Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thoughts From The Harvest

I want to spend a few minutes writing about meditations that I have had during our recent olive harvest.

I suppose I should start with a short explanation of why we have an olive harvest in case someone doesn't already know. Several years back, we felt like the Lord was leading us to begin a camp ministry here in Portugal. It took several years of praying, planning and waiting, but 4 years ago we bought a piece of property about 22 kilometers outside of our city of Castelo Branco. We didn't buy it because it had olive trees, but it did have them (about 500 of them!) and, along with all the other things we had to do to get the camp up and running, we had to learn what to do with them.

It turns out that we bought into one of the best olive producing areas in the whole world as far as quality of olives and oil are concerned. Back when olive oil was still really important in Europe and the Middle East, this area actually one prizes Europe-wide for the quality of their oil. These days olive oil is quite inexpensive here, and labor prices have increased so that you would have to have a really large farm and mechanize the care and harvesting a lot in order to make money at it. We are just pleased to have our own super delicious oil to use for ourselves and family and friends.

Throughout the year we have to do some pruning, and sometimes we fertilize some of the trees. That is basically all there is to do until the first of November. Then we have some real work to do.

This year we gathered in over 700 kilos of olives. We worked at it for three weeks, obviously not every day, but we still put in quite a few hours. We had help from one missionary for a couple of days and 6 people from a sister church came and worked one Saturday with us.

It really is not all about the oil or the olives. They are wonderful, but the fellowship we have when people come to help (some have even come from the States) is something special. There is just something about a real harvest that reminds us of so many things. We we sing, and eat, and have a devotion time, and we even take some time to pick olives.

The time when it is just Barb and I is pretty special too. Some times we work together and some times apart. Either way, there is a lot of time for reflection, seeing as the actual olive removal isn't exactly rocket science.

One day during this years harvest I was about 2 meters up on my ladder. All of a sudden a strong breeze came up and the ladder started shaking around. Those of you who know me understand that if my weight had been on the ladder it would have taken a seriously strong wind to get it to move. After my initial moment of panic, i too realized that something didn't make sense. I wasn't falling or even moving though the ladder looked like something from a 60's dance floor. I looked down at my feet and discovered that the toes of my size 48's (13 in America) had allowed me to actually be standing on a strong limb instead of having my weight on the ladder. It seemed to me to be allegorical of life somehow. After I pondered the event a while I thought about the fact that many tomes God is sustaining us without our even knowing it. We think we have everything covered, and it takes a stiff wind to show us the truth - God is holding us up, not our own "ladder".

There were some old branches still on the ground from last year. We try to keep them cleaned up, but with 13 acres... I did notice that there were no olives on those branches. No surprise? Of course not. They were no longer connected to the source. They will be burned sometime soon along with the other branches that we have pruned lately.

I had my chainsaw with me for a lot of the harvest. Pruning at harvest time has the advantage that you can see which branches aren't producing. Once in a while you come across a tree that has almost (or even completely) no fruit. I learned from our neighbor just how tough olive trees are. When they stop producing, you simply cut them as low to the ground as you can. In two years it is amazing how many olives the new growth gives. I hope I never need "extreme pruning". Even the odd branch that gets cut off hurts plenty.

The best branches are supple. You can reach out and pull them to you, which is very helpful at times. The best bunches of olives are often at the top of the tree where there is new growth. It really is a beautiful things to see those branches reaching for the light of the sun. They get the light, too, and transform it, along with the nutrients in the sap, into fruit. Much fruit. Sometimes those branches get beyond what we can reach, either from the ladder or from standing on the larger branches. These healthy branches can be pulled down to you so you can get to those big, juicy olives. If you are careful, the branch won't break. It will go on sucking up that wonderful, powerful sap. It will keep on reaching for the sun. If you get a dry one, it may still have a few olives on it, but you know it won't produce again. If it breaks easily, it has already ceased being fed. It needs to be broken off. It may even be shading another branch that could be producing well if it only could get some sun. It is also really prickly. Those kind scratch you up badly. Even if it doesn't break it will not give you that satisfaction of that "snap back" of the supple branch. It just kind of sits there. Which branch is your life more like? When someone jerks on you, how do you react?

We learned early on that the better we clean our olives, the better the oil will taste. When I take our oil to the press the owner just lights up. He actually brought people over to look at our olives this year. "These are good olive", he told them. When we go back to pick up our oil he likes to show me other people's oil. Without them around, thankfully. He even has me taste it sometimes. Then, with his big, silly grin in place, he say, "now taste yours!" While it is true that we start with a superior olive (a lesson in itself, I think), the care we take with our cleaning clearly makes a difference as well. Last year I asked him (Senhor António, the owner of the press) to test the acidity of our oil. He turned back from his test tube and said, "Ó, Senhor Allen, isto é medicamento!" (this is medicine!) Clean, high quality olives: the best oil in the World.

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