“you breathed like a tree in the quiet light’

olive flowers

Yesterday I was sitting with my coffee in the greenhouse when I caught the faintest scent in the air. What was it? Not the smell of tomato plants or damp soil. Not the scented geranium cuttings on the long bench. But right at my feet, the olive tree was blooming.

I have three small olive trees. One of them, the one with blossoms, is Arbequina. It’s self-fruitful but I know that the blossoms are wind-pollinated. My intention was to keep the tree outside for the milder months but I’ve read that deer love the leaves and the greenhouse is right on the desire path of the does that pass through our place in every season, feeding on anything they can find. Cherry sprouts, roses (if not caged), grape leaves…Almost every day the door to the greenhouse is open and there’s a roof vent too. When I saw that the flowers on the olive were opening, I gave the tree a gentle shake. Pale gold pollen fell from one cluster so I think that might do it.

The olive trees with the wrinkles of our fathers
the rocks with the wisdom of our fathers
and our brother’s blood alive on the earth
were a vital joy, a rich pattern
for the souls who knew their prayer.
I have two other olive trees, smaller, found on a half-price table at the grocery store in Sechelt. They had no tags but I recognized they were olives and checked with the woman responsible for the plant area to confirm. She didn’t know the variety. No blossoms on them, not yet, but I’m hopeful for the future.
basil and small olive
Sleep wrapped you in green leaves like a tree
you breathed like a tree in the quiet light
When I think of olives, I think of Greece. I think of Crete where I lived for a time as a young woman, renting a room in a house owned by a woman called Aphrodite. She owned an olive grove with her family and once I went with them to help with the harvest. They used something like a broom (homemade) to brush the olives from the trees to loosely woven sheets spread on the ground below. The village had a press operated by donkeys who walked in patient circles as the stones pressed the olives and oil ran into little channels to buckets.  Aphrodite poured fresh green oil into small bowls and we dipped bread into it. Maybe that’s what I was remembering as I sat in the blue chair and smelled the olive blossoms, maybe that’s the dream I’m hoping to pursue with my three little trees. An Arbequina will begin to produce at three years. Only 2% of flowers will result in olives. Maybe this year there will be a handful to pick and cure and who knows, maybe the other two trees will surprise me with blossoms in a year or two. Looking out at the greenhouse, I am seeing it suddenly as a moment in the future, grey-green leaves pressed to its ceiling, its walls, reaching for the vent. 
The harbour is old, I can’t wait any longer
for the friend who left the island with the pine trees
for the friend who left the island with the plane trees
for the friend who left for the open sea.
Note: the passages of poetry are from “Mythistorema” by George Seferis, translated by Edmund Keeley

“Tell what you saw…”


Now I know why I saved the olive oil tin and planted rosemary in it. All spring I’ve remembered Crete and my time there 43 years ago, a girl in love with Agamemnon, and all the beauty of the herbs and music.

Tell what you saw as the bus raced towards Agia Galini. Mountains. Tiny villages, white with churches, perched so high that you couldn’t imagine a reason for a village to be there until you remembered the history of Turks, Venetians, Germans; and yet a road lurched up the mountainside, sheep and goats grazed on the rocky slope, a few donkeys carried their riders uphill, laden with sticks and sacks.

Steep rises covered in dittany, juniper, plane trees in the squares of towns we passed through, shady and green. Holm oak and kermes oak. Rocks covered in low-growing thyme—by now you’d eaten your γιαούρτι με μέλι and knew that the bees had worked the thyme flowers to create this ambrosia, the first honey for which you’d been able to detect its origins.

Groves of olives, and long rows of grapes on the fertile plains. Through the open windows you smelled dust and unfamiliar wind.

Signs in Greek, which you yearned to be able to read. (You had your grammar and were trying to master the alphabet.)

You passed houses almost smothered in vines, the window frames and doors painted blue. Rusty oil cans held geraniums and lush basil; tomato plants climbed the whitewashed walls. Old women shrouded in black sat on chairs and held up a hand to the driver of the bus.

Outside a church in a small town, you saw an Orthodox priest eating an apple.

–from “Olea europaea: Young Woman with Eros on her Shoulder”, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, Goose Lane Editions, 2012.


a copper briki

“A tiny copper briki in which coffee had been boiled three times.” That phrase occurs in my novella, Patrin. I wrote it, remembering how much I’d loved coffee the months I spent in Greece in the last century when I was in my early 20s. I had a sweetheart on Crete — I’ve written about him in my memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, in the chapter “Olea europaea: Young Woman with Eros on her Shoulder”: “A very old man, a fisherman with a bright blue boat, used to bring me slices of melon when I sat at the dock and read my book. One day he brought his son, whom I will call Agamemnon. He was older, had served in the army, and spoke English only marginally better than my Greek.” I had many cups of coffee with Agamemnon and his father. They made it by spooning coffee into water in a little briki, along with sugar. The briki was placed on a gas burner (Agamemnon and his family owned a small taverna) and brought to the boil, removed, placed back on the burner, removed, and then placed on the burner one more time. It took some time for me to convince them that I wanted mine without sugar — sketos. But that’s how I liked it best. They didn’t drink their coffee quickly, the way people drink an espresso in Italy, but they sat at a table or on a bench, with a tall glass of water, and they sipped the coffee slowly and appreciatively. I learned to do the same. The first few times I had coffee with them,  I drank mine right down to the last drop — which was grounds. And I was told not to do that. I soon figured out when to consider my coffee finished. All this is so long ago now but the other day, on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, I was shopping for Christmas presents and as I was about to pay for all the things I’d chosen at the Mediterranean Market (this will be an edible Christmas!), I saw some brikis hanging behind the counter. I asked to see one and as I held in my hands, a whole world came back to me, filled with the rustling of olive leaves, the flavours of retsina and salty cheese, the feel of my body alive in the ocean, and then the company of two men under shade trees in front of Agamemnon’s taverna. Of course I bought the briki and will keep it in my kitchen for the memories it conjures on winter mornings, the taste of strong coffee — sketos — and the warmth of sunlight, almost forty years later.