Here in Sicily ancient olive trees are often called Saracen olive trees – the word Saracen refers to the Arab rule in Sicily from the 9th century AD or subsequent invasions – simply to indicate that the olive trees can be hundreds of years old.
With huge gnarled trunks twisted into bizarre shapes, they are a beautiful part of the landscape where I live in southeastern Sicily, and are reminiscent of an enchanted forest from a fairy tale. It’s easy to imagine trees dancing and whirling at night, only to be stopped in motion at the first light of dawn.
When I go for a walk near my house in Sicily, I like resting under a Saracen olive tree during, or sometimes actually ON an olive tree. I think of the tumultuous events of the past centuries that this tree has witnessed, and wish the tree could tell me stories, or at the very least, answer a few questions. Who planted you? Who have you sheltered and how have you survived the wars that have been fought around you? How many tons of olives have been laboriously handpicked from your branches, how many people have you fed? How may liters of olive oil from your olives have been pressed over the centuries? And in this quiet beautiful landscape, the rhythm of an olive trees life – of resting, pruning, picking, and pressing – still continues. Little has changed except the mule-powered oil press is now mechanized.
Saracen olive trees figure into contemporary Italian crime novels, too. Inspector Montalbano, the main character in Sicilian author Andrea Camilleri’s detective novels, likes to sit under a Saracen olive tree when mulling over how to solve a particularly difficult case (of course, he successfully solves the case!) And in one terrible episode, in a book entitled L’Odore della Notte (The Scent of Night), Montalbano discovers that someone has uprooted his magnificent tree in order to build a tacky vacation home, complete with the seven dwarves in the garden. He is so furious that he smashes the dwarves, breaks a window of the house and spray paints across the wall: stronzo (asshole)!
When driving through the countryside near my home in Modica, I have favorite olive trees that I have named, and I wave to them along the way – Ciao, Twister! Buongiorno, Hulk! Unlike Inspector Montalbano’s unfortunate tree, I hope they will be around for generations to come.