On Olive Trees

This island, Lesvos, of all islands, must be defined by the olive tree–an island so rich in so many things, but the olive tree is central here. Ubiquitous. Everyone I’ve met has land with olive trees that they harvest in the winter.  Everywhere, clinging to the sides of steep slopes, terraced to grow on even the steepest slopes.

But the color? Leftheris, a stone-layer living in Sikaminia quoted to me the village’s most famous son; the writer Myrivillis, who wrote that Lesvos is like a grey green leaf floating on the Aegean. Grey green. That is the typical, the received idea of the color of the trees. Olive green from the tube–a grey green. But I can’t be happy with this color–this non-color in a way. It lacks life, it lacks vitality–to me it doesn’t speak of this tree–this tree so central to Greece–to all things Greek. What would Greece be without the olive tree, which has it’s mythical roots in Athena. Athena, in a contest with Poseidon for the city of Athens, produced the olive tree by striking the earth with her  staff. Her offering gave the Athenians fruit, oil, shelter from the sun, and wood. A tree bearing her name still grows near the Erichtheon in Athens. From ancient times to now, the olive tree tree thrives.

Soon after arriving in Greece, I realized that the color of the olive tree was difficult to see. Some weeks after I was settled on Lesvos, while driving back to Ayios Isidoros from Molyvos, my two home bases on the island, while passing the olive groves at Mistegna in the midday sun, I understood.

On Olive Trees

This island, Lesvos, of all islands, must be defined by the olive tree–an island so rich in so many things, but the olive tree is central here. Ubiquitous. Everyone I’ve met has land with olive trees that they harvest in the winter.  Everwhere, clinging to the sides of steep slopes, terraced to grow on even the steepest slopes.

But the color? A stone-layer living in Sikiminia quoted to me the village’s most famous son; the writer Myrivillis, who wrote that Lesvos is like a grey green leaf floating on the Aegean. Grey green. That is the typical, the received idea of the color of the trees. Olive green from the tube–a grey green. But I can’t be happy with this color–this non-color in a way. It lacks life, it lacks vitality–to me it doesn’t speak of this tree–this tree so central to Greece–to all things Greek. What would Greece be without the olive tree, which has it’s mythical roots in Athena. Athena, in a contest with Poseidon for the city of Athens, produced the olive tree by striking the earth with her  staff. Her offering gave the Athenians fruit, oil, shelter from the sun, and wood. A tree bearing her name still grows near the Erichtheon in Athens.

Some weeks after I arrived in Greece, while driving back to Ayios Isidoros from Molyvos, my two home bases on the island, while passing the olive groves at Mistegna in the midday sun, I understood.

Under the blue gold sky, the almond slivered leaves dance a sparkling, bright, silvery blue with a kiss of gold. And below, in gathered canopy, swaying towards the sun-hardened, rocky ground, a green-ochre, warmed by the hot earth. Reflecting the sky above and earth below–mediating heaven and earth–the slender, hard leaves,mirror-like, graceful yet tough, the twisted trunks–silvery grey in the sun–ageless, producing fruit hard and small, that properly brined yield an exquisite taste renowned world-wide, and an oil redolent of the sun.This was the beginning of understanding the color, which changes to many other colors.

These trees, to me at least, symbolize the Greek people–a people surviving the centuries under poverty, wars and overlords, yet yielding so much to the culture of the world and personally, so much warmth and caring under their outer toughness. Greeks, so resilient and independent–as an olive tree clinging to the side of a mountain, yet thriving–unlike the redwoods, which used to grow on Lesvos, which need each other and a steady, cool, dampness to create a dense canopy to ward off the sun’s drying rays–only then can they grow. The remnant’s of Lesvos’s redwood like petrified near Sigri in a large stone forest. The redwoods are in our distant past, yet remain in a different form. Now, we have the olive tree, sparkling in the wind and sun, mediating heaven and earth. And as my friend Gregory remarked, when the wind blows, sky and earth  become mixed together. This is the tree I want to paint–not a drab green, but the color of the beauty of this tree of fantastic shapes, reflecting the changing light of ground and sky. I feel that I could paint this tree for many years more to express all of this and to capture its changing color and light. This summer I made my start.

xOlive Trees Muxaniona Web

Olive Trees Nees Kidonees Web

 

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One Response to On Olive Trees

  1. Patti says:

    You should write a book about your summer. Sounds like you have a good start here:)

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