When Olive Branches Are Laden With Bad News

The bible depicts the olive as symbolic of peace and forgiveness, but Federico García Lorca depicts a darker side of the tree.

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The Angel Gabriel with olive branch and wreath. From 'The Annunciation,' tempera and gold on wood, by Simone Martini and Lippo Menni, ca. 1330, Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Credit: Wikipedia
Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden


Federico García Lorca

The grove
of olive trees
opens and closes
like a fan.

Above the olive grove
Are a sunken sky
And a dark rain
Of cold stars.

Reeds and nightfall quiver
at the river’s edge.
The grey air ripples.
The olive trees
Are laden with cries.

A flock
of captive birds
shaking their very long
tails in the dark.

Translated from Spanish by Vivian Eden and Tal Nitzan

"Go forth unto the mount, and fetch olive branches, and branches of wild olive, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.” Thus Nehemiah exhorted the Jews who returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile, to reinstitute observance of Sukkot, as ordained in Leviticus 23:42-43.

Today, olive branches are not one of the four species celebrated on Sukkot, but olives are very much on their growers’ minds. This is the time when green olives for preserving are harvested. By November the olives on the trees will have turned black (or purple) and will be harvested both for preserving and for pressing oil.  

Ever since the dove returned to Noah in the ark “and lo in her mouth an olive-leaf freshly plucked” , indicating that the flood waters had abated along with God’s wrath, olive leaves or branches have symbolized good tidings and peace. But that is in theory. In practice, hereabouts all too often they come with bad news.

Federico García Lorca. Credit: Illustration by Nurit Spivak Kovarsky

We don’t know if the Jews who returned with Ezra and Nehemiah rampaged in their neighbors' olive groves, but we do know that some West Bank settlers do so regularly with  impunity, no doubt eliciting the cries with which Federico García Lorca’s poem says the trees are laden.

The Spanish poet and playwright (b. Granada,1898) was executed near the city of his birth in 1936, apparently by Nationalist forces because of his anti-rightist sympathies and also possibly because he was gay. Despite several attempts to exhume his corpse, it is not known where he is buried. His works were banned in Franco’s Spain until 1953. García Lorca himself claimed to have been profoundly influenced by the Andalusia’s Arab cultural heritage and in return he was adopted as a model for committed, revolutionary poetry by 20th-century Arab poets, among them Samih al-Qasim (1939-2014) of the Galilee village of Rama, whom some eulogized at his death (on the same date as Lorca’s, August 19) as “Palestine’s Lorca.”

This poem depicts olive trees in a series of transformations. First they are inanimate, in the unforgettable image “opening and closing like a fan.” Then they become alive and “laden with cries,” and finally they become able to fly like a flock of birds, though captive at that particular moment. 

*Musing: The poem is purely descriptive. The narrator is unidentified even as “I” yet the emotional tone is clear. How is this achieved?

*Bonus: Hear “Landscape” in Spanish; see it in Arabic