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Fairy-Tale Trees of the Riviera

It's been fifteen years since Ward and I lived in the South of France. I'm glad to be back in New England, where the weeds grow seventy-five feet tall or more. But I do miss some trees from the Provençal landscape. Especially the olive, the umbrella pine, and the cypress.

The olive trees were pruned drastically, to regulate fruiting and keep them low enough to harvest more easily—but I think it also increased the tangled density of the naturally twisty branches. Tops of olive leaves are dark, and the under side is pale and silvery; you see both colors like a cloud of lace settled on the old, gnarled trunks. (They can live for centuries.) I saw them usually planted in rows along the terraces, or along curving streets of a city, echoing the contours—or sometimes, if there was enough room out in the country, in orchard grids: in every case, they gave a distinctive visual rhythm to the scenery. Think of a scene by Van Gogh.

Mature umbrella pines were the only trees there as tall as the trees I knew from New England. They look, to me, like something out of a fantasy—but their shape is completely natural! They're not tapered to a point on top, to shed snow, like pine trees here. Instead, they're rounded and bouffant, like a piece of fluffy cumulus cloud which has been lassoed and then secured to the ground by a graceful, curving trunk that looks like it's blowing in the wind.

The cypress punctuated this landscape—as if it weren't dramatic enough yet. They were all over: deep green flames, vertical exclamation marks to accent the horizontal terracing, the silver-lace olive foliage, and the earthiness of the terra-cotta buildings. Sometimes they got trimmed up a little, to keep their sides smooth and their tops rounded, when they were along the street or in someone's yard. But they also grew wild on the hillsides, pointing exuberantly to heaven.

These three tree shapes kept making me think of childhood dreams and fairy tales. Racking my memory now, I just thought of the Beethoven Pastoral sequence from Fantasia. So I reviewed that: and yes, the landscape the centaurs and centaurettes courted in, had some idealized versions of those trees. Did I go to France programmed by Disney to associate those shapes with mystery, magic and wonder? If so, where did Van Gogh get it?

© Copyright 2004 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 6 February 2004

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