I spent most of fall break kneeling in mud, smelling the fumes of goat shit (a fertilizer, to be fair), arranging olive leaves on a piece of black paper, and debugging code with eccentric geophysicists and field geologists until half past midnight. As a student in FRS161, a freshman seminar studying how climate change affects crops, my fall break plans were a mandatory trip to the olive orchards of southern Italy, where, with a group of Princeton freshmen, I’d be spending a week collecting data about olive trees.
Trust me: I know that any university-funded trip to Italy is pretty awesome, regardless of its focus on work or the rigor of its daily activities. But it’s important that we’re all on the same page. Though the concept of FRS161 is a textbook example of Princeton-brand privilege, it is certainly not an example of leisure. As much as I would have loved to go anywhere and toured around for a week (which I’m on the lookout for in the future), this trip was undoubtedly one of the best experiences of my life not because it was an immersion into the food, art, and culture of Italy, but because it was an immersion into the practice and purpose of natural science, a realm that, to the prospective history major writing this article, had once seemed intimidating and inaccessible.
So, here is a travelog (of sorts) of my six-day reconciliation with science, beginning at one of science’s finest intersections with history: the ancient ruins of Pompeii.
The first thing that strikes you about Pompeii is its magnitude. For unclear reasons, I had learned about Pompeii’s destruction extensively in my elementary-school history courses, and quite frankly, I had always imagined a few stone huts on four or five dirt roads, maybe a few loaves of 2,000-year-old bread sitting around, and of course, some classic Roman graffiti of “coitus” on the walls. (To be fair, all of my knowledge about Pompeii came from a second-grade teacher, a children’s book about the Roman Empire, and my own imagination, all of which have questionable source use.) When we pulled up to Pompeii in our dented black van, blasting an obnoxious but fitting Bastille song, I realized that Pompeii, with its markets, temples, mansions, baths, and districts, was a more complete and complex society than I had ever imagined.
My lab group decided to focus on the roads in Pompeii. The science itself was quite rudimentary: we collected lengths of roads, widths, GPS coordinates, pictures, and lots of field notes, an intriguing yet tedious process, all with the intention of piecing together a story about Pompeii’s “urban planning” (or whatever the B.C.E. equivalent was).
From our data, we saw that Pompeii was a bustling, wealthy city, a society that had experienced a level of prosperity that allowed for economic specialization. On Pompeii’s main street, the widest road in town, the stone contains deep, deformed tracks from the city’s chariots, evidence of a robust economic system that touted a heavy “transport” sector. We uncovered a tangible class divide in the ruins of Pompeii, identifying upper-class districts with neat stone roads and poorer neighborhoods with uneven stones roads. Our historical guide, a flamboyant Napoletano named Mattia, confirmed some of our hypotheses and refuted others. Pompeii was indeed a wealthy city, but many of our observations were evidence of an obsession with the outward presentation of wealth, creating a dominant culture of competition. “Everyone in Pompeii dreamed of being number one,” Mattia repeated, as we examined the ornate statues and magnificent wall art of Pompeii’s wealthiest citizens.
Later that night, when it was just us alone with our data, our processing tools, and our Domino’s-quality take-out pizza, the magic happened. My reconciliation began. From our simple field work in Pompeii, a process that we had designed and refined entirely on our own terms, there was a story about Pompeii, a story that was by no means original or undiscovered, but a story that was un-coverable, a story that was material, and—perhaps the most exciting—a story that revealed a level of intention and purpose in the “urban planning” of ancient Pompeii. In the ruins of Pompeii, the overlap between science and history is crystal clear.
I figured that doing scientific work in Pompeii, a site with a strong theme of human-oriented history, was an exception. The most rigorous science of the trip was yet to come, and in my mind, Pompeii was the end of my genuine engagement with science. As our dented van crossed mountains and farms, towards the olive orchards in the south, I had a bad feeling. Humanistic science was behind us, now the dullness of pure science would begin.
Mattia, our tour guide in Pompeii.
The Olive Orchards
The olive orchards were situated in the agricultural hills of Italy’s Calabria region, a fertile yet impoverished part of the country that had remained largely cut off from the cosmopolitan wealth of Northern Italy. Our Italian contact, Marco, a physics professor from Venice, brought us to three different orchards for our field work, and he also coordinated our lodging in a Catholic monastery in the town of Mesoraca. The olive orchards had every element of a quintessentially Italian scene—red-roofed farmhouses, beautiful pastoral scenery, tanned and expressive southern Italian farmers—except for one thing: the olives.
