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Outside/In: The Olive and the Pine

Planting a tree often becomes almost a metaphor for doing a good deed. But such an act is not always neutral. In some places, certain trees can become windows into history, tools of erasure, or symbols of resistance.

In light of the news coming from Israel/Palestine this week, we are republishing this episode. It originally aired in October 2020.

The Olive and the Pine

Justine Paradis

Note: Episodes of Outside/In are made as pieces of audio, and some context and nuance may be lost on the page. We highly recommend listening to the episode.

When Liat Berdugo was 5 or 6 years old, she planted a tree. It happened on an outing with the whole family: her parents, her older sister, her baby brother. She doesn’t remember the day, but she’s got the pictures.

In one of the photos, the family is gathered around one of these young trees: a pine sapling, dark green, bushy, maybe 2 feet tall,  right in the center of the photo.

“That photo is so funny. It literally looks like I’m growing out of that pine sapling. Both of us are quite young, and both of us are enjoying the strong Mediterranean sunlight, and it looks like we’re both sort of merged in that photograph,” said Berdugo, a writer, curator, and assistant professor of art and  architecture at the University of San Francisco. 

Berdugo brought a kind of artistic questioning to bear on these family pictures in January 2020, for an article in Places Journal.

“The sapling I've planted looks like it was planted really poorly. Like, the hole wasn’t deep enough, and the soil looks so rocky. I remember asking my dad after I saw the photo whether I was actually able to dig that hole myself? Like, it actually looks quite challenging. And without even thinking he said ‘no, I dug it for you.’”

Credit Courtesy Liat Berdugo
A young Liat Berdugo plants a tree.

“[The photos] bring up this sense of what agency means. Did I do that thing? Did my parents want me to do that thing? Did they want me to do it enough that they did it for me? I mean, what are the implications of family, and history, and agency, even in these pictures, comes up for me when I look at them.”

But why would Berdugo even be asking these questions about planting a tree? After all, “planting a tree” is almost a shorthand for “doing a good deed.” A new tree is a positive act in the world. 

But in this case, as the years went by, Berdugo came to see that forest and forests like it as part of a project: a project that included her and her family, but one that was also so much bigger.

“I’ve been going through, I don’t know how I would even describe it, but a process of coming to understand my own… my own responsibility for the situation in Israel/Palestine.”

Credit Courtesy Iyad Hadad
Iyad Hadad harvesting olives

“That process has been ongoing, so I wouldn't say that was a singular moment, but it certainly was one of these tiny little heartbreaks along a journey where what I thought was true, or what I thought to be the case, turns out to be very different than how I see things now.”

In Israel/Palestine, plants are political. Particular trees can become windows into history, tools of erasure, or symbols of resistance. Today on the show, the olive and the pine.

Featuring Liat Berdugo, Irus Braverman, Jonathan Kuttab, Noga Kadman, Iyad Hadad, Raja Shehadeh, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Miri Maoz-Ovadia, Nidal Waleed Rabie, and his granddaughter Samera.

Additional pictures and sources are available here.

Justine Paradis is a producer and reporter for NHPR's Creative Production Unit, most oftenOutside/In. Before NHPR, she produced Millennial podcast from Radiotopia, contributed to podcasts including Love + Radio, and reported for WCAI & WGBH from her hometown of Nantucket island.

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