The olive tree in this photo is reputed to be 2000 years old – give or take a century or so.
It’s growing in a grove just above the village of Deir Hanna, in the North of Israel, one of five there that have attained record-breaking ages.
I was a part of a group of ecology-minded people from Gezer, my kibbutz, and some friends who visited these trees on a trip to the nearby city of Sakhnin last summer.
We went there to see new and traditional methods of building and water treatment. After we all stuffed ourselves silly on hummus and salads in downtown Sakhnin, our guide and friend Jan, a permaculture instructor and writer, led us up a winding hillside road to see these forgotten leafy treasures.
Touching any living thing that’s so inconceivably old is awe-inspiring. But unlike the other ancient trees I’ve walked around – giant old-growth redwoods, whose looming trunks John Muir aptly described as “cathedrals,” reminding you of your petty insignificance – these trees connect one directly to human history. They’re recognizably agriculture, planted by humans in familiar patterns.
Rather than growing tall and stately, their trunks have spread outward, becoming ever more twisted and gnarled with time – sometimes even splitting into separate trunks – as though they’re hunkering down to withstand the ravages of eons.
Ancient producers and what they’ve “seen”
Amazingly enough, these trees are still producing olives. It gives a whole new meaning to the term “sustainable agriculture.”
They’ve probably been owned and tended by Jews, Christians and Muslims, and who knows how many others, passed down in families for generations until someone else took them over. Not to mention all the Romans, Crusaders, Ottomans and others who’ve passed by while these olives have been quietly growing on their hillside just a few kilometers to the west of the Sea of Galilee.
Although olive trees are native to this region, and among the hardiest of trees, the fact that these ones are still around is evidence that for most of those 2000 years, someone made sure they got water here and there, pruned their branches once in a while and protected them from human destruction, fire, animals and disease.
The string around the bottom of the tree in the photo is a measuring tape. It was brought by one of our group who is a tree expert and ancient tree enthusiast. Apparently measuring the trunk circumference is the best way to estimate the age of an olive tree.
Although drilling a small core to the center of a tree and counting the rings is generally considered a more accurate way to date it, with olive trees you can easily miss the earliest wood, as it doesn’t grow in nice, even rings. (Anyone who has ever contemplated the grain of one of those olivewood carvings they sell to tourists here knows what I’m talking about.)
After our expert rolled up his tape, we measured the largest tree in another way – joining hands around the trunk. As I recall, we were something like 20 adults and children, and it took all of us, arms stretched wide, to encircle it.
These trees are mentioned in a Wikipedia article on olives (which claims they are 3000 years old, but is otherwise a fairly informative resource). Every archaeological site in Israel worth its oil boasts at least one olive press, oil storage amphora or stash of shriveled, ancient olive pits hiding in the bottom of a clay pot.
This issue of Gems in Israel from 2000 has some articles on olives in history, archaeology and tourism. Anyone interested in green building in Sakhnin can read this article, in English, on the Ministry of the Environment website. The site has more information on the Sakhnin environmental center in Hebrew.
(This is a guest post by Eda Goldstein, a writer and member of Kibbutz Gezer in central Israel. She has worked as a veggie cook and head of the kibbutz kitchen, a dairy farmer and a plumber. In her spare time, she grows herbs and vegetables in old watering troughs, reads, cooks and hatches plots to build a green neighborhood on the kibbutz. It is x-posted on The Jew and the Carrot).