In 2015 I visited many ancient olive groves in Italy. The province of Lecce is known for having the oldest trees. The groves, accessible by stone paths or mule tracks, give a sense of the past. Here the landscape speaks in a language of origins: remnants of a crumbling stone wall suggest absence while the landscape beyond can be seen through holes of a hollowed trunk, creating a dramatic presence.
I travel to many towns in Puglia from Alliste to Struda, Scorrano, onto Tricasse, Ugento, Nardo and others. It is easy to spot the oldest trees; some have vacuous trunks as large as caves displaying protuberances and ripples that ancient trees accumulate with time. Expressive in form, the trees stretch out in wild and weirdly contorted shapes.
I shrugged when I heard mention of a bacterial infection. It was hard to believe these strong and resilient trees could be affected. Many have lived over a thousand years, still bearing fruit in great age.
But unknown to farmers, meadow spittlebugs were quickly multiplying. These insects carry a host of tiny particles, an invisible army identified as Xylella fastidiosa, infecting each tree they feed on. By the end of the year, it is reported over one million olive trees in the Salento Peninsula are infected.
Many groves are ravaged. Some trees looked burnt with brown leaves and dead branches. In an attempt to contain the virus from spreading into northern Europe, farmers are ordered by the government to cut down their heritage trees, resulting in economic catastrophe and heartbreak.
I am sitting at my desk going through all of the pictures of the trees when I hear this news.
I stack the sheets of thumbnails into a drawer and close it.
The olive tree is a painter’s tree. I can understand why Van Gogh thought olive trees were sacred. He believed they symbolized the cycle of life and individuals could connect with the divine by communing with nature. Fascinated by the ever-changing colors, Van Gogh painted eighteen canvases of olives. But he was not alone. Matisse, Monet, Degas, Sargent and Dali, similarly had a passion for this tree.
I often find inspiration in paintings from the past. For centuries, artists have embraced the use of light to encrypt symbolism into their canvases. It has been said the halo originated with the sun god Apollo. Heroes, kings, gods, and people of great power were often depicted with a brilliant light, glowing and radiant. The use of light in this manner was also used as an attribute for religious figures and saints, and sometimes given to angels.
Climate change disrupts the balance of nature in many ways. It comes as silent as a thief, creating devastating repercussions, causing the loss of species and cultural heritage.
The world’s loss of these trees fractures the soul.
Some nights when I can’t sleep, I open the drawer, take out the contact sheets and spread them out on the table. Memories of Puglia flood my mind. Late one afternoon, a proud farmer welcomes me into his grove with a pot of tea and a tablecloth. We sit in the grass under the shade of one of his oldest trees. Dappled light shimmers through silver leaves sparkling like diamonds, and I think, this is what heaven must look like.
Seven years later, I take out the olive tree pictures. In an attempt to gain control over the uncontrollable, I choose one of the images and make a test print on whisper-thin Japanese paper. It is a simple gesture, an attempt to reclaim agency. The paper is very fragile. I paint adhesive on the back and apply sheets of silver leaf.
I look at the print. As light falls on the tree, a heavenly silver glow shows through the highlights.
A hero, god or king? I can’t decide which.