Two of the trees were dead. The veil of ivy and brambles had done them in. The remaining olives were left struggling for light everywhere where the thickly braided bundles of bramble and ivy were progressing on their twisty path through and over the canopy.

Annemarie is hacking away at the bramble branches that are making illegal use of their tall olive trees for support.
I found it impossible to distinguish—let alone, count—the rings in this olive tree trunk.

They don’t know how old the olive trees are precisely, but the olive trees at Ponte de Pedra are old, and tall. Yet, despite their tallness, the brambles had overtook some canopy parts completely. Sometimes these brambles in their turn acted as support for the ivy to also race the olive branches for light.

The olive yard had been neglected for over 50 years, as had much of the valley, to José’ melancholy. José, the neighbour, has lived in the valley long enough to see it degenerate as the young people left for the lure of big city life. The only maintenance the previous owners had had done in the olive yard was to have a few guys with a bush trimmer come in and cut through the bramble branches at the bottom, but leaving plenty of structure for fresh branches to rapidly climb to the top.

I’m in the olive tree, looking for olive leaves. It will take us many hours of cutting and pulling to bring them back into view.
Later, from the then-visible olive leaf canopy, I can see Annemarie talk to José, who is glad to see 50+ years of neglect come to an end.

I want to emphasize that I have nothing against ivy. In fact, I positively adore it, and I hold similar amorous feelings for bramble. Common ivy is often unjustly accused of ‘strangling’ trees. The truth is that there are vines that can strangle their support (to beautiful effect), but common ivy is not among them.

Despite the impressive girth of this common ivy trunk, it wasn’t strangling the olive. It was aggressively competing for light.
For this particular specimen, I had to use hammer, chisel and crowbar to disattach the ivy from the olive.

Actually, I did, for the first time in my life, encountered two ivy branches that had conjoined such that they left no space for growth of the olive branch between them. In other words: I did finally get to witness a common ivy strangling! (Sorry, no pics, so, following Internet logic, it didn’t happen.)

They were restful hours in the olive yard in November. It was a pleasant place to catch a bit of late afternoon sun after having spent the rest of the day in the pig sty’s clay and cement dust. There was immediate effect of what we did. And it was social:

  • Nils had already been there with the bush cutter.
  • I was clambering through the olive tree on my flip flops (occasionally pausing to pull out a thorn).
  • Marilisa was walking around with a rake, collecting the bramble and ivy parts.
  • Annemarie and Laurelin were at the attack with sequitors, pitchfork, and rake.
  • Jorrit and Nils visited with their chain saws to cut up some fat, fallen tree parts.
  • The neighbour, José, took his tractor to bring the wood to the house.
After the last day in the olive yard, Marilisa left the heap of bramble branches even higher than in the photo.
The bramble pile is on the burn list, because the thorny branches don’t make for great mulch if you like to work barefooted or in flip flops (like I do). This separate pile of Hedera helix parts will make for less pointy mulch.
The liberated olive trees.

Now that the trees have been liberated of their overgrowth, this spring (of 2018) they will have to be pruned. Common wisdom says that it’s best to cut them off at the base and then let the whole tree regrow from sapling. To reduce these gnarly, old trees to a stump would be akin to vandalism. Hopefully, Annemarie and Laurelin will come up with a less drastic pruning plan. They will probably have to to something, since one of these top-heavy beauties has already toppled over this winter, revealing a root system that seems ridiculously limited for the size of the canopy.

This olive tree toppled over during the winter. Only a very limited root system was revealed.

I was shown some evidence of the level of pruning that Olea europaea can regenerate from. O. europa trees that had been cut down (or otherwise destroyed) almost completely before or after our cleaning project in November had in the meantime started sprouting fresh olive branches from their base or along the lower part of the trunk.

Here lies another olive tree, that already seemed dead when we were cleaning up the olive yard in November, but that was sprouting new branches now, in March.
Folk wisdom says that you can cut the stem clean at the base, and, although much more of this trunk was left, most fresh branches were indeed sprouting at the bottom.

They’re hardy trees; that I’ve witnessed. I wish I knew how to count their ‘rings’ to determine how long the bigger ones have been standing there. And I wish for them to spend at least that many more years in that yard. But I hope for them to grow much older still. After all, the oldest olive trees in the world are over 2000 years old. Between then and now, I will be spending more time between these majestic specimen of Olea europa, possibly hardening my own ageing body on the summer yoga platform that Laurelin plans to place in the shade of the olive leafs.