Sixteen years ago, a neighbour in Venice told me about some olive groves for sale in Salento, southern Puglia. I visited the region that July, and the groves were magical.

They had a patchwork nature: huge groves owned by olive-oil producers were mixed with many small groves, which had been divided into smaller and smaller plots as they passed down the generations. Meticulously neat groves bordered those where wildflowers burst out around the trees.

I bought a grove on a slope dotted with 116 old trees. A few months later, I met Amber and we had a house built, inspired by the pajare (shelters) erected centuries ago for those who tended the olive trees. The house was finished the day before our wedding, and we return to it every spring and summer and sometimes in winter.

In 2014, we heard about a disease called Xylella fastidiosa, which stops water reaching a tree’s branches and causes them to die. The bacterium has ravaged vineyards and citrus groves in the Americas, where it’s endemic. Once in Puglia, it jumped to olive trees among others.

When we asked how we might protect our grove, we encountered a wave of contradictory advice and conspiracy theories. Some men in the local bar were convinced the disease had been engineered by agribusiness to make money, while environmentalists blamed the use of chemicals.

A traditional ‘pajare’ (shelter) sits among infected trees, Maglie, Puglia
A traditional ‘pajare’ (shelter) sits among infected trees, Maglie, Puglia © James…

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