This (har­vest­ing)

Life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Zahra Bolouri

THE third week of May is olive har­vest in Tas­ma­nia. We flock south like strange birds, dis­card­ing all things city life: mo­bile phones, ap­point­ments, hair­brushes. Leave them be­hind; you don’t need them this one week a year. You’ll find what you need at the farm, old track­suit pants and socks from high school sports uni­forms that stub­bornly live on. We gather around the kitchen fire­place the night be­fore the har­vest be­gins, minds slow­ing down with the crackle of the fire. Ten­sions un­knot, last week’s im­por­tant to-do list be­comes ir­rel­e­vant and rises like smoke through the chim­ney into the night sky with a mil­lion stars. We talk and as­sign roles.

Par­rots squawk and fly away as we ap­proach the trees next day, many of the olives al­ready gone. We joke: one tree for the par­rots, one for the frost and one for us. There’s still a lot to pick, no time to waste. Peo­ple use small or­ange hand rakes to cap­ture the plump lit­tle berries, tap tap tap­ping as they roll into the col­lect­ing bucket, a sound as sat­is­fy­ing as rain on a roof.

It’s not sur­pris­ing to me that the olive branch is a sym­bol of peace. The tree brings peo­ple to­gether around its beau­ti­ful sil­very grey fo­liage. It’s a talk­ing cir­cle. Nothing can kill olive trees. They with­stand fire and flood. They lit­er­ally have to be up­rooted and turned up­side down. I’ve seen pic­tures of trees like that half a world away in some­one else’s war and can’t imag­ine the pain the peo­ple must have felt see­ing their fam­ily trees vi­o­lently mas­sa­cred. For us, a year’s ex­pe­ri­ence con­densed into a week can be bit­ter to taste. Like oil, ar­gu­ments float to the top, and the pick­ing and laugh­ing and ar­gu­ing con­tinue as buck­ets are filled, and an­other, and an­other, and soon we have enough for the ma­chine.

The olive-pro­cess­ing ma­chine has been named Bruno. He’s a sim­ple enough fel­low but there are still many frus­trat­ingly opaque as­pects. He came in a crate from Italy five years ago with no in­struc­tions. He’s a hop­per, a mixer, a cen­trifuge and an oil pipe roughly the size of a small car. Olives go in one end and oil and waste come out the other. In the­ory.

Ex­cept that for a mul­ti­tude of dif­fer­ent rea­sons Bruno reg­u­larly de­cides not to co­op­er­ate, more of­ten than not af­ter a full day’s pick­ing has been emp­tied into him. Last year one of his four en­gines gave up the ghost part way through pro­cess­ing and there was no oil to be had. There is a painful mem­ory of scoop­ing out ki­los and ki­los of olive pulp and feed­ing it to the sheep. A colour­ful vo­cab­u­lary of Ital­ian swear words and a ba­sic de­gree in me­chan­i­cal engi­neer­ing help, but if Bruno de­cides no oil on a given day, there will be no oil.

This year one of the four ca­pac­i­tors died, its sil­very guts ex­plod­ing and pre­vent­ing the olive paste from be­ing pushed into the cen­trifuge. A half-day re­turn trip to the near­est hard­ware store and Bruno was back in busi­ness: crates of olives in, switches on, the cen­trifuge build­ing up to a roar­ing scream. But no sign of oil.

Power off, and a hand plunges deep into Bruno’s guts to see if there is a block­age. No block­age, turn him on again. We all hud­dle around the oil-pour­ing pipe with a slightly sick feel­ing the pick­ing has all been in vain again.

There’s a drip of grey­ish green wa­ter, and then an­other that turns into a stream. And a mo­ment later the stream be­comes a gold­en­green, lu­mi­nous rib­bon of pure olive oil pour­ing into the stain­less steel bucket. Smiles and a sigh of re­lief: con­fir­ma­tion that it has all been worth it and life is good for an­other year.

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