The Tree of Many Virtues–the Olive Tree

The Tree of Many Virtues—the Olive Tree

Olive trees are peculiar, very peculiar. To begin with, they live for a very long time and still bear fruit. Second, they adapt to the harshest of climates and terrains. They grow even in the desert. Here in the low Atlas Mountains, they can be found everywhere, in rocky areas in particular. The olive oil we extract from the ones my family has been growing for years is slightly bitter, which gives it an edge compared to the one that is produced in the Sahel or Zarsis. As a young boy, I did not take to olive trees easily for I had to help my father prune and care for them. A difficult task, I used to think. But with time and many years of dislocation in the West, I have grown to love the tree we call a’zzaitouna.
Olive trees are also difficult to photograph no matter how skilled the photographer may be. For one thing, they do not reflect the light. Moreover, the leaves tend to change their color following the intensity of sunlight. I have tried many times to photograph the ones I have in my orchard but all my efforts were in vain. There is a fair explanation as why I have failed. Both the trees and the leaves, some are old, others are young, are hard to capture in pictures, except perhaps in the afternoon when the sun begins to go down, but again that in itself is a problem because each tree becomes a specter i.e. it does not yield its details. This hindrance occurs even when I used an ISO film which is supposed to be faster than an ISA film. In addition, the color of each leaf changes its color according its location on the tree. Those facing the sun are one color and those hidden from the sun are of another color. With too much light, the color becomes steel-like and at times it looks like platinum. A photographer I know suggested I should photograph my olive trees in full moonlight, which I did and low and behold, I got some fair results.
Perhaps the best effort I made was when I took pictures of some old trees after a shower of rain followed by a good dose of sunshine in the middle of winter. There was also a slight northerly wind blowing against the light. When the film was developed I noticed that the color of the leaves was rich and full, something I had not seen before in any of the photographs I had taken.
One day it dawned on me to try and use a black and white film. I took pictures of the same trees in the full midday sun. Winter was dying then and spring was around the corner. To my surprise and joy, the photographs came out good, very good I dare say. I tried again a week later and failed miserably. I then spoke to a professional photographer who suggested I should use a different lens, which I did. But then again, I failed not better but worse. According to him, the pictures were dull because the light in the low Atlas Mountains peaks not around midday but around three in the afternoon. Still, he encouraged me to keep trying, but the more I tried, the more I failed.
A tree that grows to be thousands of years and still feeds its people, a tree that defies the very art of photography; in fine, a tree as elusive as a Bengali tiger, a tree that has fascinated us since Carthage ruled the world, a tree the branches of which can be given as a sign of peace, a tree that is female in the singular and masculine in the plural is certainly a tree that makes me wonder. I am always amazed at its endurance and kindness—yes, kindness when harvested or pruned. This is the tree that gives us oil to burn when it is dark and oil to eat when we are at the table; oil to bathe with and oil to drink, oil that cures us when we are sick. I am talking about the tree of so many virtues—the olive tree. It is to be cherished and cajoled and taken care of and treasured.
I have planted some olive trees this year. I hope I will live long enough to eat and enjoy their fruits. If not, may they live to defy time, more so than any book one is able to write.