My first encounter with a Sicilian olive tree

Photo: Laura Simmons

 CALATAFIMI, Sicily - The tree was gnarled and had divided into four over the years or centuries, as all respectable olive trees do in the Mediterranean and as all readers of Homer, who abound as we all know, will obviously have learned in their dark chalk-smelling class-rooms of childhood.

 My immediate reaction, however, was a great deal less classical. A shower of mud and stones rained down on my head from a size 46 Wellington boot (you could see the number clearly on its white corrugated underside) in our tree about three centimetres above where I had just scrambled up to. The owner of the boots, who had pink legs from being unaccustomed to the sun, was humming a Korean pop song. Strange, I thought – but I was out of my element and thought it wise to withhold judgement.

 On the other side of this leafy group of tree trunks a smiling blond Englishman was trying, a fraction sleepily, to fight off three small kittens who had discovered he loved them. Violent love is always difficult to deal with, particularly half-way up an olive tree in Sicily, but he was managing with empire courage. I had the distinct feeling, however, he would crash to the ground any minute clasping his kittens.

 Underneath the branches a hilarious girl from Bolder Colorado, who had arrived late the previous evening from Pariswas gingerly tiptoeing her way into what was strange new situation.

 Nets had been spread out under the tree to collect the olives that we were milking from it – stroking, milking, I don’t know the correct term, even if there were to be one. The tight little bullets of pure vegetation rained down at our instigation and the finger contact with the little bags of goodness was magic

 On consideration, I think probably stroking is a the better word than milking, even though the hail of olives made a distinct noise when it hit the ground.

 On the other side of the group of trunks an old Englishman was picking (or stroking) and trying to persuade us all that the word ‘awesome’ had to do with the presence of some sort of deity and was quite inappropriate for describing the sound of a song or the taste of a sausage. His wife, a sage Sicilian, was struggling to keep her husband’s etymological verve in tether, but she had little effect and I thought he was conducting a retroactive verbal battle with hopeless prospects.

 But then who was I to judge? I had been the stupid son-of-a-bitch who had let on I was a dancer. Now they all wanted to see me dance and there seemed no space for even hopeful retroactive battles: I simply had to.

 Then it all happened in a trance.

 I noticed a half-man half-goat crashing through the bushes away from us.. There was a resounding crack as the owner of the size 46 boots came plummeting through the tree just to my left, muttering Korean swear words and accompanied by a hail of  branches and olives. He nearly flattened the hilarious girl from Bolder Colorado, who became visibly less sure about what she had let herself in for.

 His fall was almost simultaneous with the smiling Englishman’s with thousands of small claws of three kittens that had instinctively been dug into to his body as he came down, apparently without a thought for his own life. The two inert dogs that had been sleeping while we had been picking burst in loud life. Birds started complaining. The Sicilian lady screamed and the elderly Englishman actually said ‘awesome’ at least twice. 

 At that precise moment the pure morning air was pierced by the shrill clear poignant notes of a reed flute, and it was then and there that I felt compelled to dance - not for anybody else, just for myself.

 I moved into it, but was followed. To my great surprise they all joined in: 46 humming presumably Korean tunes, the smiler with kittens at his feet, the Sicilian lady beaming that that crisis was over, hilarious from Bolder astonished that all was well after all, and the old Englishman finally wordless.

 We danced, danced, whirled and danced again around and around the quadruple tree for an ancient amount of time. When, at the end, we all tumbled down exhausted but saturated with laughter, I saw the most extraordinary thing I shall ever see.

 The four olive-tree trunks began slowly, but with immense dignity, to sink into the ground and the most beautiful flower I shall ever witness rose up majestically to fill the silent empty space. The reed pipes were still resonating in the clear morning air.

 ‘Awesome’, he said from somewhere.