Nobody warns you about the olive dust.
It falls in a mist with each shake of the branches, spurts and sneezes with each blast of the chainsaw. Leafy limbs fall onto the net-covered ground. Olive dust settles on my skin, my hair, my boots. I clutch a branch and swipe my hand down its length. A spattering of olives falls onto the net. Grip, tug, repeat. Wrestle with the big branches, the dense growths and clusters of fruit. They look like grapes. Dusty grapes.
We are picking olives in Italy, deep in the south of the boot, olive tress mixed with apricot and lemon groves. Picking olives in Basilicata. This is how to do it: Spread nets beneath the trees, shake the crowns, and rake the branches clean until arms are sore and skin is coated in dust and hands are scarred with scratches. Watch the olives pool in the nets like tiny fish, but instead of sea we have grass, instead of boats there are ladders. Pick out the twigs and leafy bits and scoop the remains into crates. These are the verbs we will use: pick and scoop and crate and carry.
We are nine in this old stone house — three generations of Italians, maybe some ghosts in the weathered walls, and two sisters from New York. We have come on a work exchange, living with a family whose roots here stretch back into the years, who have been so quick to adopt us into their home and their lives, who douse us daily in wine and homemade pasta and laughter. We are here in this tiny town of one church and a handful of cafes, where old men always wear hats and their wrinkled skin is the color of the crema on their coffee, darkened by years of sun in fields and long weekends by the sea. We are here, my sister and I, harvesting olives and a daily life that nourishes as it dawdles along, one glass of vino at a time, daily lunch in the sun. We have left the clatter and din of avenues and apartments for the chatter of the countryside, the slow yawn of rural mornings and siestas.
We start work at 7. In the morning, it isn’t the rooster but the sound of chainsaws hacking at trees that wakes us. The neighbor is already in his grove, has been since daybreak. Daily breakfast of a moka pot slowly wipes the sleep from our eyes, and we file out of the farmhouse, tread into the groves. Mama leads the way — as with everything she does, she swaddles her surroundings into an embrace. And there is her firstborn, Mario, with the ever-present stub of a cigarette hanging from his lips, his sister Lucca behind him, boots and a bikini top, Rico, the youngest, still solemn with sleep as he stumbles along behind us.
In the morning, the sun peeks through the branches as we work and makes lacy patterns in the grass. The air seems to glow. It is meditative and it is relaxing, stripping these branches of their fruit, picking away at tree limbs in the morning light. This is how it begins, this is the morning pick — a pleasure. Observe the color of the olives, their size in your hands, the texture smooth, the luster as you rub the dust away with your thumb, as you shine the pellet like a coin in your palm. And observe this tree and its wrinkled bark and its twisting trunk and gnarled shapes like a stooped old man with a cane cloaked in a shawl of green. Like green streamers of cascading tears.
After a couple of hours, we are sweaty and thirsty. The sun heats thoroughly, brands us with t-shirt tan lines and damp backs. I count down the hours as we count the crates. Hands are scratched and poked and sooty and caked in dirt and bramble scars. Skin blooms with bruises from the pelting rainfall of olives, hair is garnished with bits of twigs and leaves. Lucca’s frizz is a nest of tree detritus, like a woodland tangle atop her head. My sister’s long russet braid is embellished with olives, strays that have weaved themselves into her plait. She picks them out and flicks them into a crate. Mario shakes olives from his shirt like loose buttons, from the fold in his collar. Sweat has darkened the plaid fabric. He rolls up his sleeves yet another time, too shy to go bare-chested.
We break for a coffee, a couple minutes for a cigarette and a siesta in the shade. A thermos of sweet dark liquid is passed around and we drink it out of tiny plastic medicine cups, the kind in hotel bathrooms. I sit on a crate and sip the syrupy sweetness. Mario rolls loose tobacco into cigarettes as he fiddles with a portable radio more toy than technology. He tinkers with the antenna until the static murmurs become a melody that he recognizes, that he whistles along to. Lucca passes around a plate of leftover apricot tart, humming the tune. We sit in the grass in the shade of trees, olives littered all around, plucking at conversation in broken languages. A smattering of Italian and puffs of smoke in the noon sun.
These are the words I have learned: ragazza. This is me. La ragazza is tired. Does la ragazza want more coffee? La ragazza doesn’t do this in New York, doesn’t pick her own olive oil.
We sit in the shade, the toy radio twinkling a pop song into the dry air, cigarettes like smoke stacks dissolving into sun, and the Italians want to know about my city. What is New York like, tell us. It’s hot and sweaty like this, but humid, and the only shade is cast from towering buildings, trees are lined in cement, cabs are the color of these lemon groves, a subway ride costs more than a bottle of wine here. And the sky is so much smaller.
Tell us about Little Italy. It is one street, Mulberry, but there are no mulberry trees, just apartment buildings and checkered tablecloths on tables spilling onto the sidewalk, and waiters with accents more New York than Rome, the smell of pizza and pigeons and subway grates. And walking down the block is like crossing continents, tomato sauce replaced with soy and the smell of fried rice and markets selling bushels of greens and fish in buckets. You’re in Chinatown now, turn a corner and you’re in Soho, and another into Noho, and another and you’re on a bridge into Brooklyn.
But here, on this farm in this tiny town where olive and orange groves stretch for miles and giant cactus plants skirt the roadside and sunsets paint the sky in neon brushstroke, you can walk for hours, pass fields of green and fruit trees, and the only thing that will change is the light in the sky.
“You are crazy, ragazza, you leave New York City to come here and pick olives with us, in this sun, and work so hard. Look at your hands, look how dirty they are,” Mario says what they’ve all been puzzling over. These Americans with their weird wants and needs. These hands, keyboard fingers and pampered nail beds, these delicate wrists — look at them now.
I look down at my hands and see how dark they’ve gotten in this sun, how worn. I see wrinkles that feed into more wrinkles, lines like art class sketches, creases and crevices of dirt. I see fingernails manicured in dust and soil, scratches and tears in weathered skin. I see the grasp and clutch and graze of fingers, fingers softened by touching grass and sand and leaves and flowers in fields, fingers toughened by work and earth and tools that these hands have learned to use. I see the finale of the olive harvest, the cloudy glass of green tinted oil in these hands, the slipperiness, the crunch of bruschetta dipped in these tangible results.
I look at my hands and I see accomplishment, I see happiness in the olive dust.