PHOTOGRAPHY BY VALERIA CHERCHI
“It’s alive,” I say, mostly to myself, but also to my sister, Kirsten, who stands behind me. My arms are wrapped around the bent and gnarled trunk of The Elephant, an olive tree believed to be more than 3,000 years old—one of the oldest in Puglia, the region that makes up the stiletto heel of Italy’s boot and is home to the country’s award-winning olive oil industry. It’s hot as Hades under the Italian summer sun, and sweat trickles down my torso, leaving dark stains on my wrinkled linen blouse, but I barely notice. I look disheveled and feel jet-lagged, and I couldn’t be happier. Kirsten puts her hand on my shoulder and I turn, wiping away tears, and laugh. “It’s official: I’ve become a tree hugger.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen The Elephant up close. My sister and I came to Masseria Brancati, the small family farm that’s home to this and hundreds of other olive trees, seven years ago. We’ve returned now, on my insistence, to learn the fate of the trees, which in the intervening years have been gravely threatened by a mysterious disease, Xylella fastidiosa, that is decimating olive groves throughout the Mediterranean.
It wasn’t only we sisters on that first trip, years ago; our mom also joined us for a rare mother-daughters vacation. I’m a regular traveler to Italy, not only because I love the country but because Kirsten has lived in Florence—far from the family home in California—for nearly two decades. While our parents often visited, Mom never traveled there on her own, and she certainly never joined me on my annual pilgrimages—until one Christmas morning when she announced she was gifting us a vacation. “We’re going on a Girls Trip. It’s now or never!” she said, with uncharacteristic conviction and a prescience we didn’t understand at the time.
Rather than stay in Florence, with its hordes of tourists, Kirsten suggested we travel to Puglia. “The food’s fantastic, the architecture fascinating, and, best of all, most Americans haven’t discovered it,” she told us. She planned the entire adventure, starting with a tour of Alberobello, a small, ancient village full of centuries-old trulli, miniature whitewashed buildings with conical roofs. As we hiked up and down the cobbled streets, we marveled at these Hobbit-size huts, wondering how the people here lived—and cooked—in them.
Although it was early June and Italy’s summer was already in full swing, Mom wore her signature pearls, a black rayon pantsuit, and heels. Kirsten and I wore light-colored linen and comfortable sneakers. All of us were sweating—or “shining,” as our mother prefers to call it—but only I was grumbling. That is, until I noticed Mom was limping.
“You’ve been all over the world and still refuse to wear practical shoes?” I teased.
“These are practical,” she insisted, claiming her wedge heels offered plenty of stability.
Kirsten looked at me, rolled her eyes, and added a stop at a shoe store to our itinerary. We bought Mom black and gold sneakers, which, we assured her, would match any of the many outfits she had squeezed into her huge suitcase. She wore those shoes every day while we traveled up and down the Puglia peninsula, visiting Otranto, with its Romanesque cathedral; the city of Lecce, considered the “Florence of the South”; and Castel del Monte, Andria’s 13th-century octagonal castle.
On our last morning, the host at our charming bed-and-breakfast encouraged us to make one more excursion. “Go visit Masseria Brancati,” she said. “You’ll see the olive trees we call The Immortal Ones and the mill, which dates back to pre-Roman times. Just ask for Corrado—he’ll show you around.”
To find Masseria Brancati, you must travel down a winding road from Ostuni, the White City of Puglia, so named for the blindingly bright limewashed stone that makes up much of the town’s architecture. Pass an arched entrance between high, forbidding walls and you’ll find a dirt road lined by rows of ancient olive trees, which look like prehistoric soldiers ready to march. The deliberate planting is a horticultural method dating back to the Romans. Growers then believed that about 40 trees per hectare (about 2.5 acres) would deliver the highest yield; Puglia’s small olive producers still follow that convention today.
“The old ways of farming have proven to be the most successful,” Corrado Rodio told us that morning. His family has been growing and milling olive oil in Puglia for seven generations. Although they once owned hundreds of hectares, the farm had been whittled down to a mere 30 by the time his father took over. He eventually abandoned the property, hiring contractors to pick the olives and selling the harvest to large producers, but in 1979 Rodio decided to reclaim his heritage, moving back to the land and the “old ways” in an effort to serve as a counterpoint to the rise of agribusiness olive oil production.
Italy is second only to Spain among the world’s suppliers of olive oil, and Puglia produces about half of the country’s output. Large modern producers, with their steel vat–filled warehouses and far-reaching distribution systems, may be the leaders of the industry here, but it is the small producers—those whose families can trace their roots along with the evolution of the trees themselves—that are the foundation of the region’s heritage.
To tour Masseria Brancati is to travel back in time. An underground mill reveals lines etched in stone where pressed oil was captured and, according to Rodio, likely shipped back to Rome or cities more ancient still. As we walked along the rocky terrain, through tall grass burned golden brown by the sun, Mom—limping behind us—asked about a wizened old tree that seemed to be growing sideways. Bricks were piled on top of one another to support its massive, twisted trunk. It was primordial, each turn seeming to demarcate a shift in history.
“My children call that tree The Elephant,” Rodio told us. “It’s one of the oldest on the farm.” He recounted the myths surrounding olive trees and explained that they are considered immortal because, while their trunks and branches may wither and fall away, their roots never die of natural causes. New trees can grow again and again from those original roots. That’s why these trees are not just hundreds but thousands of years old.
To many Italians, olive oil is a religion. Like wine, it has terroirs and highly rated appellations. People here debate the merits of each, along with which olive oil pairs best with which foods. Cinzia Rascazzo, founder of Stile Mediterraneo, a lifestyle brand based in Lecce, says that extra virgin olive oil is the essential ingredient of a life well lived. She also produces two brands, carefully curated for their health benefits. “Many think of it as something to drizzle over their salads or to lubricate their pans for cooking, but I believe the purest extra virgin olive oil is an elixir to longevity,” she says. “The antioxidants alone are worth their weight in gold. The best producers use the old ways in the field to ensure they create oil that is both delicious and healthful.”
