Air Date: Week of January 12, 2001
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Few trees are as deeply rooted to human culture as the olive tree. Domesticated long before we learned to put words to paper, the olive holds tremendous symbolic power for peace, strength, and resurrection. But in California, producer Guy Hand found the olive can also symbolize something else: the distance we put between ourselves and our agricultural past.
HAND: That's the sound of olives falling. The days are short, the air crisp, and olives clustered in olive trees all over California are turning deep black, dead ripe. Some will be picked and pressed into olive oil, or cured for eating. But many will be ignored.
HAND: They'll fall like black hailstones. They'll bounce off cars and people's heads.
HAND: They'll slicken sidewalks, clog gutters. They'll leaves chunks of winter-time California awash in unwanted olives.
J. REED: And there are sections of the sidewalk up here that are just impassable because there are so many olives on them. And the sidewalk is completely black, and stretches where people have just given up on the olives.
HAND: Jack Reed grew up on Santa Barbara's aptly-named Olive Street. One of those places where homeowners and olives have been at odds for years. His mother Gertrude was just a young girl when the city of Santa Barbara planted an olive tree in front of her family's new home, the house she still live in today.
G. REED: We moved here in '22, and the tree was planted in '23. And if we had known what the olive tree was going to be like, we'd have pulled it up. (Laughs) Probably we would have been fined for doing it.
HAND: In the 20s the city of Santa Barbara planted olive trees all along Gertrude's street, intending to harvest olives for oil while making a profit for the city. Gertrude remembers the olive pickers coming every year until the 50s, when the market fell and they quit harvesting the trees.
G. REED: It's been a big nuisance ever since, with the olives dropping, and it's a constant rake, rake the olives.
HAND: In 1993, Gertrude had had enough with living in a neighborhood that felt as if it was slipping away on a sea of salad dressing. She and a neighbor decided to act, gathering names on a petition to make the city cut the olive trees down.
G. REED: I did. I canvassed the whole street from Olive Avenue clear down to Ortega. But it didn't -- I turned it in. It didn't do any good at all.
HAND: Do you remember at all how many names or how many people were interested in signing?
G. REED: Around 100 people.
HAND: So, would you say most of the people in the neighborhood were in favor of getting rid of the trees?
G. REED: Yes, they were.
HAND: All Gertrude has to show for her work is a dining room table covered in newspaper clippings generated by her failed petition drive. In one photograph this sweet, silver-haired woman stands defiant, petition in hand, next to her olive tree.
(To Reed) You and that tree sort of grew up together, didn't you?
G. REED: Yes, we did. We sure did. Seventy-seven years.
HAND: Irony clings to these unwanted olives. After all, for millennia the olive tree was not reviled but revered. To ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, Muslims, the olive was an integral part of daily life. Mourners placed cured olives in the tombs of Pharaohs. Olive oil anointed the brows of kings, greased the axles of chariots. Olive wood gave strength to the walls of both regal palaces and humble homes.
BUSH: See, first of all, olive oil itself has been historically very, very precious. Certainly, in the church's experience, it goes all the way back to the time of Christ and before.
HAND: Jesuit father Bernie Bush -- that's Bernie as in Bernard, by the way -- stands on a ladder in straw hat, suspenders, and work boots, looking more like an Iowa corn farmer than a priest. He's picking olives from one of the hundred trees that grow at El Retiro San Inigo, the Jesuit retreat house in Los Altos, California, where he works and lives.
BUSH: The olives were first brought from the Mediterranean to Mexico and to Latin America by Jesuit missionaries. And then the olives were brought north from Mexico into the California missions by the Franciscans. Each mission had its own olive grove, and that oil was very precious. As I said, use it for lubricating wheels, they use it for cooking, they use it for light. They burn the oil. So it was a multi-purpose oil.
HAND: Spanish missionaries harvested olives from San Diego to Sonoma until 1834, when with secularization most mission orchards were abruptly abandoned. The culture of the Mediterranean quickly gave way to that of northern Europe. These new immigrants had no practical or cultural experience with the olive. The Sacramento Bee at the time mentioned that not one American in 10,000 had ever tried olive oil. Ralph Waldo Emerson described olives like life at sea: both exotic and distasteful.
