Expatriate, with olives

In a Spanish grove, I found an ancient grace.

By Lucy McCauley
August 5, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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I am in southern Spain, walking toward an olive grove. It belongs to Catherine, a poet. She bought it last year when she came to live in the village. The grove has about 50 trees, said Manuel, who knows all of those trees better than Catherine does, from years of picking there.

The dog, the small curly-haired one who doesn't look as fierce as he is, barks to announce my arrival. Catherine is there, and Bernhard, the young German, and Manuel. Manuel is 73. Lines carve out his jaw and mouth and deep-set eyes, filmy with cataracts. His clippers are going full speed, a great claw squeaking as the dull blades clutch a branch and pull, strip it of olives, the fruit falling green-purple-black in soft drumbeats on the net below.


Since he was 8 years old he's been picking olives. He tells me, "I was even born under an olive tree."

"Is that true, Manuel?" comes Catherine's voice from behind a leafy branch.

"Well, no," he replies, and we laugh. "But almost -- in a farmhouse near an olive grove."


Catherine is a Pennsylvanian who is tall and stands perfectly straight, long auburn hair flowing down her back. I have seen her walk for miles uphill and even then her back is straight. On one of those walks she showed me the rosemary that grows wild near the side of the road in this part of Spain. "She who passes by rosemary and doesn't pick it," she said, reciting a village proverb, "neither has love nor dreams of it." I watched her pick some, bring the pungent leaves to her nose and drop them in her pocket.

Catherine divorced her husband and came to live in the village near this grove a year ago, after having visited every summer for 20 years. She came to the village, she says, because it is where she feels most at home in the world.

She has had her disappointments. When she first came here she fell in love with a man from a neighboring village. Like many Spanish bachelors, he had lived at home with his mother all his life, but even after she died he could not bring himself to stay with Catherine, of whom his mother had disapproved because of her divorce and her foreignness.


But Catherine has her home in the village, her walls and tables draped in richly woven textiles, colorful clay pots and plates in the cupboards. She has her friendship with Manuel and other villagers who have come to love her.

And she has her olives.

This is Catherine's first time collecting the olives of her trees. Harvesting comes once a year, late fall, and lasts a little over a month. Today at twilight she will take the sacks we have filled to the molina in town that you can hear grinding away when the winds blow a certain direction, even from up here in the hills, making oil from the villagers' olives.


Clip, slide, snap, whoosh -- we skin olives from branches and they tumble to the ground like rain.

The sun gets hot and bright in southern Spain, even now in late fall. But the breezes from the Mediterranean are refreshing, and dry the sweat beading on my forehead before it can trickle down my face. Bernhard and Manuel use the two pairs of clippers, so Catherine and I use our hands, better for feeling the round bubbles of meat, smooth and taut, as we gently clasp the branches and pull through silvery-green leaves.

This is a much-needed respite from days at my writing desk in the small house I'm renting in the village. I like the feeling of community that comes of encircling this tree with the others, each with our own group of branches to clear but still working in tandem, accompanying each other with fragments of conversation and the whoosh-whoosh of falling olives.


I had never seen an olive tree up close before I came to this village. I had only driven past groves of them on Spanish highways. Graceful, with small feathery leaves that finger outward optimistically from a bumpy little spine, an olive branch really does look like a symbol of peace.

The sun is in my eyes and light is glinting from the shiny fruit.

First you place the nets on the ground. It takes two nets, side by side, overlapping slightly. Wrap the tree trunk close with them, then spread the nets across the dirt so the olives from every branch have a place to fall.


These are Manuel's directions, which he projects with an edge of impatience to us novice harvesters. Catherine has known Manuel since she began visiting the village two decades ago; she knows the gentle heart beneath his bark, and she laughs at his gruffness. Still, she defers to him in her olive grove, cocking her head when Manuel gives a command, grateful to have this expert midwife for her harvest.

"The strings of the nets abajo -- down," Manuel says emphatically. The strings tie the downhill part of the nets up, on the branches of a neighboring tree, so that when the olives tumble downhill, they run up the ends of the nets like a soccer ball would, caught in a net-gutter.


After standing in one place for so long, stripping branches of olives, I like bringing the nets to the next tree like an offering, spreading them out to form a perfect chalice. The branches offer themselves, boughs leaning low. We begin taking the olives again, reverently, as if counting prayer beads, thumbs and forefingers moving along branches and over the round pebbles of fruit, pulling through the leaves, olives raining down. Reach, pull, bend, lift; these movements are imprinted on my brain like an archetype, a ritual known to humans since the first tree appeared in the first garden.

I watch Bernhard's dark, bristled hair bob through the high branches where he sits, trying to reach reluctant olives. He is an artist who came from Germany five years ago to live in the countryside, to paint and collect olives by day for cash. His Spanish is fluid with a German lilt, flattening vowels long at the ends of words rather than spitting them out as a Spaniard would. He says he paints landscapes; he makes fat, swirling strokes to form clouds and olive groves.

The tree is picked when only the leaves are left shimmering in the sun, no circles of olives spotting the branches dark. Manuel and Catherine lift the net from the upside of the hill to let the straggling fruit roll down; it roars quietly like the ocean in a conch shell. At the downhill part of the net, Bernhard unties the strings. He directs me to hold up one corner, the net heavy with olives, and I'm obliged to keep our work from streaming downhill in a great, bitter river.

By now, almost halfway through the day, this picking is done like a dance. Sometimes we switch roles, but no matter; someone does a job and the others do what's left: Get the cubo, the bucket used to scoop fruit. It's shining in the sun; then it's in shadow when someone else leans over to pluck the large branches out.


I hold open an enormous burlap sack as Manuel pours in olives from the cubo we have filled. The bag grows fuller with each scoop until olives threaten to spill from the top. Bernhard shakes the sack to settle them, then ties the corners together. His face is already beaded with sweat when he hoists the sack to his shoulders in one graceful motion and walks uphill, his broad back one with the sack and the incline.

We lunch under a tree near the edge of the grove, away from our work. I unpack the garlicky green olives I have brought, and everyone groans. But we each take one anyway and nibble in communion. Manuel passes me a granada, a lusciously pink pomegranate, seeds spilling like forbidden fruit. He passes a chunk of bread to Bernhard, who has brought oranges, picked from the trees behind his house. They smell sweet as we rip them, the scent mingling with the dirt and olive oil on our palms and under our nails, and the juice is thirst-quenching in the hot Spanish sun.

Catherine has wine that she pours in a mug to share among us. I watch her pour, and I wonder if she gets lonely here in the village, if her nights are long.

When our bellies are full, our bodies growing languid in the heat of the day, Manuel announces it's time to pick the next tree. It feels good to be standing again, pumping my arms like pistons, the branches like udders of a cow that I milk, the olives pelting my tennis shoes and rolling down the net. Manuel bends to find his walking stick and whacks the tree for straggling olives. Bernhard reaches into the high branches. I untie the corners of the net. Catherine lifts the edge and watches her harvest cascade around her feet. She looks at me and her eyes shimmer, pleased at the olives that we have picked from her tree and will load into bags to take to the molina.


And whether her love returns or not, at Christmas she will make presents of her olive oil to friends, drop into the bottles long stems of the rosemary she's picked. And throughout the year, until the next harvest, the smell of her oil and the rosemary will waft from her kitchen and wind through the streets of this village that she now calls home.

Lucy McCauley

Lucy McCauley is a writer living in Cambridge, Mass.

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