While the “old ways” may be charming, their practitioners are facing an unmitigated crisis. In 2013, the very year that UNESCO designated the Mediterranean diet an “intangible cultural heritage,” Puglia’s olive trees began to die by the thousand. Their silver-green leaves turned gray, their branches withered and broke. The lines of marching soldiers became a legion of skeletons, leaving small farmers and large producers alike to reckon with a devastation that appeared to have no end.
Xylella fastidiosa, a plant bacterium spread by insects that travel from tree to tree, was discovered to be the cause. Once it infects the plant, it clogs the water flow vessels, leaving the tree to dehydrate and eventually die. As of 2019, Puglia has lost more than a million olive trees—and the disease is spreading rapidly. According to the European Commission, X. fastidiosa has now been found in Spain and France, and it threatens trees in Portugal and parts of the Middle East. The European Food Security Authority (EFSA), the division of the European Commission expressly responsible for threats such as X. fastidiosa, insists containment—including the removal of healthy trees near infected ones—is the only way to prevent the spread of the infestation.
I became aware of the devastation impacting Puglia’s olive trees in the summer of 2018; the news came at a vulnerable time for our family. After we returned from that first visit, we were surprised to learn Mom had a stress fracture in her foot. All of that limping, and she never said a word. My father says one of her best qualities is her unwillingness to complain, but it often leaves the rest of us guessing at what she really wants and needs.
That injury was the first of many curious ailments Mom endured in the following years. She began experiencing tremors and a shaky gait. Her ability to walk became impaired. Eventually, she was relegated to a wheelchair.
In the fall of 2017, she was diagnosed with a rare disease called progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP). Like X. fastidiosa, it’s a killer that has no known cure. The body loses its ability to function and, like the olive trees, slowly withers. As with the early days of the X. fastidiosa infestation, little meaningful research has been done into the causes of PSP. Is it genetic? Environmental? Does it spread like a bacterium, with some host passing it from person to person? Unlikely in this disease’s case, our doctor has told us. The truth is, we simply don’t know enough. It’s hard not to feel rage when someone or something you love is being taken from you right before your eyes and there are no answers or solutions.
On our second visit to Puglia, Kirsten and I drive past thousands upon thousands of dead trees, their arms spindly and withered. We see piles of branches, stripped trunks, and the remains of fires where farmers have been forced to fell healthy trees in an effort to stop the spread of the disease. A wasteland has overtaken what was once an example of a rich and rewarding life.
A slow death is hard to watch. It takes grace, a strong heart, and a willingness to accept the inevitable, but strong-hearted Corrado Rodio is unwilling to let his trees go gently into that good night. Kirsten and I are heartbroken to learn that an infected tree has been found less than two miles away from his property. Like many other farmers, Rodio is loath to do what the EFSA insists is required.
“How could I kill them?” he ponders as he leads us around his farm once more. “They were here long before us and, I believe, will be here long after we are gone. Are olive trees immortal? I can only hope it’s true.”
The good news is that Rodio, and others like him, have reason to hope. Certain varieties of olive tree are proving resistant to X. fastidiosa. Scientists are frantically grafting branches from these trees to the remaining uninfected ones, a single variety of which makes up the majority of the olive industry in Puglia. The hope is that the two varieties can commingle and prevent the further spread of death.
But olive trees are notoriously slow growers. A new tree can take up to five years to bear fruit and 15 years to reach full capacity. This could be a tragedy for the hundreds of small farmers who cannot afford to wait for an uncertain outcome and are likely to be forced to abandon their family land. It’s not clear what will happen with the commingled trees. If the grafting is successful, Italy’s olive trees may, in fact, prove to be immortal. Only time will tell. Sadly, The Elephant and the other ancient ones don’t have time to spare.
My family, too, has hope. The U.S. National Institutes of Health recently provided a major grant to conduct research on PSP. Six research centers across North America are banding together to see if they can find a drug or drug cocktail that can slow the progression of the symptoms. Two hundred thirty women and men afflicted by the disease are participating in the study. Thanks to them, we may have more time than we know, but we certainly don’t have time to spare.
For now, Mom is home, being cared for primarily by our father. She takes speech classes, does physical therapy, and insists on working out twice a week with her favorite trainer. She also refuses to miss her weekly hair appointment, and she only recently agreed to give up her high heels for flat-footed practical shoes that won’t make her trip when she tries to walk. Through it all, she never complains. “Why bother?” she says, her face shining with effort. “I have so much to live for.”
Before Kirsten and I leave Masseria Brancati, we return to The Elephant to say goodbye. Our arms are loaded with gallons of Rodio’s olive oil. I have no idea if it truly is an elixir for longevity, but I have purchased container upon container, imagining it might, in some small way, offer respite to my mother.
As we stand in front of our favorite tree, I put down my burden and lift the corner of my rumpled linen blouse to dab my wet cheeks. Mom has made me promise to bring her grandchildren here to meet this tree, and I am praying I can do just that. Kirsten wipes away her own tears, looks over at me, and then laughs. “Mom would never approve.” And I laugh back, knowing she’s absolutely right: Our mother refused to wear linen, because, of course, it wrinkles.
I reach up and gently touch The Elephant’s wizened trunk one last time. “Please live,” I silently beg, knowing neither this monument to history nor I can control that outcome. All we can do is hope—if not for true immortality, then at least for future generations who, with luck, will be able to continue the traditions forged in the past.