WILD OLIVES, France – Each year about now I return here among old friends to check on the state of the world. Emiliano, Julio, Ernesto, Shithead and the gang have been on watch for centuries. Their Mediterranean roots go back 10 millennia.
Some are now near despair, and a few are fighting for their lives.
Olive trees can’t actually talk (and I’m not yet unhinged), but I learn more from them about what matters in the long term than from that fancy Samsung TV blaring away inside my old stone house.
They tell it straight without sponsors and ratings to worry about, or clueless editors guessing at a distance what their message should be. Having been around since before the Bible was a rough draft, their forte is historical continuum.
The trees’ immediate grief is the climate chaos that an American president denies. It hasn’t rained in seven months. Olives survived, but not most of the genets – broom – that perfume the hills in summer with delicate golden flowers.
Heat and drought fended off the dreaded dacus, the olive fly that last year left the neighborhood without a crop. That was a freak attack, worsened by a new bug and old bacteria that settled into holes bored in the olives. Next year, who knows?
Stepping back, there is a broader message. Nature, like human events, is not determined by what we want it to be or think it is. It takes its course, and we can only mitigate the consequences – or suffer them.
Scientists measure data; trees and crops show us reality. For decades, the late Lester Brown at WorldWatch tracked growing global grain demand and precarious supply. When that balance tips the wrong way, humans go hungry. And in a crunch, food goes not to those who can buy it but rather those who can take it.
Today, the news is that Donald Trump is moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, which his partisans say has always been Jewish. Those surviving old-timers on the Mount of Olives know history is far more complex than that.
Olives have loomed large in my periodic reporting trips to the unholy land since the 1960s. In 1994, I met Ahmed Nasser, a 38-year-old electrical engineer, a U.S. citizen from Warren, Ohio, who had moved back to his family home in Nablus.
“The olive has deep, deep roots in the ground,” he told me, “and we feel that our roots are as deep. The Israelis know this. If anyone throws a stone from a field, they push all the trees off. We get punished for 1,000 years.” When Jewish settlers want to claim new territory, he added, they uproot old groves and plant new trees to mark possession.
Feelings are so intense, Nasser said, that Palestinians killed a merchant near Nablus who sold his orchard to Jews who planned to settle.
There is no moral to this story. Each “news” item from Israel and Palestine has 50 shades of grim. Such judgments as right or wrong are up for dispute. But, as always, facts are facts. Nearly a quarter century later, olives remain at the heart of intractable crises that demand serious diplomacy, not donor-pleasing ideology.
Every sign suggests a move would paralyze chances for peace, fortify Iran-backed militants, infuriate many Muslims and further isolate America. A Brookings poll found 63 percent of U.S. respondents oppose it. But Trump knows his audience.
I named my half-dozen acres in the Provence back hills Wild Olives because it was such a tangled jungle that I couldn’t see the trees for the forest. After a decade of hard labor, it was tamer, but the name still fit. In French, it is pronounced like huile d’olive.
In between reportages on war and peace around the world, I return whenever I can to ponder perspective on “breaking” news. Each year – each month, now – the abyss widens between what I see out in the real world and what I hear on that blaring box inside the house.
Ironically, good reporting is better than ever, with courageous, incisive and often dangerous work. The wondrous web brings us images, data, links and speed we old hands never imagined. But, ironically, most Americans have never been so badly informed at a time when a clear picture of the world is essential to survival.
The problem is that there is too much, too often. Excellent reporting is lost among clueless guesswork and panel-babble. Finding it takes sustained attention, crosschecking sources and attention to crucial nuances as well as big pictures.
Down here, those nuances run to truffles. Life’s little pleasures rarely reach the heights of a freshly found tuber melanosporum grated over egg noodles in butter with a light splash of hot-off-the-press Provence olive oil.
I just went to nearby Aups, where a few olive trees date back to the Romans, for the first truffle market of the season. The few on offer cost close to a thousand dollars a kilo, which is twice last year’s price.
A second-generation producer named Sabine slipped me a fragrant muddy lump, which her noble hound had found along the roots of an oak.
“For the past few years, we’ve had to water around the trees,” she said. “Without that, not a chance.” Nearby, an old guy in a flat wool cap shook his head. When he was young, he said, pigs in the neighborhood snuffled up a ton a month.
True, a life without truffles hardly matches fallout from a nuclear war accidentally triggered by two unbalanced leaders in a shoving match. The lesson, however, is the same. Quickly or slowly, what we don’t know is killing us.