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Lay for the Day
7th October

In southern Mediterranean countries such as the Holy Land, the olive harvest begins in the first weeks of October. In ancient Israel it coincided with Succoth, the Feast of Tabernacles, a festival of thanksgiving which began on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, Tishri (corresponding roughly to the Gregorian September/October).
In the Latin countries of the northern Mediterranean – France, Italy, Spain – the harvest tends to begin later, in November or December.
Van Gogh painted his Olive Grove: Pale Blue Sky in the asylum at St Rémy in Provence, in November 1889. In December he painted the pickers at work in the same groves.
In ancient Greece, the olive was sacred to Athene, goddess of wisdom, and a bride would wear or carry a garland of its branches. A crown of wild olive was the highest distinction an Athenian citizen could receive, signifying a thing done well for the sake of its well-doing, without thought of gain. Champions of the Olympic games were crowned with olive.


Trees as twisted as history
With seemingly nothing but dust
And rock to subsist on
Put out their straight, fresh greenery.

They might have been old already
When peerless limbs of the ladies
Loved in all centuries,
Those of the godly sisterhood

No worker could have carved so clear,
Of Artemis, of Aphrodite,
Slipped off the shade that flows
On roots gone down like stone in stone

And stepped into their proper light,
Whether of moonbeam or sunray,
Assuming the sacred
Gowns of their bright and naked selves.

Perhaps a thousand times, with sticks
In their hard hands, the peasantry
Struck the flanks of the trunks
To bring down the fruit thousandfold

Onto their blankets. One by one
The sticks were let go and hard hands
Themselves sank in the ground
Where still the sharp-stoned, dark drops fall.

Once a first flute whistled there to
Stubborn goats, the horned lyre mixed its
Mingled notes with a noon
Wind moving the silvering crown

Of long shoots trimmed for signs of peace.
From wood as tortuous as time
The grace of leaf has come
Again, ages into æons.

So in the harsh aridity
And in the dispiriting press
And suck of the city,
As if from nowhere, now and then

A straightforward beauty appears
Such as yours, that carries the air
And colour of the new
To all before it like the dawn

That the unsleeping birds announce,
And holds, like the moon when it rounds
To the full in mid-sky,
Unneared by any cloud, the mind

Still with brimming of thankfulness
And of wonder and, like the leaves
Of the olive, invites
Our hearts to be refreshed and hope.

John Gibbens
from The Promise

The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar