Ancient Olive Trees

May a man look up from the utter hardship of his life and say: let me be like these.

Hölderlin, In Lovely Blue.

1 Circa 1400 BCE. An olive tree in Vouvés, Crete. From ‘vouvismos’ meaning the whispering of the river flowing through. It wasn’t the only thing that lived then. There were many: cicadas and acanthus flowers, cacti and turtles, grasshoppers, boars, lions and axe-wielding men and priestesses, to name a few. But from then it is all that has survived. 

The word ‘survive’ and its taste in the mouth before all taste had been avoided in fake- grass facades of cities, in changing exteriorities, monuments to myths razed. Leaves, those petals regenerating over centuries, have the same texture, color in the arid land, display the same lilting angles across fragile pale-green stems as they did when Minoans tightened their grip on double axes and ravaged the fields to feed their circular hearths. 

The white-knuckled grip of a Cretan must have slackened as he beheld it, again, through the eyes of the Minoan from which he descended, shimmering at sunset when all the static shades of green await the promise of dreams—his boyhood tree, the one he climbed into and claimed, where he had met his first embrace, the tree embracing him. 

& so on for other men, other stories towering before them, other firsts, the olive tree that must have witnessed the gazes of occasional gratitude alongside adroit glances of utility, for its bitter golden sustenance and flesh, its endurance & fertility, that even the canopy crowning the hollow warped, twisting like dredged red amphora clay, together they must have clamored with longing for the heavens, the constellation Orion whose protectorate Artemis with arrows had spared. Would the olive tree have not appeared as eternal as the singing starlight of the Pleiades above the harbors, which somehow knew, had always known the ways destinies intertwined like roots above ground, lain bare like a feeling whose intensity ebbs in cycles, births of Phosphorus, dying breaths of Hesperus. 

When at harvest they shook the branches, and onto sheeting the reddish-purple fruit dropped, some spilled, rolled onto dusty slate, & after they had bagged the pulp & it was time to break bread & it was a time in which humans broke bread and delivered in their coarse ware the animal-milled virginal pressings, & there was only the sound of bees humming and grape leaf shivering, grown so close to earth, never trellised never watered, & what we would later deem ritual was one unified vision of the world, so long before that pale abstraction confessed of the unity of the good & the true & the beautiful, before that counterfeit braid there was soul shining, smiling, holding its simple floral cup in the shade of the olive tree.


The olive tree, I feel, knows this: that we should feel the stars as the ancients saw them, unaided in the naked air, breathing & at home & alive. At the center of the hollow, ringed with arachne, an emptiness looms, widens, until the terror of standing still engulfs it. Again, the olive tree knows; there is no running off like the 2nd century Cretan boy afraid of its majesty and rule. Instead, you encircle, as though limbs’ maneuvering might suffice as some default tcchne, a mode of perception when eyes fail to discern, you encircle circumspectly, not as a perambulating disinherited scholarly castaway, but as you might approach some dazzling conception, as Dante did with foresight & his michael & Virgil  & gabriel, his vision muted by the sophistic arguments of Beatrice. 

Yet this is no circling gradual approach, as Petrarch nearing his day’s hike summit. This vision is too humble, inviting, too much the same as actual olive wood, marbled as land and sea, smooth, that makes the cups, the axe handles, carts & cradles. Not that sight has failed, but it cannot encompass immensity. Fingers sliding on bark in a groove like rocksalt, quickly by the undersides of leaves twirling in light wind, grazed in their own sporadic, spoiled summers—they are a sort of pretense of knowledge of the olive tree and olive, turning and returning, as if each finger-stem of ours were its own collaborator in calligraphic rune, in some final epigraphy we by necessity leave incomplete. The dust walks away with us that the olive tree had nourished, away from that focal point & center where we were. 

In the hollow’s boundaries (which are not those of the roots), the significance of the phrase ‘we were’ is changed. An ephemeral living being is contained within the felt walls of the eternal, & in encircling knows it, flees. Standing in the olive tree gratitude can pivot to dread, through this recognition of mortality in the face of relative changelessness. It is better that gratitude, in the broadest sense of the term, welcomes dread than never surface.2 The olive tree must also have witnessed the cushioned awareness of families at play, the mother, nursing, the father & boys fitted to their stable norms, oblivious investitures of each generation living on, hoping to live on in the next, snakeskins shed at the gnarled base of the olive tree, spring’s empty promise of regeneration. 

Cutting through all those hopes, reiterated across eons, there was only being, being there, growing, lasting, with no regard nor disregard to ‘outlasting’. This way of witnessing, of bearing witness to species’ martyrdom, was nonetheless something, being somehow though we lack a term for it—maybe: ‘continuous structuring of its autonomous, chthonic own’. Opposite those inside, who go & wash their olive wood plates & forks & bowls. Who chop down trees for shrines of great renown. The boy who makes sure, as Sappho imagines, that the sheep by the light of Hesperus return to their fold, ‘& goats to their pen, & the boy to his mother again’. Much, much later, the child who never grows to see himself as a creature of the earth.

Sipping grape-must raki in the tranquility of the night air, after chores were complete, the people would have gossiped as people do, & those wares of olive wood carefully stowed away would have rested, moulded in the darkness of their disutility. The paradox then, was this, that after some amount of time (who can say?) it became taken for granted that this, like other similar olive trees, was sacred, untouchable, its presence part and parcel of some overall ‘experience’ one should have, a thing worthy of appreciation on a par with ancient mosaics and frescoes, to be experienced as though already history, subject to narrow interpretation and ongoing commodification.

Yet the living part of history strikes through the facile horn of paradox for those who would allow it. When your own descendants allow themselves to be enfolded in its graces & with goosebumps gaze through & through the encompassing wreckage of city light & sound, open to that wonder, the dreadful gratitude they have sought, which silenced their distant ancestors midspeech—what memory of yours, then, could intrude, to what destination, then, will the 21st century humans have gone?


The harshness of the conditions of survival is not reflected in brittleness, as we see in miniature tree-like cave calcite found in Lavrio. In the latter case the mineral is older but indescribably more fragile. What we might feel as the olive wood’s hardness is the centuries-long attainment of pliability immeasurably more elegant than our airfoils, the determined resistance to deluge, storm surge, earth tremors dislodging rock, entrenchment in the face of dallying erosion. Much as the flexible yet firm planks of a trireme weathering aloft the churning sea, when an olive tree’s branches buoy, flooded with sudden gusts of wind (though this far inland they would have partly dissipated) there is no particular stress point, nothing susceptible to fatigue, at ease the olive branches shake their leafy yards, variously along the trunk’s main mast, & if a tattered sail is left the vessel is nonetheless afloat, the wind had fled its flight. 

At times you see a trail of ants or even termites making of the olive tree a home, carrying in an almost Germanically orderly trail stores for their larvae, delicate steps completely absorbed in this task they are oblivious to the olive tree as a tree, its general shape & contour which we in tracing & encircling attempt to express, massage into some idea before it is lost again, the matter of measure, of balance, the fluid in our inner ears as our heads in vain rotate towards the above abyss, to try & picture the whole dangling threshold as our own feet, miss-stepping loose rocks betray our nature as walkers on flat land, as rovers come down from the trees for a ramble on two legs through the grasslands, eyes and knitted brows pointed always toward the next horizon. Indeed, hardly a greater disparity in their nature can exist than between the olive tree’s manifold convolutions & the thin-sharp horizon jutted out each evening, a straight dock flattened out over the entire Aegean, which you feel if you could surpass there would only be a great line, without width geometrically impossible, made of concrete and firmament. They are as contrary as with-standing and encircling, judgment and naïve perception. 

When we theorized about the giant boulders, dispersed fairly evenly amongst themselves, yet concentrated in the village of Volax on Tinos, the taxi driver told us how the boulders came to be. They didn’t slide down from Poseidon’s sweaty arms, or up through the ash plumes of Vulcan, rather all the gods hurled even larger rocks as they battled each other, these were the crumbled bits of a war. The myth ‘explained’ both the size and the distribution of the boulders, and seemed a good abduction if it was the nature of the gods to grow tired of such play. 

Which being curried such favor with the gods, that while short of the station of Herakles, they would—from such a virtuous human seed—have grown here, in the soul at Vouvés, rendering outwardly visible these innate strengths? Or could it have been from a tear Vulcan shed in remorse, over his destruction of Minoan civilization, one drop sufficient to nourish for thousands of years a humble olive tree symbolic of the craft of humans, perhaps such a tree in whose shade some other Jesus stood, and wept, and hardly noticed. 

As a maxim: the most virtuous inner world finds an outward expression in an olive tree.


In the oldest olive trees there is always the appearance of two trunks, each considered large on its own, growing side by side, with nearly equal exposure to the sun. The knobby scars of past blights imposes, presses itself into the felt gradient of thick bark as welts, lumps from healing, traces of constricting vines which nearly destroyed the young olive tree. The truism that suffering strengthens if it does not destroy forms into the literal shape of a fist as your palms buffet the surface of the tree, you lean in on that soft, just that pressure point which ached centuries ago from its dendritic bubonic plague, until the balm of Aeolus, the salt-rind scent of tamarisk trees soothed & shifted the tenuous balance, to life. 

The contingencies we reflect upon, which motivate & militate us from our condition, to reject our natural state as living beings, are as mobile as our bodies in their healthy normalcy, which is to say, always mobile, hopeful to a fault. ‘Man exists in measure. Well-deserving, but poetically man dwells on this earth’, Hölderlin writes in ‘In Lovely Blue’, well-aware of the impossibility of rootedness. For the ancient olive tree of double-trunk, languishing in the hard sun, rootedness meant no more & no less than this: with-standing. One can readily imagine why priests & devotees of Asclepius would have planted olive groves, along with cooling cypress, oak and pine, not for ‘hope’ of the terminally sick, but to virtue signal endurance, with the irony that it was they who in uprooting themselves from their villages were most desperate for a cure. Aren’t we all like the gardeners stooping to graft an olive branch, pilgrims in search of some measure of life’s continuities?

