My (olive) tree of life


This spring, I have been planting young olive trees on my farm in the Sacramento Valley. The variety is Taggiasca, native to Liguria. It yields a delicate, fruity, aromatic oil with just a hint of pungency. The rows of trees are spaced 22 feet apart, and for the first few years, while the trees are small, I can grow another crop in the alleys: melons in summer, fava beans in winter.

Putting the trees in the ground is the easy part. They’re small, rooted cuttings, with a stem about the size of a pencil, and don’t require much of a hole to be dug. More troublesome is the network of pipes and tubes that will deliver a slender stream of water to the base of each tree during the dry season. I prefer to dig the trenches by hand -- slow, meditative work -- the first pass with a nursery spade, the second pass with a drain spade. This puts the pipe deep enough that it won’t be damaged when the ground above it is worked.

Back in the barn, rummaging in a box for irrigation fittings, I hear a slice of the news on the radio: failing banks, futile foreign wars, reckless deficits. The olive trees, of course, care nothing about this. Their concerns are the depth and texture of the soil, the pattern of rainfall, the angle of the sun, the intensity of summer heat. To them, 2010 could as easily be 1510; it matters not at all.


Olives are long-lived trees; the figure 1,000 years is often mentioned. There is an old saying that you plant a grapevine for yourself but you plant an olive tree for your grandchildren.

Perhaps in some future year, say 2050, a grandchild of mine will be tending this grove. On a gray December day, she or he invites friends to help with the harvest. They spread nets under the tree and pull off the fruit and let it fall, and when the tree has been picked clean, they empty the nets into boxes to be taken to the mill. Gathering olives is pleasant, undemanding work, well suited to conversation, gossip, jokes, recipes. After the day’s work, dinner for 16 at the long table: leek soup, wine, bread, olive oil.

From the retrospective of that future time, the political and economic cares of 2010 will be but a short, tedious chapter in a history book. That they preoccupy us now is a symptom of mental myopia, a distorted vision that magnifies the present to the diminishment of the future and the past. It is the newspaperman’s view of the world, in which the urgent news of today is, by tomorrow, suited only for lining the parakeet’s cage or wrapping a bunch of tulips.

The olive tree has a wonderful trick, far more impressive than any of the shell games concocted by Bernanke and Geithner. Using just four ingredients -- earth, air, water and sunlight -- it produces an abundance of handsome fruits from which, with a bit of effort, we can extract a delicious and healthful oil. If the newspapers reported what is important, rather than merely urgent, this would be front-page news, every day.

Mike Madison operates a family farm in the Sacramento Valley.