The tears of ancient olive trees

2016-05-22 08:00:00

In Manuel Cucala’s village, Sant Mateu, 65 kilometres north of Castellón, he has always been known as ‘Manuel, Rita’s boy’, in reference to his grandmother. Now, at the age of 74, he too is a grandparent and there are seven women in his life, his mother-in-law, his wife, his two daughters and three grand-daughters, but his nickname has recently changed.
He is now known as ‘Manuel el de la película’, meaning ‘Manuel, the one in the film’. This is because of his role in Icíar Bollaín’s latest film ‘El Olivo’, which has just been released in Spain. It is the result of a long-standing obsession of her partner Paul Laverty, who has written scripts for Ken Loach.
The film, which swings between comedy and drama, tells the story of an elderly man (played by Manuel Cucula) who is horrified when his children decide to sell an ancient olive tree for thousands of euros, and the way his grand-daughter, who has more attachment to the land and the feelings of her grandfather, reacts.
Bollaín didn’t want a professional actor to play this role. She preferred to choose someone local from the Bajo Maestrazgo area of Castellón, which is home to the largest number of ancient olive trees in Europe, more than 4,000. Manuel didn’t intend to audition. It happened by accident one day, when he went for a coffee at the local day centre for pensioners and the others started shouting ‘This one, this one, choose him, he’s an actor!” When he was 21 he had spent seven days in Madrid filming ‘The fall of the Roman Empire’ (Anthony Mann, 1964). Since then he has just performed in a few sketches in the village, he told us, shortly before attending the premiere of the film at the local sports centre.
Manuel smiles broadly as he speaks, as his blue eyes gaze off towards the horizon. His hands look as if they have been carved from the twisted trunks of trees and when he places them on the table they resemble tools. They are sturdy, rough, and they reflect decades of working in the fields in the afternoons, after spending the mornings on his pig farm. This countryman is unable to understand how anyone can dig up an olive tree- “nobody knows exactly how old they are, they could have been planted 700 years or 2,000 years ago,” – and he says it “pains” him when they do.
When he speaks about his trees, he recalls the nights he spent in a hut in the mountains and how, in the early hours of the morning, he used to get up to look at the olive grove, magnificent, impressive in the moonlight, as he listened to the call of an owl or a fox cub. He imitates the sound of the animals, and his eyes light up as if he were there right now, feeling the cool night air on his weather-beaten face. And he becomes emotional. “These trees have virtues that others don’t have. They give you shade in the summer and warmth in the winter; birds nest in the crannies of the trunks, like the hoopoes, mice, snails, they all go there…. and what’s more, you can leave an olive tree for two years without doing anything to it, and it doesn’t die on you. It’s wrong to sell them. An olive tree which is that old doesn’t belong to anyone, because it has been here a lot longer than any family,” he insists. And he quotes a saying about them: ‘Blanco fue mi nacimiento, yo de verde me vestiré, y ahora que voy de luto, todos se alegran de mí’, which means to say that when the trees become dark, when they are aged, that’s when they give the best of themselves.
Olive oil, the answer
Paul Laverty agreed with his girlfriend that a local man should be used for the role. “In this country there are wonderful actors, but there is something about the land which makes people different: their hands, their skin, their faces… these men are like the olive trees and they give a subliminal message which no actor with their well cared-for faces can give you. Hands like Manuel’s can’t be faked,”he says.
Ten years ago, this Scottish scriptwriter read a newspaper article about some olive trees which had been pulled up to be sold, but at that time he was involved in other projects with Ken Loach. “I just couldn’t forget that news item. Those old olive trees could have been planted by the Romans. They had been there for centuries, during the times of the Jews and the Moors, they had lived through the Civil War… the idea that someone, if they had money, could buy something like that, was like a punch in the stomach to me,” he explains.
When there was a gap in his schedule, Laverty went to Bajo Maestrazgo to see the situation for himself. There he met Ramón, Hilari and Enrique, who were fighting to protect the ancient olive trees which are part of the region’s heritage. He also encountered something which took him back into his own past: the memory of his Irish family on his mother’s side, his connection with the land of his uncle and grandparents, who were farmers in the west of Ireland. That is why he hopes ‘El Olivo’ will speak to people’s consciences and that more of them in Maestrazgo will decide to work in the countryside and produce quality olive oil –“it’s fantastic for your health,” he says – instead. “And I hope the day will come when it is appreciated as much as wine,” he insists.
The Ramón to whom Laverty refers is Ramón Mampel, general secretary of the Unió de Llauradors y Ramaders, a farming association which for 30 years has been defending the olive trees of the Bajo Maestrazgo. Thanks to its efforts, the Law of Arboreal Heritage was drawn up and unanimously approved by the Valencian parliament. There is none other like it in Spain. That means that in the rest of the country people can dig up olive trees with impunity, and they can be planted in the gardens of wealthy foreigners in Marbella, Mallorca, Ibiza or the Costa Azul.
Ramón pauses in his tree pruning to explain the association’s objectives. “The best way to protect this heritage is through rural development, by linking the production of quality olive oil with rural tourism, walking, the Via Augusta, the gastronomy…”
This idea has proven attractive to the Slow Food Foundation, which defends environmental diversity. However, the law had a devastating effect at first. “Before it came into force in May 2006, a lot of people decided to sell trees in a hurry. One day I had to wait half an hour down a lane because a lorry was parked there with three or four ancient olive trees on top. I couldn’t do anything because it wasn’t illegal then, and I still feel desperately sad about it” he says.
As a result of this fight, many people see them as the ‘bad guys’ of the region who interfere in the affairs of those who “only care about money, and nothing else,” as Ramón describes them. He recalls one olive tree which was nine metres in diameter and 4.3 metres tall, and was sold for 12,000 euros.
“The owner doesn’t want to talk about it now. He cries if you remind him. He bought a car with the money, but now the car has gone and he’s left with nothing,” he says.
Ramón has evidence that these trees have witnessed the passage of different civilisations through the region. “These ancient olive trees have been grafted. You can see that they were, 2,000 years ago, and they grew where the wild olives were, on the edges, not in straight lines.”
He also points out that in the village of Albocácer there was a farm with only one olive tree. It died in the hard winter of 1956 and when it was pulled up, they discovered a slab with Latin writing below the roots.
“A Belgian historian told us that when somebody important died, the Romans used to bury them beside a road and plant an olive tree over the grave,” he says. Like something out of a film. Source surinenglish