HAND: Father Bush only recently started thinking about olives.
BUSH: Well, about, oh, five years ago, we started doing a monthly healing service here. And we take olive oil, and we blessed it, and we have people come and pray. And we anoint them. And that original one we did by buying a can of oil from Safeway. Then one day not long after that, I was sitting in my office, and right outside my office door is an olive tree, and it was loaded with olives. And I looked at those olives and I said to myself: Wouldn't it be fun if the olive oil we used in our healing service came from our own trees? And I knew we had a grove down in here, but I hadn't been down in here much. I didn't know how many trees there were here. So I said well, let's look into it. So I had no idea how to get from olive to olive oil. Nor did I have any idea how to get an olive off the tree.
HAND: So Father Bush did some research and found Dan Sciabica, a member of an Italian family with a commercial olive oil business in Modesto, California. There was only one hitch. To work, the company's machinery needed a ton of olives.
BUSH: And I said a ton of olives. And he said, "Yeah, that will make you about 30 gallons of oil." And I said, "Thirty gallons of oil is not the scale and magnitude I was thinking of. I have more in mind a pint." And I said, "Well, gee, how do I get a ton of olives?" So Dan Sciabica came over here and looked at our grove. And we had a lot of olives here. And he says, you know, you pick these olives. And he said, "I'll leave a box off." So he left off one of those fruit bins and said, "You fill these up and we'll make the olive oil for you." Well, as it turned out that first year we had no idea what we were doing. We were down in here in the orchard, you know, without tarps or any of that kind of thing. We didn't know how to pick very well. But as it turned out, in the three days that we worked on Thanksgiving weekend, we picked a thousand pounds, half a ton, took it over there, and they made us 27 gallons of oil.
HAND: So the next year, Father Bush refined his technique. Got rakes, tarps, and buckets, and asked friends and neighbors to come to the retreat the day after Thanksgiving to pick olives.
BUSH: There's an instruction sheet. Sign in. Put your name, address...
HAND: In this, the sixth year, whole families are on ladders picking by hand, or raking olives off the trees onto tarps.
HAND: And as the sun fades, the crate fills to overflowing with a thousand pounds of bright green and iridescent purple olives. While tired, muddy volunteers haul their last bucketfuls up from the grove, another volunteer, Chelsea McNeil, a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, composes an impromptu olive-picking song in the parking lot.
McNEIL: (Sings to the tune of Shenandoah) For one small bottle of olive oil on the hills of El Retiro , I broke my back before lunch break. Away, let me get away to my chiropractor. (People laugh and clap)
HAND: At about the same time Father Bush and his volunteers were refining their picking skills, Gabrielle Leonhard was wandering old mission groves doing research for a book about olives.
LEONHARD: And when I went to the missions, they really could not tell me about the history. When I looked at the trees, many of them looked like scarecrows or dense thickets that I couldn't even look through. They weren't trees any more, they were bushes down to the ground. And I said my gosh, this is a living legacy. It is a culinary heritage for California, and we're losing it.
HAND: Gabrielle was stunned enough by what she saw to form The Mission Olive Preservation, Restoration, and Education Project. She and a group of volunteers contacted the northern and central California missions and began working directly with them.
LEONARD: The Soledad Mission was very interested in restoring their olive history, and they harvested two years ago and made an oil. The Santa Ynez Mission has harvested, now, for the third year. The Sonoma Mission has harvested their olives for I think three harvests now, and that oil is being sold.
HAND: Today, Gabrielle is attending the Blessing of the Olives Festival at the Sonoma Mission in Sonoma, California -- an event organized to pay homage to olive history. And perhaps to help secure its future.
(Music continues, to applause)
DURVEN: Good morning. I'm Daphne Derven, and it's a real privilege for me to welcome you all here again. This is our third blessing of the olives here at the Sonoma Mission...
HAND: On this Saturday in December, 100-some people gather in the mission's adobe-walled courtyard, standing under the gray-green canopy of olive trees.
DERVEN: And now it's a real privilege to introduce Father Aurelio Villa of St. Leo' Church.
