Reviewed by Caroline McCullagh
Alex Dingwall-Main is a Scottish garden designer who lives in Provence, France. One day, while driving home from the mundane errand of buying printer ink, he has a mild fender-bender. The man he has run into, Regis Lautour, becomes a client—a client with lots of money—and between them they create a dream of finding the oldest living olive tree and relocating it into Monsieur Lautour’s garden.
No big deal you think. So you find a hundred-year-old tree at the local nursery, hoist it up into the back of your pick-up, and off you go. Well think again. Dingwall-Main embarks on an odyssey that takes him through France, Spain, Italy, and Greece looking at older and older trees, not a hundred years, not a thousand, but maybe three thousand years old. For instance, there is a tree in Greece under which Plato held classes twenty-five hundred years ago.
The problem with old olive trees is that many of them are considered national or local treasures, so they, like Plato’s tree, are not available. But, at the same time, there are canny farmers who own some that are available, and know they’re sitting on gold mines. I wondered why anyone would sell an old olive tree, but, as they say, anything is for sale for the right price, and an old olive tree doesn’t produce as much fruit as a younger one.
During his search, Dingwall-Main meets a number of tree dealers who specialize in old olives. I was surprised that there’d be enough interest in buying one particular kind of tree that a number of people could spend their careers facilitating the sales. I once knew a woman whose husband sold jetliners. He didn’t have to make many sales in a year to be very happy. The same thing is true of people who sell old olives. The trees are expensive, and as with almost anything where there’s a lot of money to be made, interesting characters abound.
I have to admit the book was a little slow to get into. I read a lot of British authors. Their vocabulary is a little different from what I’m used to, but Dingwall-Main has a unique voice and a style that’s charming, if a little difficult to read. That all changed, though. The book came alive for me as the quest came alive for him when he saw his first really old tree.
I think you’ll enjoy following his search to its surprising and satisfying end.
The Angel Tree is hardbound, 316 pages, and includes a bibliography, a section on olive facts, and some nice line drawings by the author.
Dingwall-Main has also written The Luberon Garden: A Provencal Story of Apricot Blossoms, Truffles and Thyme and The Vine Garden: A Search for Home in the Gardens and Vineyards of France.