Light of Eternity

Carme Riera


In a world where the population of our cities does nothing but increase, our societies become more and more urbanized and, in a certain way less linked with nature and with our roots, people sometimes feel the urge to re-connect with the environment, and to feel belonged to a place. One of the ways to do so is to remember the scenarios, situations, people and adventures of childhood which for many people (at least in Spain) implied living much closer to nature than nowadays. In many points of the Mediterranean like in some places of the island of Mallorca, the pines, wild flowers, sowing fields, vineyards and olive trees, have yielded to concrete, asphalt, and mass tourism, but in some other sites they still remain untouched. Mallorca, with its ancient olive trees, fields, beaches, cliffs, and mountains is a unique contrast of landscapes, the exclusiveness of which, makes it an invaluable treasure that must be preserved whatever the cost.

However far I have wandered, even to the other side of the world, I have never ceased to have the feeling that I am still living in Mallorca, that I have not left the island. I do not know if this impression, which I believe I share with other Mallorcans who are also de-islanded, has something to do with the need to maintain links with the paradise of one’s childhood; perhaps with the need we all have to take roots in a specific place, in my case one comprised above all of nature, of earth and trees, of olive and carob trees, of asphodels and wild flowers, of blues of the sea and blues of the sky, of all the possible and impossible hues of green, of rocks with holes bored in them like Na Foradada, of rocks with no holes in them, of scrubland stones and stones on verges.

Knowing where we are from and where we come from, the streets of New York are easier to walk around, the Great Wall of China is more accessible to us, and Patagonia looks almost familiar. But if we get lost, if we lose ourselves in New York, in Beijing or in Patagonia, we will certainly be found again in Banyalbufar, in Deià, in Fornalutx, in Sóller, in Valldemossa… I, at least, will be found in the Sierra de Tramuntana mountains, anywhere along the coast.

Mallorca’s Sierra de Tramuntana mountain range, the natural space that occupies a third of the island’s territory, around ninety kilometers if I am not mistaken, and which was recently declared World Heritage in the cultural landscape category by UNESCO is, for me, the most beautiful place on Earth. I have its name, and those of its villages, Estellencs, Banyalbufar, Valldemossa, Deià, Sóller, and other names – Es Teix, Raixa, Llucalcari… tattooed on the skin of my soul, like signs, banners to defend the beauty that still remains in Mallorca and which has to be preserved from devastation above all, whatever the cost…

Fortunately, not everything on our island has been massacred by the scenic murderers who swap the sea daffodils for reinforced concrete and raised monstrous constructions practically on a level with the waves without anybody preventing them from doing so. There are still some near-intact corners of Mallorca.

In Cala Tuent, the neighbouring cove of the destroyed Calobra, the olive trees grow almost down as far as the sea, a wonder which, uniting Minerva and Poseidon, reminds us that our homeland, like that of the Greeks, is the Mediterranean.

Fortunately, not everything on our island has been massacred by the scenic murderers who swap the sea daffodils for reinforced concrete and raised monstrous constructions practically on a level with the waves

The green of the olive trees, restless silver moved by the breeze, is reflected in the blue of the waves. The leaves sing a lullaby to the little sea, in the shelter of the cove. The ancient olive trees know their office of telluric mothers well, they have never forgotten it. The lullaby hushes the murmur of the great sea and silence spread across the cove… And we feel a green peace, not that of the crops, but that of the olive trees of Cala Tuent. Today it is sunny, and they are green, but they turn grey on cloudy days, the days when the sea turns grey, too. Both of them, sea and olive trees, olive trees and sea, are coordinated, the color of lead.

They are the grey olive trees that Maria del Mar Bonet sings to in Me’n aniré de casa (I’ll leave home). A record I have carried away with me, far away, thousands of kilometers, when I lived in Gainesville, a university campus of the State University of Florida, the first time I was invited to the United States as a visiting professor and there were no olive trees there. And with the voice of Maria del Mar, the images of the olive grove of Can Fussimany came to me, the olive grove I have contemplated for many years, every summer, from the windows that look out onto the mountains in the family house called Sa Marineta, three kilometers from Deià.

 “Jo llaurava amb en Vermell / i amb en Banya enrevoltada / i feia millor llaurada / que l’amo amb so seu parell… Arri, arri”. To my ears, the song of the farmhands who worked on the olive grove with an Arab tune, a song that had the same tune as the Quranic turas. But I did not know that then, and neither did Rafel and Jaume, the farmhands who sang it. In the rural Mallorca of the fifties and sixties, before tourism invaded us completely, turning the island’s society upside down, the land was farmed and every single metre, every handspan of it was using for sowing…

And Jaume used to busy himself by clearing the patch around the olive trees, without using gloves –that simply wasn’t done in those days-, his hands accustomed to thistles and nettles, rough peasant hands, lined with thick veins and callouses, pulling up the weeds. And then he would go back to digging and carry on singing:

  • Jo llaurava amb en ‘Vermell’ / i amb en
  • “Jaume, is that the only song you know?” we would ask him, tired of hearing the same song again and again.
  • “I know another one from mass, but it’s no good for working in an olive grove…” he would reply, frowning, without even looking at us, and then he would carry on droning, always the same psalm, taking up from where he had left off: “… amb en ‘Banya enrevoltadaaaaa’ / i feia millor llauradaaaa.

