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.