The Role of Olive Trees in Koudelka’s Wall

Montefino, Abruzzo 2008 - 1/100 at f/5.6, ISO 100

Montefino, Abruzzo 2008 – 1/100 at f/5.6, ISO 100

It often takes a small detail for us to totally connect to a photo book. In Josef Koudelka’s Wall it was plate 42 Off Route 1 East that shows one large olive tree stump and hundreds of smaller stumps disappearing over the horizon

We own a small farm in central Italy, half the land is planted to about 400 olive trees ranging from hundreds of years old to trees we have planted in the last 10 years. For a number of years we lived on the farm and tended these groves, it’s back breaking work, pruning half the trees each year, cutting off the dozens of suckers that spring from the roots throughout the year, clearing weeds that invade the trees’ space and, in Italy, endlessly cutting the grass. Once a year for a few weeks there is a frantic dawn to dusk harvest to collect the fruit before it starts to degrade and haul it to the press . The end result is two fold, firstly perfect untainted, real olive oil that is only found in olive producing regions that follow the old inefficient methods of production and secondly the farmers fall in love with their trees.

They are glorious plants, full of vigour and energy at the top whilst developing slowly and gracefully at the base to form gnarled, twisted trunks that tell the story of generation upon generation of farmers who have pruned them into their regionally preferred shape. Olive farmers know every tree on their land, they have spent hours every season with that one tree, they remember the useful rock they use to weigh down their harevesting net that fits perfectly into the hollow at the base of the tree or the hole in the trunk that tempts hornets to nest or lizards to hide or the low branch that tries to brain the unsuspecting farmer when moving a ladder or cutting the grass. My wife and I both had our own favourite trees, ones that we looked forward to working under, or sitting under or just admiring. I was deeply upset when the farmer on the other side of the valley cut down his ancient trees to clear land for arable crops so I cannot begin to imagine the distress of a farmer seeing his own olive trees all cut down to create a demilitarised zone, to see them trying to sprout again every spring and to see the shoots cut off to keep the view clear for the soldiers.

Palestinian trees, whose branch is still a symbol for peace, have been uprooted, stolen (they have real value as a mature tree), vandalised and abused. The impact on the families that own them is not just economic, it is psychologically scaring. Trees are diligently tended by each generation to be passed on to the next, these plants are a family’s heritage as well as an economic asset their livelihood.

Koudelka instinctively understands the intense relationship between the farmer and his trees and repeatedly uses the olive tree as a symbol of victimisation in Wall. The stumps of trees cleared for military purposes are also a symbol of brutal prioritisation by the Israeli government who understand the wider role of the olive tree in their own culture, the Kings of Israel were anointed using olive oil and it plays an important part in the celebration of Jewish festivals.

The olive tree is important to each of the three main religions of the region, the name Christ is derived from the Greek work chrism which means “to anoint with oil” and some Christian churches still have a Chrism mass when olive oil is blessed to be used in various church rituals. In Islam, it is a holy tree and both the tree and its oil are frequently mentioned in the Qur’an. It is believed to be one of the first plants to have been farmed by man and as it originates from this corner of the Mediterranean it is deeply embedded within the culture of the region.

By using the olive tree as a motif Koudelka simultaneously reminds us of the common ground that exists but that is rarely recognised by the antagonists, the destructive impact of the wall’s construction and the juxtaposition of beautiful trees and reinforced cement.

2 thoughts on “The Role of Olive Trees in Koudelka’s Wall

  1. Catherine

    I knew about Koudelka’s work with gypsies and about his homeland but I didn’t know about this.A poetic narrative Steve and a wonderful image – those old gnarled trees symbolising hardship and survival.

    1. stevemiddlehurst Post author

      Thank you. I am generally not drawn to black and white landscape but Koudelka is one of he few exceptions that prove the rule. I find his work very moving because he appears totally connected with his subjects.


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