A few days ago I headed north, driving from our home on the French Côte d’Azur to our home in the Brie, mid-centre between Paris and Reims, fifteen minutes from the Champagne district. I love these long trajectories penetrating and discovering France. In the years I have lived here I have driven in every season, at every hour of the day or night and some of the trips have been memorable for the landscapes, colours, temperatures beyond the car windows. Landscape films. My recent journey will join the memorable ones because of the heat. Down in the south, most days this late June and first half of July, the temperature has hovered at around 30C, occasionally rising to 32 or even 33C. Because we live within view of the Mediterranean, the sea breezes, the humidity, keep the climate reasonably constant. No rain down our way for months on end is to be expected and we have the vegetation to handle it, and plenty of it, including the olive tree.
The olive tree is the most drought-resistant plant in the western world. It has a magnificent and complex perspiration system and a message service between root, branches and the underside of its leaves that monitors the level of water dispensed during perspiration. If a serious drought sets in, a warning signal goes up through the tree, telling it to hold back its sweat, to conserve the liquid and use it for survival. It really is extremely sophisticated and remarkable.
Effects of Desertification, California
Desertification, I thought.
Everybody is talking Climate Change and Global Warming. Some scoff at the concept. Others dread it. Some say our planet’s temps have always varied while others again believe that we have just a short time left to drastically change our lifestyles before the the effects of our carbon expenditure, our over-use of fossil fuels which is causing the layer of gases that protect our planet to get thicker and cause Earth to heat up to a degree that will make our lives here unpalatable and eventually impossible.
This is such a complex issue, whichever side you take. And for the majority of us it is little more than a serious of debates. We talk about the natural legacy we are passing on to our children and grandchildren but mostly we cannot visualise what this heating up of Earth means, what it looks like.
I have seen it. Not because I am a visionary or brilliant in any way at all, but simply because I was travelling, searching for stories, gleaning facts about the history of the olive tree.
I was in Algeria, a country four times larger than France, ten times the size of Britain and the second largest country in Africa. It has a population of 34 million and most of them are living close to its Mediterranean shores or just inland in the mountains. Beyond, heading south, is desert. Nothing but Sahara sand where little grows and few survive except in oasis towns. But it wasn’t always so. Algeria was, along with Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, an agriculturally rich part of the Roman Empire. Olives for oil and wheat were mass produced here and I was soon to find out to what extent a terrain can change in a matter of a mere two thousand years.
For the first weeks of my Algerian travels I hugged the coast visiting families working with bees and olive farming, and during all that time it rained. It rained incessantly so I have comparatively few photos of those very important days.
For my own sake I was disappointed, but for Algeria the rain was essential. It was the first they had seen in over four years. Dry earth was an understatement. And so, even though it made my own plans difficult, I celebrated for the Algerians as I lay in bed in modest homes with no running water listening to the downpours fall into tin buckets. I visited deserted Roman sites such as the World Heritage site of Timgad, a magnificently laid out city all but forgotten now where a forty-kilometre wide lake had once irrigated the surrounding countryside rich with Mediterranean trees and wheat fields and fed the Romans’ exceedingly advanced plumbing systems.
In The Olive Tree I wrote the following while standing in some weed bedraggled thermal baths:
‘Those evergreen woods and the abundance of fresh water had been deciding factors in the choice of Timgad for the Roman soldiers’ metropolis. Twenty-first century Timgad claimed neither copse nor pond. The Romans felled the bulk of the trees; they denuded the ancient forests to heat the gallons of water required for their public baths...
Waterless was the ruined city I stood in; a desolate, windy outcrop....’
Today in Algeria, all these inland Roman sites, World Heritage Sites, barely visited, sit in the middle of nowhere. If you didn’t know the history you would ask yourself why on earth such an advanced civilization had bothered with such isolation. It was food for thought, but nothing prepared me for my march towards the desert.
Triumphal Arch, Timgad, Algeria
After almost a month of travelling rough, washing out of buckets, wearing the same mud-stained clothes, in and out of danger zones where Al-Qaeda was marking out its territories and setting up training camps in the midst of Berber tribal territories and the wind blew raw and rough, I climbed in an old yellow taxi to the mountainous portals of the desert, into a town called Tébessa from where, two millennia earlier, a busy road had run back to the coast. A ‘Roman bread basket’ rich with tablelands of wheat fields. This region had once been one of Rome’s most bountiful granaries. The grain was freighted to the sea and put on boats to feed the Empire. No more.
I was on my way to visit what I had been told was the 'oldest olive mill' in North Africa, built by the Romans. To find it I travelled through the dustbowl that was Tébessa, and on southwards another fifty or more kilometres into the Sahara. In fact, where I was headed was not the oldest olive mill in North Africa but it turned out to be the largest. Finding it, in the middle of this empty desert zone, was no easy task but find it we did as I and my driver bumped over, descended into a dried up wadi, a sand track that had once been a flowing river, damaged the jalopy’s axle and approached El Ma el Abiod, the oil mill’s Arabic name. It is also the name of a region inland of coastal Annaba. No Roman name for the mill or the location has been discovered.
After days of travelling, I had found it. It rose up before me in the middle of nowhere like a magic castle, a stupendous sandstone construction of a size that beggared belief and I thought might melt away at any second. I stood dumbfounded.
How many mills were once operating within this complex? How many thousands and thousands of gallons of olive oil were pressed here on a daily basis? How many olive trees were required to produce the fruits to feed this humungous enterprise? I could not imagine the acres of cultivated trees that must have grown here. I looked about me. Nothing but wind and sand.
I scooted from the car to the mill’s green gate. The site was fenced, locked with a substantial padlock. Lord knows why. I turned about. One small Berber mud abode with goatherd boy and mother. She was the keeper of the key. It was like a prop out of a Harry Potter sequence. I could barely lift it. But it opened the gate and in I went. There were clues of every kind, witnesses to the magnitude of the commerce that had once taken place. More oil was pressed here than is pressed today in the entire French olive oil sector. The river so dry and sunken today had been a vital water source for the vegetation and for the turning of the mill wheels.
I closed my eyes and pictured this place in its heyday and then looked about me at the nothingness. There was not a tree in sight. Nothing but a few yellow weeds that fed the skeletal goats.
Desertification. The process by which fertile land becomes desert, typically as a result of drought, deforestation or inappropriate agricultural practices. The loss of topsoil, pesticides killing off vegetation and ground cover which are essential food sources for birds and insects. Erosion is a consequence. Loss of species is another such as the endangered honeybee.
I am regularly asked what I brought back from seventeen months of travelling round the Mediterranean in search of Olive Tree stories. It is impossible to sum it up in a few sentences but I did discover that there are multi-million dollar programmes being implemented in the southern Sahara to reforest areas of the desert. The olive tree has a principal root that seeks out deep water levels and encourages rain, when there is any, to follow its path and settle deep in the earth, hence encouraging the replenishment of groundwater. I stood witness to Man’s mismanagement of the earth on many occasions and I wept. Equally, I shared moments of joy when a project of regrowth, reforestation was showing early signs of success.
This week as I made the hot and arduous journey up through France in temperatures that hit 42.5C, an unheard of level of heat in central France, I took it as a warning. We cannot debate and procrastinate any longer. Time is running short. The parched earth is a first stage warning. It is time to repair our damaged planet.
Below is a link to Nasa's website on global climate change and another to UNESCO's