Almost fifteen years after publication of the essay ”Gli ulivi camminano” (Libri Firenze, 2001), by the late writer Leone Salvatore Viola, an engineer from Saracena, Cosenza with a passion for history and local traditions, it’s worth returning to this work, perhaps too little appreciated in recent years, which reveals some truly remarkable aspects about the ancient olive trees of Calabria.
The essay, in addition to dealing in general terms with the historic and natural heritage of some territories of Sibaritide and Pollino, leads the reader to an amazing discovery, revealing at the same time the fascinating connection between science and history, between the human work and the “natural.”
Comparing the results of extensive and meaningful research, as well as intense monitoring that “only a rational mind dedicated to the calculation of an engineer” could possibly conduct, the author reveals, first, the metamorphosis of olive trees, through three stages: the split, the regeneration and the drift.
Following the separation from an original strain, the fragments of the trunk, covered with bark on one side, shrink from the others and go their way, thus giving rise to new plants, “walking,” Viola explains: “The plant is therefore characterized by a side who lives and a side that dies, namely by a margin of growth and by a margin of consummation. The result is therefore a plant that “walks,” drifting in the direction of the green part of the trunk, i.e. the margin of growth.”
Not only. The drift, or “walking” if you will, occurs irregularly, but the twist of the trunk is always to the left, counter-clockwise. Why? “The olive tree – writes the author – especially after the split, behaves a little ‘like a sunflower: their tree tops with their leaves are trying to capture the maximum possible light from the sun; and to do that they chase a path from east to west.” Of course, the search for sun is common in many other plant species, but not in other tree species. In the case of the olive trees, according to Viola, the phenomenon is closely linked to the “splitting” of the plant, because “the trunk, splits itself, to diminish its mechanical resistance to the torsion,” for which “the twisting force due to the sunflower effect prevails over the resistance of the trunk. A prolonged phenomenon, developing over centuries, if not millennia.”
That’s not all. Viola also attempts a historical-anthropological interpretation of this phenomenon, assuming a “parallel between human history and the history of the olive trees, between the age of the city and that of the trees,” as Mario Alfano writes in his preface to the book. The fact of the matter is that the cultivation of olives in Calabria, particularly in the areas observed by Viola, dates back to an early period of history, or the proto-history of our region.
Most likely, this crop was introduced “by the ancient navigators, from Turkey and Greece, who brought the first seeds probably as a food reserve,” in an era much earlier than the Greek colonization, which began in the VIII century BC. “It’s a reality – Viola writes – that the olive tree in Calabria had been cultivated at least 1,200 years BC.” A belief also supported by certain types of plants studied by the author in the area of Saracena, the town which gave birth to the trees, plants of a “particular aspect” in shape and size. But above all, some plants that persevered in areas adjacent to ancient human settlements, date back to the Bronze Age.
Pino Aprile, in his successful book Terroni (Piemme, 2013), introduces yet another suggestion: men and women, who brought to the Valley of the Garga, in the territory of Saracena, (and in other areas of Calabria), the cultivation of olive trees could have been the survivors of the Trojan War. “From a comment by Servius in the 1st book of the Georgics of Virgil, it is stated – writes April – that a castle, Gargaròn, founded in Calabria by fifty Trojans who landed in the port of Taranto, after the destruction of their city.” Gargaròn and Garga, merely a suggestion?
From history and archaeobotanics to the present is a short distance. Viola believes that what must be considered is the function of these trees, beyond the agro-food and strictly productive data. Treating them as true historical landscape monuments, from which one can gather information in the weaving of essays regarding the history of ancient civilizations. Equally important, they should be the focus of public policies with the purpose of promotion, tourist development, studies and protection, just as other plant species and trees are, notes Pino Loricato, or perhaps it would be better “as with churches and palaces, paintings and sculptures, monuments and other works of human ingenuity.”
Antonello Viola, who is the son of Leone Salvatore, who we consulted on this point has been very effective: “You realize, at this point, that history and archaeology come to life in vegetable form; when you thought that the most gratifying way to “touch” the past ages was to hold an ancient amphora or a gold coin, here instead we see the existence of true living witnesses of multiple civilizations, and everything that has been is right before our eyes, that of our parents, our grandparents and our forefathers.”