"This time of year in Italy is full of harvests, so the landscape is alive."
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY John Hesselbarth
As the worn-out pickup truck pulls into the field, I am thrown around the back seat amongst the tools and rope. Maurizio jumps out of the cab, the Canadians follow. The sun is low in the sky and the grass still carries the moisture from the night before. We unload the nets first, then the crates, and finally the ladders. Another day in the trees, harvesting olives in Tuscany.
This is my second time staying with Maurizio. The year previous, I took a trip to Italy on a whim, hoping for an adventure, but gained a dear friend. I was invited back for the olive harvest, which Maurizio is so proud of. He also had a couple friends from Montreal helping out. The farm is located southeast of Grosseto, in a small town amongst the hills above the sea. The Tuscan archipelago is a backdrop for all the work done on the farm.
Maurizio is steadfast in his ways with a generous heart. He moved to Tuscany to live in conjunction with the land after a whirlwind of odd jobs and careers. His awe and respect for the natural world are contagious while walking the woods and fields of his home. He is dressed in an array of mismatched flannels, and a cigar hangs from his mouth as he surveys his land.
After trekking our gear through the overgrown field, we come upon the olive grove. A beautiful rolling landscape decorated with gnarled olive trees swaying in the wind. The sharp sun-scorched leaves threaten any predator looking to pilfer the olives. Under each tree is a circle of closely cut grass, which serves as a bed for the nets to rest on. Edo, the neighboring farmer, calls from a distance to wish Maurizio a good morning. His voice echoes on the hills as if we're surrounded.
The nets are draped around the base of the tree, extending under each branch. We climb in as if we are kids exploring the forest for the first time. Ladders pierce the canopy, giving us access to the fruit on the highest branches. Using hand rakes, we free the olives and they cascade into the net below.
Hanging out in the trees, we exchange stories in Italian, French and English. Shards of conversation are understood, the weight of which fully resonates. Maurizio tells stories of growing up in the mountains of northern Italy, working on fishing boats, and building his house in Tuscany. He tries to teach us traditional songs in Italian and of course some dirty jokes.
With all the olives resting in the net, we gather at each end to bring them all together. We remove the leaves, along with any branches, yielding a more perfect olive oil. This slow, meaningful harvest is a tribute to the land and the people who make their living with it.
As midday approaches we break for lunch: sardines with bread and pesto, frittata, pecorino, cured meats, and greens from the garden. We climb trees near the grove to pick pomegranates, already beginning to split. Wine is served. We add water so we don't get too sleepy, just enough to enjoy a small nap in the fields.
As a precaution, the Canadians and I carry small tasers incase of a viper bite. In the event, we are to shock ourselves all the way to the hospital. Maurizio also teaches me to drive his manual transmission truck incase he falls out of a tree or gets bit. I careen down the dirt roads, eliciting a barrage of Italian curse words from my instructor. I manage to down shift while avoiding the tractor and come to an abrupt stop. It seems a walk to the hospital would be safer.
This time of year in Italy is full of harvests, so the landscape is alive. Vineyards are finishing with their grapes, chestnut trees are being prepared, and the forest offers hidden treasures beneath its trees.
After lunch we head into the thicker forest in search of porcini mushrooms. They prove to be most elusive, but our baskets hold a few specimens to be enjoyed later. Searching for these mushrooms is like an Easter egg hunt. A great joy and sense of accomplishment washes over me as I find a beautiful porcini hidden amongst the underbrush.
Back at the olive grove, the sun begins its descent toward the horizon and we move to the next tree. The curves of the landscape become more apparent with the changing light. We hear the bray of the donkey from the neighboring farm, alerting the countryside to his existence. I feel alive in this moment, sitting in the high branches, practicing my Italian curse words and dreaming of the next tree.
JOHN HESSELBARTH is a collector of artifacts, seeker of experiences, day dreamer, map watcher, and photographer from Rhode Island. To see more of his work, visit Johnhesselbarth.com