CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — Dew, chilly breezes, morning mists, bouts of glowing sunshine, cloud-hooded mountains and the quiet sounds of olive pickers: These are the sensations at the end of a good – and long – olive harvest.
The harvest's been so fruitful this year black and green olives still dangle from many trees even though the season is usually over by this time in December.
The olive harvest is a crucial part of the backbone of Castelbuono, just as it is for much of the Mediterranean basin, the birthplace of olive oil.
And when a good season is at hand, people here in the Madonie Mountains of northern Sicily can seem to radiate with joy.
“When I close my eyes at night, all I can see are olives,” Rosario Cucco, a Castelbuono butcher, enthuses with child-like glee.
Many, if not most, families pick olives and take their hauls to mills where they wait contentedly for their golden-green olive oil to stream out from modern oil extraction machinery. During this time of year, conversations at stores and along streets often start and end with talk about olives: “Do you have any olives?” “Are you still picking olives?”
At the height of the season – running from late October to mid-November – the countryside turns into a picture of community as families spend days together laying nets, climbing ladders, eating picnics and picking olives, often by hand just as has been done for generations.
It can be so peaceful among the olives trees as the trill of sounds drift in: A woman talks to a child as she gathers olives a few fields away; cow bells clang from a dairy herd on a distant hillside; the thumps of falling olive branches can be heard as a man prunes and slashes at a tree he's picking in an orchard down below; the playful warble and chatter of birds sail through the air on the best of days when the sun shines; a bumble bee suddenly buzzes by.
Yet, locals say olive harvests today are a shadow of the sense of kinship and excitement that they were in the past because of a seemingly inexorable abandonment of the countryside in Castelbuono and across most of Sicily, one of the more impoverished regions of the European Union.
“At one time there was a lot more harmony in the olive harvest,” says Anna Franca Zangara, a 45-year-old caretaker, as she waits for her olive oil to be processed at a mill. She and her husband bought a small piece of land with a couple dozen olive trees with which to make oil.
“That was also the case with the grape harvest,” she says. “There was a festive feeling with so many people reuniting in the countryside.”
But in this digital age, she says, that sense of “harmony,” as she puts it, is gone.
“Now, there's solitude in the countryside because young people want to be on their smartphones, are always on social media,” she laments. “They're not looking to be in touch with nature.”
She says the hope is that through the local schools children can be taught to cherish nature with programs to plant trees and grow gardens.
“The olive harvest season is so beautiful,” she says, her eyes lighting up. “But country life is hard: You have to get your hands dirty; you need to sweat. It's tough, so you have to be passionate about it.”
She darts back through wooden doors into the roaring noise of the mill because her bright green oil is about to pour forth after going through the long extraction process.
Five miles from Castelbuono deep in a valley, Enzo Carollo is working late into the season and battling the winds, rains and chills of December.