and gathered small hillocks of olive branches all about the garden – those that are too insignificant to keep because the sturdy logs are set aside for firewood and the finest are for home-hewn and oiled chopping boards – as the day drew to a close, we lit a bonfire and sat around it, exhausted but satisfied. Michel and I were enjoying a well-earned glass of rosé while Quashia sipped on the cup of green tea I had brewed for him. I was leaving for England the following day and this was a moment of companionship after long days of toil. These are the special moments. Michel threw another couple of branches on the fire and we sat silently as a trio each lost in separate dreams, listening to them crackle. I love this season of pruning. The sense of accomplishment, of peace and oneness with our Olive Farm.
The swallows have arrived. Locally-produced strawberries and asparagus are already on sale in the shops of the South of France. I know this even though I have been away from the farm for the past ten days, off promoting my books at the Sunday Times Literary Festival while, in Dublin, I was talking at the Guinness Storehouse to a group of Irish librarians about the advantages of the unabridged audio editions. I know those early signs of summer are about because a reader who lives in the Var wrote to me on my Facebook page (CAROL DRINKWATER’S OLIVE FARM) telling me the news and even describing the simple recipe she had used for the preparation of her asparagus. Her message led me closer to home and underlined my excitement and desire to return to the farm as soon as possible. When her news was posted, another reader living on an olive farm in Crete chipped in with a further piece of information: ‘the swallows flew through here a week ago’. Elsewhere, in the olive groves of Australia, a lady has been writing on my Facebook page about her irrigation dilemmas before she begins her first ever olive harvest. In New South Wales, autumn has arrived. The season for olive harvesting. While we prune, she in the New World harvests.
I set down my pen and leaned back in my chair, marvelling at the power of the internet and its ability to gather together this newly-founded, small but growing community. A community that I hope will unite through shared experience and rally as a force. Caring readers, contributors, who, like me, are concerned for the health of the planet or who are simply looking for another way to live. There is power in these exchanges and I hope that the group will grow and together we will offer our voices in the essential move towards a new world: a greener healthier planet. I would be thrilled if you joined us and added your ideas.