I feel that silent shift, the interstices between the changing seasons, when the burning heat of the sun has lessened, before the trees change colour, before leaves begin to drift earthwards, when the grapes and figs are fat and ripe and juicy and the olive harvest lies ahead. On my rambling walks over the land I have been counting the olives. Well, not literally counting, but observing how many are resting on the branches and what percentage has fallen. Why? Because we have not sprayed the trees this year. It has been a hot dry summer – a magical one, but more about that shortly – and the dreaded olive fly has been in evidence, but I put my foot down. We still have plenty of oil left over from last year, so if needs be we could survive until next autumn without harvesting and pressing this November. I was, am, willing to take that gamble. We thought that we had found an organic alternative to sprays, pesticides, but in reality that alternative has not yet become available to us yet. And so it looked as though we were stuck with the conventional method for fighting off the flies, spraying chemicals all over the land yet again. But after my travels and experiences for the new book, The Olive Tree I am more determined than ever to do my bit towards protecting the planet.
On an earlier occasion, when I insisted we did not spray, we lost the entire crop. The flies laid their eggs in the olives and their growing larvae ate away at the fruits’ flesh until all that remained of the olives just shrivelled and died off. But this year, so far – well, we still have two months to go before harvesting – the olive drupes are hanging on. Yes, we have lost a tiny amount but not the majority of the crop. So, fingers crossed we will have organic olive oil this winter. I will let you know around Christmas! Meanwhile friends are putting in their requests to come to the farm, stay with us and pick olives with us. It is becoming an Olive Farm annual tradition that I enjoy indulging because I feel it puts the social element back into farming. Instead of villagers coming together to help one another gather their fruits, we have friends flying in from various points across Europe, but the principle is the same: working hard together in the groves, a communal effort to gather the food that later will be shared by all on the table. It is very satisfying and everyone has a great time.
I mentioned that the summer had been magical and it really has. Some time around March, I looked ahead and acknowledged the fact that I had a special birthday coming up, one with a large zero attached to it. Oh, dear, I thought, getting old, and then I decided that it was time not to bemoan my age but to celebrate life, mine.
I had returned from close to two years of travelling for the two books, The Olive Route and its new, soon-to-be-released sister, The Olive Tree. The journeys had been tiring, strenuous, occasionally terrifying, lonely, but nonetheless a once-in-a lifetime experience. I have travelled alone all the way round the Mediterranean. I have met some extraordinary people. I have discovered stories, uncovered details of history that have and always will enrich my life. Yes, indeed, there was much to celebrate, and it was time to bring together some of the friends from so many different worlds that make up the mosaic that is mine. I decided that it would be a three-day event, to give a little flexibility to those who would be travelling from afar, and I sat down and wrote out a list that went all the way back to my school days. I invited actors, directors, olive farmers from all across the Mediterranean, agents, fellow students, beekeepers, new friends, publishing colleagues, etc. The criterion was simply that those invited had in one way or another, no matter how small, made a difference to my life.
As the acceptances began coming in, I grew nervous. How would all these people get on together? Was the choice too diverse? Two were arriving from China, one of whom barely spoke a word of English and no French at all!
The preparations took weeks but were great fun; flying sails to add protection and shade from the sun, choosing elegant coloured kerchiefs for the doggies, no outside catering – Michel and several friends volunteered to prepare all the meals, a mammoth exercise! – shopping and shopping and shopping, installing a garden shower for those who wanted to swim, a bar beneath the sails for those who preferred to sit in the shade and drink rosé, I organised a boules competition….
The first guest, an actor friend from my twenties, arrived almost a week before celebrations were due to begin because he had professional commitments over the chosen weekend, and so it went on. We were flexible, and guests came and went over a period of ten days, not three. On the Saturday evening, we ate in the garden, close to seventy of us. The birthday cake I had ordered was fashioned into the shape of an olive sprig, and it was delicious.
Earlier in the year, I had spent several days floating down the Mekong River in Asia, writing about my experience for a newspaper. One evening, when the boat was berthed and a barbecue had been enjoyed on the river’s sandy banks, the crew unpacked what they descibed as ‘magic lanterns’. These were made of rice paper with a small base made from bamboo. When the base was lit and the heat from the flame was sufficient, the lantern expanded and floated upwards, silently, into the sky. It was a memorable experience. I tracked down the factory in northern Thailand where the floating sky lanterns were made and I ordered a batch of them to be delivered to the farm.
We lit them at the party, after the cake-cutting. As the lanterns floated skywards, everyone made a wish and we watched them disappear into the night sky. Perhaps one of the most enduring memories for me of the whole party weekend will be the expressions on my friends’ faces as they stared at the sky flecked with the white floating lights. The principle is so simple and the lanterns are less damaging for the environment than fireworks.
I believe that for many of the environmental problems the world is facing, there are solutions that are fundamentally quite simple. We have caught ourselves in complex traps and cannot see our way out of them.
I am writing this from Paris where I am spending a few days before taking the train to London. I am embarking on a book tour on 7 October to publicise the publication of The Olive Tree. The dates are listed on the Events page of this website as well as on the Orion site. If, after reading this, you find that I am appearing at a place somewhere near you, please come along and say hello. One of the joys of this website has been the mail I receive from you. And from so far afield! Your letters cheer up the solitary hours at my desk. Thank you so much for them. Please keep them coming and, please, if you are free and so inclined, come and say hello at an event and I can sign books for you. Your feedback is what counts.