Through the windows of Sa Marineta which look out on the side facing the sea, on the side overlooking Na Foradada – the Cyclops with a single eye, the monster that pretends to rest for a while as it watches and waits, lying down in the sea, as it regains the strength lost in former combats, before raising up its gigantic truck again –I gazed on olive trees, too. I liked the ones on this side even more – I still do- and I had to choose between the trees on the two different sides I would definitely choose these ones. Because on the side facing the sea there was, and still is, the sacred olive tree, the miraculous olive tree that gave small, sweet olives, made of candy, although now it has lost this habit that use to differentiate it from the rest.

My father was the only one who could gather those olives, a privilege of childish innocence, and only on special days, days when children had behaved particularly well, during the summer holidays. My father used to pray to the olive tree, just as people back then used to pray to the saints they worshipped. And before asking for it to perform the miracle or turning the olives sweet, one by one he would explain the merits of the three of us, my two siblings and myself, so that the mystery of the olive transformation would become reality. “All three of them have behaved well”, my father would begin in a low, humble voice, the voice of prayer, and afterwards he would relate, in detail, what that general good behavior had consisted of: no fighting, no disobedience, no failing to finish up the food on our plates, no complaining, no refusing to go to bed at the appointed time… And then he would conclude with a request: “If you see fit, sacred olive tree, give these children your sweet olives…”

Perhaps miracles do happen and olive trees are capable of hearing the prayers addressed to them

And then my father, who had gone to the Can Frasquet sweet shop to buy a bag of sweet shaped like olives, would shake some of the branches with one hand and with the other he would scatter the sweet olives ha had taken out of his pocket and was holding in his fist. And the miracle occurred. The sweet olives fell down. Sometimes little by little and other times more quickly, without our ever discovering, during those childhood summers, that olive trees do not give sweet olives, only bitter ones… That there are no magic olive trees, as we now know. Although on remembering the far-off days of my childhood, which are not blue, but rather green, green and silver like an olive leaf, I have my doubts.

Perhaps miracles do happen and olive trees are capable of hearing the prayers addressed to them. When we have finished, and sweetened our palates near the trunk of the olive tree, and when, however hard we looked on the ground, we were certain that we had not missed any of these olives with no stones –another characteristic of that miraculous fruit- my father made us give thanks to the olive tree by hugging its trunk. It was so big, broad and twisted that we could only manage if it all four of us held hands around it.

Many, many years later, I found out that hugging trees was a therapy some people used all over the world to charge themselves up with the positive energy that trees can offer us, if we approach them hoping to receive it, with our minds empty and, if possible, barefoot, so that all that is negative within us is eliminated, descending from our heads and leaving us through the soles of our feet down to the earth which will purify it all, recycling the detritus we have thrown out. I do not know to what extent this therapy is correct and valid in terms of scientific assumptions; I mean whether science would approve of it or consider it an esoteric practice originating, perhaps, from the rituals of the druids who believed some trees to be sacred and worshipped them. But I do know, and have done since I was small, that trees always wait for us with open arms. The Lleida-born poet Màrius Torres wrote a beautiful, highly appropriate Haiku on the subject: “At night you go / from earth to stars / when you are dead / you will still make a flame sprout up.”

Olive trees also played an extremely important role in my childhood games. When we played hide-and-seek, the inside of their trunks was a good hiding place. Some of these trunks look like little gnome houses, and other, more twisted ones scared me and I didn’t dare to go inside them. Who knows whether vipers nested in them, and bats – bats, mammals with wings, relatives of vampires- which, according to the peasants, liked to smoke whenever they were offered the chance.

We used to climb up the trunks of the olive trees, in defiance of the prohibition issued by the grown-ups, because it was easier to find a foothold without falling down than the pines or almond trees. The old trunks that were also twisted were more accessible for our rope-soled sandals and shoes than those of any other tree.

The near-mineral stance of olive trees, their sculptural shapes-which combine holes, lumps and assorted protuberances, the empty and the full, the ying and the yang- is the work of time. Time which, as Marguerite Yourcenar said, is a great sculptor of human faces, has sculpted the magnificent specimens of our ancient olive trees day after day for centuries, too, olive trees which should be seen as works of art and catalogued one by one, as has been done already in some of the districts of the Spanish peninsula. Anyone who owns an olive tree like this can feel proud to possess a unique piece that is more valuable, to my mind, than many of the pictures that hang in museums, with the advantage that the museum where the olive trees grow is always open and people do not have to pay any entry fee to be able to gaze on them.

I often wonder what the secret of Majorca’s attractiveness is, what formula was used to concoct it. Why it was loved so much by the artists who chose to live on it, albeit without realising that it was the other way round – the island chose them

Perhaps this is the reason why the gods of antiquity, the accomplices of the olive trees, have not yet abandoned some of the places of Mallorca, keeping them safe from the calamities of development, the worst plague the island has suffered since prehistoric times, since it became a boat and drifted away from the Iberian Peninsula, out to sea, and anchored between Europe and Africa.

I often wonder what the secret of Mallorca’s attractiveness is, what formula was used to concoct it. Why it was loved so much by the artists who chose to live on it, albeit without realizing that it was the other way round – the island chose them. Many people believe that it is the conjunction of diversities: the mountain and the plain, the scrubland and the gardens, the cliffs and the beaches, the fields of crops and the salt marshes. That the charm lies in the fact that it is a miniature continent. But I tend to feel that it is the light, the atmosphere surrounding it, that bestows a special magic on it, that it is the transparency of the country air, green air from crops and blue air from coves, the make-up that favours it most. And within this light, I have no doubt in pointing out that the profiles of the ancient olive trees lend it a sheen that has much to do with the light of eternity.