VILLA: Oh God, from the very beginning of time you commanded the earth to bring forth vegetation and fruits of every kind. Grant, we pray, that this land these trees, enriched by your bounty and cultivated by human hands, may be fertile with abundant crops...
HAND: Father Aurelio, dressed in vestments, white beard, and beatific smile, sprinkles holy water on mounds of freshly-picked olives. It's as if California's past had rematerialized before our eyes.
VILLA: ... and thank you for coming. And I hope that you will enjoy the olive and the oil that we produce.
HAND: A surge of interest in Mediterranean food and the well-publicized health benefits of olive oil have people all over California looking with a newfound interest at neglected olive trees. Some are even planting new ones. Others are building olive oil presses. Just ten years ago there were only half a dozen presses in California. Now there are at least 24.
HAND: One of those presses is located in Glen Ellen, just north of the Sonoma Mission. Today, it is offering to process olives for anyone who wants to bring them by. Peggy Loar, director of the American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts.
LORE: One of the wonderful things that happens here is that people who are planting, you know, 50 trees or even 30 trees or fewer will actually pick their olives, go into a community olive press, and then they get their percentage of oil on the other end. And it just brings the whole community together.
WOMAN: Take this inside and pay for it.
HAND: People stand in line, harvest in hand, waiting to have it weighed, combined with other olives, and dumped into a hopper.
HAND: To be crushed and pressed into olive oil. Some bring large crates of olives. Others bring just a bucket or two. Some children bring olives cupped in their bare hands.
(To children) Did you guys pick olives?
CHILD 1: Uh huh.
CHILD 2: Off our tree.
CHILD 1: It's in our front yard.
HAND: How many trees do you have?
CHILD 1: One, but it makes a lot of olives.
HAND: Do you like olive oil?
CHILD 1: I've never really tried it. My mom and dad usually eat it the most.
HAND: They just make the kids pick them.
CHILD 1: Yeah. (Laughs)
HAND: Coming to California from Sicily, Mike Troia is here with his brother Sal and their 83-year-old father. None of them can believe that here, olives were left to fall to the ground and rot.
TROIA: In Sicily, having an olive tree is like having a little reserve in the bank.
HAND: The Troias don't have their own olive tree, but they found plenty to pick in the neighborhoods where they live.
TROIA: If you see usually the olives in the tree, the people don't use them. So all you've got to do is just go knock on the door and ask, you know, can we pick the olives? And they more than are willing to say yes.
HAND: One group is elated to hear they've picked nearly 300 pounds of olives.
(To group) Did you guys pick these?
WOMAN 1: Yes, we did. We did. Had a great time picking them.
WOMAN 2: We worked the hard trees first, and then we went down below and worked the easy trees, and that seemed to work -- that worked much better than the first year we did it, where we worked the easy trees first and then all we did was gripe about the hard trees, you know what I mean? (Laughter) It's easier this way.
WOMAN 2: And it's interesting, because some trees have a lot of olives on one side, and then the other side is totally bare and they don't have any olives on them. And so, we kind of learned the nature of the trees.
WOMAN 1: And we'll come back for pickling. You're going to pickle some, I'm going to pickle some, yeah.
WOMAN 2: It's not much cheaper than buying olive oil, but it's just much more fun and it's great to give it away and say I made this.
WOMAN 1: It's a whole new respect for every drop of olive oil.
WOMAN 2: Yeah, yeah.
WOMAN 1: You know, you go to the restaurant and they slop that stuff in the bowl for you to dip your bread in. I'm like, every berry was picked by hand. You just know it, because there's no other way to do it.
HAND: I don't know if this resurrected interest in olives will stop them from staining the sidewalks around Gertrude Reed's Santa Barbara home. But the glee I hear in the voices of those crowded around this olive press makes me optimistic. It's as if these friends and families had discovered something new and wondrous in the olive grove: agriculture. In one sense, their enthusiasm simply shows how far we've removed ourselves as a culture from the act of growing things. Yet, it also shows just how hungry we are to get back to it. For Living on Earth, I'm Guy Hand.
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HAND: So, you're going to do it next year?
WOMAN 1: Yeah, let's do it again next year.
WOMAN 2: There's a second harvest in January, if there's berries left we'll do it again.
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