The Olive in my Hand

Olives are a miracle.

Olives ready for harvest in California’s Central Valley

Harvested from trees that might have been planted by unknown hands centuries ago, olive fruit yield a most pure and precious oil. Kept in vessels, the oil can be burned for light, flavored for dressings, saponified for cleansing, heated for cooking, and blessed for anointing. And this oil is readily available, through the least affected process. People gather and crush the mature olives, press the pulp, then collect and filter the oil – an astonishingly organic gift that has brought simple luxury to hundreds of generations.

Olives, harvested for crushing and pressing
A modern crushing mill, generating an oil paste from fresh olives
Crushed olive paste being spread on screens
Oil streaming from stacked screens under pressure

No wonder olive was given great meaning in its native Mediterranean world. As nature gives this fruit and its oil so freely, people offer olive branches and its oil to each other as tokens of peace and comfort.

Olive images and references abound in Western culture and throughout The Huntington. Shakespeare popularized Olivia as the name for a character in his comic Twelfth Night. The more complex player, Viola, when challenged by Olivia, defends himself (i.e. herself) with the lines:

“I hold the olive in my hand;
my words are as full of peace
as matter.”

Illustration of Olive from Blackwell’s Curious Herbal

The central allée of The Huntington’s Brody California Garden celebrates these many associations. But the trees along that entry walk are a fruitless form. For a better connection, visitors will find a new planting of fruit-bearing olive cultivars on the slopes rising to the Mausoleum.

The Mausoleum is sited on a small, natural mound above the Orange Groves and Botanical Center, about the same size as Rome’s Mount Testaccio – which is not natural at all. Anciently, olive oil was stored and shipped in 70 liter (18 gallon) pottery urns called amphorae. One urn would have been a year’s supply of oil for a small family. Pottery is easily broken, meaning chards of amphorae are commonplace in ancient Mediterranean settlements. An archaeological fallout of the olive oil trade is Rome’s Monte Testaccio, a massive landfill covering an area of 5 acres and comprising fragments of over 50 million amphorae.

The next time you visit the Bing Children’s Garden, glance to the North where the Mausoleum hill rises and think of what you could do with 50 million pottery vessels.

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