An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The zen of olive pruning

How does one prune olives? Do you prune your own? Would you prune mine for me - I'll pay you? In that case, would you show me how to prune mine? So ... clean the middles so the sun can get in, and remove and crossing branches, and cut out anything growing straight up. That's it? OK ... and bring the canopy down if we want to pick by hand? How far down? I need to take about 2 metres off? Are you sure? And take off any suckers. Like an umbrella? OK.

The only thing certain about olive tree pruning here in Crete is that there are as many opinions about it as there olive farmers or maybe as many as there are trees. I spent 3 years asking people about how to do it. I spent 5 years asking "experts" to do it for me. In the end I bit the bullet and decided to do my own. It could not be put off any longer - our ladders no longer reached the upper olives. I began with the oil trees - we have 12 eating olive trees and 80 oil trees.

I started with all of the wisdom incorporated in paragraph 1 above and a simple summary sentence from a Californian web site dealing with the knotty subject of olive tree pruning - "a badly pruned olive tree is better than an unpruned olive tree". I wish I could attribute that pearl but I've lost the link. I decided to eschew the use of a chain saw - too traumatic for the trees I felt: and I hoped that standing before a majestic and ancient tree with just a handsaw would make me think carefully before making that first fateful stroke.

My first tree truly daunted me as I stood before it for perhaps 40 minutes. I must have looked almost paralysed - maybe dumbstruck. I could not help thinking of those stories about painters, frightened and awed by a blank canvas, tentative, and considering all of the possible first brushstrokes knowing that there is only one correct first move. That everything flows from there.

In time I overcame the fear and inertia and entered the tree - literally stood in the middle of the tree feeling the rough bark of that timeless life force against my back and gazing skyward - and so I set to. Every tree was different - unique. Every tree was a new problem to be solved and with every tree I became more confident: I cut more boldly. When the last tree was done I went back to the beginning and redid the first half dozen with my new confidence.

And I was pleased with what I had wrought. But what did I know? Five weeks later a local olive farmer came to visit and remarked on how good the trees looked - " ... who pruned them? ... and would he perhaps do mine?" When I explained that I had in fact done them myself there was a palpable wave of admiration, a hearty slap on the back and a loud "Bravo". We drank some rakis on the strength of it.

In the following year this scene replayed itself time and again - locals loved my pruning and admired my "brutality". Men I admired heaped praise on my efforts and slapped my back. And then came the harvest. Despite my ministrations we had a decent crop and they were so easy to pick - everything within easy reach - no ladders required. But the cherry on top of the cake was when the organic certification people came for our first farm inspection and congratulated me on the trim of the trees - "... the best in the valley".

There is now something strangely satisfying, something oddly creative, almost spiritual for me about pruning olive trees. This year it has been the turn of the eating olives and they, I think, have been neglected for longer than had the oil trees. They are bigger and have a different configuration and even a different habit - they have posed a new challenge.

For the past two weeks I have been studying each tree as I have passed it. Cutting bamboo for the last week has allowed me to study every one in some detail. By the time I am ready I have a sketch of an approach in my head. I walk around the tree several times eyeing it from all angles. I check my mental sketch and adjust my start point if necessary. I absorb the treeness of this particular tree and take it on board. When I am at one with the tree I step inside it and clear any obstacles to my view and freedom of movement. From there on in it is a simple, matter of taking away all those parts that are not of the essence of the tree that I know is in there. I once heard a wood carver being interviewed on radio and the interviewer asked him about how he began carving for example an elephant from a hunk of tree. His reply stuck with me and I understood it artistically without taking it properly on board - "... the elephant," he explained, as if to a child, "is inside the wood. All I have to do is to take away the parts that are not elephant". Now I know exactly what he meant.

1 comment:

  1. I love this account and especially the bit about the elephant. Sometimes things are glaringly obvious in hind site. I wish you good harvests!