At best, there can be longevity. A brief existence in which to parlay, to make a few trenchant observations. I think of those old men I met in the ‘blue zone’ of Ikaria, who sit on their long olive benches outside the deserted city hall smoking, retelling shepherds’ stories, who then throwing off their towels wade into the waters near the hot springs bubbling sulfurously, grateful for their fortune, & each attributing it to something uniquely theirs: the water, the cigarettes, lack of children, occupation, daily doses of raki, fish, a particular way of life. As though there had to be some reason for longevity whose precious possession might be lost unless they reveal it, always at the end of the conversation and with the disclaimer (or what has the undermining force of a disclaimer): well, that’s my story, that’s my life.

What does an olive tree say, what could it say when you gently pat its worn divots & surely as others ask its secret, what possible truth could it disclose to you which it hasn’t already, simply by being present? (As it is completely present in all its faculties). Then when in some museum you see on display the preserved, persevered, rings delicately edged by blackish cracks running perpendicular to the grain & an adjacent diagram neatly explains their meaning, what is there but to shrug in sadness and move on, a little less hopeful than before about the worth & purpose of human longevity. 

But then, at times you do meet an old Yaya who lives in the next village over & through her wrinkles smiles back at you with her eyes, sidestepping any felt need for mutual recognition having as its basis a shared language, yet seeming at once to say that the secret is there is no secret, she says it in the faint language of the olive trees.


By way of inelegant postscript this essay was composed on a direct flight from Athens to JFK. As the uncontrollable Canadian wildfires raged, smogging the atmosphere & and raining down over NYC tens of thousands of what headlines vaguely described as ‘tiny bugs’, the pilot in officiously gentle tones reminded us that our approach would be gradual. Sighs fill the cabin. 

As we circled & circled the Long Island Sound the turbulence brought to mind Odysseus and his men clinging to the fat undersides of sheep to escape the Cyclops’s den—we his crew, our plane the sheep—& I paused briefly over whether the red eye of the Cyclops was the far off wildfires blazing, or climate change itself. 

Below us in that still, white seabed of clouds the density of the toxic air brought into quaint relief, here speedboats gliding through the Sound, & there gargantuan footprints padding the downy snow. The tentative myths sometimes necessary to remind us of the force of nature seemed to cut away & drift past my window at eye-level. I turned to my respectful neighbor and asked her point-blank: ‘When does a natural disaster become an international crisis?’ She looked at me as if it were also a question on her mind & replied: ‘I don’t know’. 

I don’t know precisely either, & yet it seemed suddenly clear that to interpolate sacred facets of a natural world worth preserving by focusing much on a single living being at Vouvés is in a despairing sense to fail to see the forest for the trees; from which standpoint the counsel is: be younger, be more easily motivated to act. So I sound a note of discouragement at these interstitial probings, but I’m trying to be honest. 

In a moment of turbulence I clenched my jeans, streaked black from the charred olive trees whose hellish ornaments still hung on embrittled limbs bent and snapped back while I traversed and tramped, angling between the spiked centauri amid the ruins of Besa, where Roman glass had ground to dust and air is sage and dictamus, hundreds of scorched skeletons seemed to hiss at that border which by pure convention is assumed to separate urban from rural, wilderness from civilization, despite the fact that skeletons everywhere, of any kind, whether resting above or below stones, are the same. 

A Minoan-era olive tree reminds us most of absence: how when no other living thing here was living, it was bearing fruit, its pale grey green sheath, amplified by the restless orange stare of sunset, rustled by the paths of wild boars. But in the field walking and its traces on my jeans was a more recent absence present. In those chaotic, avant-garde striations it was too late for there to have been any pattern to ‘master’ or predict; thinning airy layers of vapor into which our clumsy metal descended contained nothing more of their origin & substance. 

‘They say breathing that for one hour is like smoking thirty cigarettes’, she said, pointing out the porthole at the grey sea. I couldn’t help but nod my head in shame, as we were back now in the land of the free. Taxiing, taxiing. It was just another day at JFK. 

1 For those philosophically inclined, it may be useful to note as a point of strategy underpinning an essay like this, that one might start with some received list of virtues, esp. those considered to belong to the Greek character, and then proceed viz. example to show how those virtues might be grounded in relation to the natural landscape and in particular ancient olive trees; this essay begins instead with the ancient olive tree in its natural setting and proceeds, using historical knowledge and phenomenology, to tease out salient and admirable (‘beautiful’ in the original sense of the word) qualities which might then serve as the basis to complicate and enrich some received list of virtues.

 2 Narrower senses of the word gratitude and its cognates would specify it in relation to a ‘whom’ it is owed, not the ‘what’ of the cosmos.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *