Early spring in Italy: this year our friend Stefano, an expert in the world of plants and trees, taught me the time-honored art of pruning olive trees. What’s the big deal?, you might ask. Well, actually, we’re talking about the heART of the Tuscan culture, and not just a simple snip, snip, snip, and you’re done. It’s important for us to know rather than just have someone else do the work for us. Little did we know how complex my experience would be.
The age-old technique of pruning is a subjective interplay of lots to consider: forming the tree into an upside-down cone shape, leaving the middle open for air and sun, determining the primary and secondary rami, branches, which are typically 3, 4, or 5, but usually 3, (knowing how the energy flows through the branches to get growth where you want it,) while considering the ratio of height to width—creating visual balance and harmony. You get the picture. That’s why Tuscan farmers have dedicated their lives to the process of nurturing gli olivi, the sacred olive trees, as the art and mystery becomes deeply ingrained into who they are. Powerful stuff indeed!
When I arrived mid-March for my much-anticipated lesson, I was shocked to find that the winter freeze had wreaked havoc with our adolescent trees of only 7 years. Little did I know that my lessons would be so much more than merely learning a pruning technique. Instead, the lessons included what to do when disaster strikes (like this winter’s unexpected deep freeze) and how to cope with some of the harsher realities of Nature. I learned some important life lessons along the way, which is, of course a Tuscan specialty!
Each tree we pruned seemed to require more and more drastic cuts, as we discovered the degree of internal secchezza, dryness. Rather than using just the clippers, we switched to using the saw at what felt like every branch. The worst case was the poor little guy (a tree is an albero, which is masculine—most nouns in Italian have a gender, and so take on a “personality”) on the lower level that now looks more like a fencepost, following our judicious pruning. Since I felt saddened by our drastic cutting I asked Stefano, “At what point do you completely replace the tree?” His reply was immediate and sure, “Mai!!! NEVER!” In his answer I realized the depth of his statment. The magic of the olive trees is that they each possess an enduring spirit of survival—a tough nature that says they’ve been through this drill before. We’ve seen entire groves cut down nearly to the ground, patiently awaiting new growth and the promise of the harvest.
In 1956 there was a deep freeze, followed by another 30 years later in 1985. That last freeze took out 80% of the 20 million olive trees in Tuscany—sadly, requiring all to be cut down to the ground. Suddenly, I realized the tremendous impact throughout Italy. . . and the entire world, for that matter. High quality olive oil is the green gold of Italy, known the world over. But more poignantly, I suddenly realized that, not only was their economy destroyed with that freeze, but the very lives of Italians who had defined themselves around the harvest of the olive trees were in shambles. They actually had to consider leaving their precious land after generations of family-owned operations.
As we sawed our way through the beautiful trees, I felt my heart slip a little deeper into the Tuscan drama—into the spirit and psyche of this land of contradictions. It was a very sobering moment. But after all, that’s part of why we came here over a decade ago. Certainly, not to see the devastation of natural beauty, but rather to open ourselves to life-changing experiences. Our hope then was to settle into some of the realities that rest just under the surface of this incredibly beautiful country and culture. You can’t be part of a place without experiencing it all—the breathtaking panoramas along with the cuts that go far deeper than imagined.
Through it all, we’ve become a little more soulful and in touch with ourselves, other people and the power of a place to change lives. Italy is certainly that. It represents the chance and realization that Nature has the ability to deal a devastating blow, jeopardizing an entire way of being, while holding the wisdom and patience to hope for another harvest.