The Olive Days of Winter

Early every morning I wake to the sound of tractor engines coughing to life in the pale pink dawn. They tow romorks full of villagers wrapped in scarves and towels and blankets, vague human shapes of many layers, women and children, families together, off out to the cold fields and the rich trees because the height of the four month long olive harvest upon us. With tarpaulin cushions and baskets full of supplies, with sticks for the tree beating and buckets for the olives, with papers for the fire starting and tea pots for the brewing the harvest goes on.

The zeytinyagi, the oil mills, are open late with golden halos of light spilling from their doors throughout the night and under the headlight spotlight of the tractors parked in their yards the stage is set with bins brimming with olives and men bargaining and bartering and begging for a good return on the crop.

On inaccessible hillsides patches of colour appear as sheets are spread below the olive trees to catch the crop. Dolmus make seemingly impossible ascents to the remote groves and spill out whole families onto ancestral lands that they visit only once a year, for the picking.

Across the valley and into the hills thin flags of smoke mark the vineyards that have been pruned, the clippings burnt onsite, sending up signals that mingle and merge in the bright clear air. Between the arrow straight runs of vines and amongst the silver barked orchards of cherry and almond they plough the land, turning the rich dark soil. These days there are more tractors than there used to be, but still many use horses, because horses turn shorter and they plough to the edges and they manoeuvre amidst the irregular shaped fields passed down through generations where tractors needs space and don’t like hedges.

Last night, when I took Shadow and Vinnie for their last walk, under a neon bright full moon, with the sharp metal smell of a coming frost in the air I met the neighbours coming back from the groves. The elderly parents clambered nimbly down from a romork of laughing, chattering relatives, well wrapped against the cold, and the old man bowed to me with his usual faultless courtesy.

It is hard to tell how old he is, village men age in spurts, going from strapping youth the dignified elder in the course of a year or so of hard work under the blazing sun. I guess he is in his 70’s, his son is middle aged, his youngest granddaughter about to be married and a number of great grandchildren play outside his gates after school in the afternoons so he must be close to that. But he is still fit and healthy and strong in the sinewy, hardened in the sun way of village men. Together with his wife he has put in a full day in the olives groves and whilst she brewed the interminable pots of tea over an open fire he will have supervised and overseen the harvest, from the spreading of the sheets to the beating of the trees to the collection of every last one of the precious olives.

Now in the darkened evening streets of the village he is a happy man. The harvest is good, and he is home from the cold, back to a hot meal and a night in front of the fire toasting his bones, laughing and slapping his thigh and marvelling at the antics of the people on the Dizi, the Turkish soap operas, that he watches on the television perched on a rickety corner table.

He smiles at me, his teeth a flash of white above the wrapping layers of his scarf and we exchange polite greetings before the tractor carefully backs out of the narrow lane and goes off to deliver more harvesters home.

It is indeed a good year for the olives; they are plentiful and plump and the continued warm days are making the harvest less of a hardship than it can often be. When the north wind blows a brittle cold into the hard shade of the trees picking olives is bitter work, but this January has brought soft days of gentle sun and no wind and the sun splashed hillsides are happier places for it.

I woke before the call to prayer this morning. Looking out of my bedroom window a fat tangerine moon was setting behind the hills, the last stars were still bright and rising plumes of smoke from narrow chimneys showed the village wives were awake and stirring up the soba and making breakfast for another early start. They have broken the back of it now though, and whilst the harvest of certain trees and certain varieties will meander on until March the height of the harvest is passing and apart from pruning the trees the village will soon settle into a brief welcome hibernation until the early Spring arrives and a new year starts.