We visited the olive orchards during the peak harvesting season. Out of the three orchards we studied, two had no olives.
Marco, our professors’ Italian contact
With Marco as his translator, the owner of the first orchard explained that the region had been hit by a drought, decimating the olive production of his orchard. The owner of the second orchard laughed at the suggestion of a drought—he blamed excess humidity for an infestation of “oil mosquitoes,” leaving the olives harvestable, but inedible. Strangely enough, the third orchard experienced neither of these problems. The substandard olive harvest was bad news for the farmers, but good news for our study of climate change. From what we heard at each orchard, it seemed that olive trees, like many crops, are fickle, reacting strongly to certain climatic conditions and ecological phenomena.
The anecdotes from farmers point to increasingly severe climatic extremes, making the predictability of agriculture more and more implausible. Though we didn’t come to any big conclusions about climate while in Italy, we will spend the rest of our semester synthesizing and analyzing our newly created database, as well as incorporating climate data from the Italian government. During our trip, we captured one snapshot of olive farming. Now, our goal is to fit this snapshot into large-scale data on climate, producing quantitative insight into how exactly climate change affects crops.
But even without olives, fortunately for us, there are still olive trees, the subject of our trip. The term “field work” is, in my opinion, purposefully ambiguous, leaving an air of mystery around the exact mechanisms of scientific research, but for my team in the olive orchards, “field work” was primarily an exercise of repetition and consistency. We were tasked with measuring the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) of each orchard’s trees, a quantitative indicator of a plant’s health, ranging from negative values for unhealthy vegetation to 1.0 for perfect health. Using some swanky instrumentation from the Princeton Department of Geosciences, we collected both the red light and near-infrared light reflected by each tree’s leaves, the data we needed to later calculate NDVI.
Short stop to observe a Jurassic coral reef.
From 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. each day, our group of three recorded these measurements as other classmates surveyed trees, collected dirt samples, logged GPS coordinates, measured albedo, and gathered topological data for each orchard. After a dinner prepared by the monastery’s only monk, Pablo Francesco, we spent 8:00 p.m. to roughly 12:30 a.m. together in one of the monastery’s homiest rooms, processing the day’s data.
The field work in the orchards was different from the field work in Pompeii. It involved long hours. It was repetitive, often without the immediate gratification of seeing surprising results. Instrument crashes were common. So were sunburns. But I will say that even for the most STEM-averse of students, scientific field work is a remarkable experience. Even from our brief work in Italy, I developed a fanaticism for olive leaves that I hadn’t expected. When we found a tree with an exceptionally high number of yellow leaves, we didn’t just say, “Hey, this tree has a lot of yellow leaves,” but we felt inclined to ask questions. Why? Where are the yellow leaves concentrated? Could the sun have caused yellow leaves? How do yellow leaves affect NDVI? Do the leaves feel different, do they break or bend more easily? It’s hard to teach enthusiasm for the subtleties of olive leaves. But there we were—a group of freshmen girls, crouched in mud, studying foliage with a newfound fervor.
And perhaps that was the greatest success of the trip. Our professors loved to praise the storytelling virtues of science. At first, I thought it was bullshit. I am always stubborn. To be proven wrong once in Pompeii was one thing, but to be proven wrong in the orchards, after doing pure, scientific research, I finally came around to accept the storytelling power of science. Numbers aren’t just numbers, and data isn’t just data—they are something far greater than the sum of their parts, revealing a narrative which in this case, instead of being that of ancient society from 2,000 years in the past, was the story of climate change and agriculture in southern Italy. This type of science doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We studied the crops of real farmers—their livelihood, passion, and pride—and with our data, we will make real conclusions about the real world, uncovering stories about agriculture, a fundamental part of the human experience, the very system that has sustained cultures and populations for thousands of years.
I scoffed at science for its frequent arrogance (I’m tired of hearing “Well, I trust science”) and what I saw as a calculating and cold approach to the world. But there is absolutely room and reason for science in any discipline of interest. I thought my experience in Italy would be strictly scientific—and it was, in a technical sense—but I entirely underestimated the potential of science to uncover stories about the past, to reveal a history that is not only a product of texts and photographs but of leaves, rocks, and landscape. I began to realize that science acts as a brilliant telescope into history, a concrete link between the present and past. And as I scribbled down notes about the brothels in ancient Pompeii and fertilizer in the olive orchards, even my understanding of history—a discipline to which I felt zero previous animosity— transformed, as I realized that history is not confined to the stacks of Firestone Library, but it is discoverable, in the same way that polio vaccines or continental drift are discoverable. Science could tell stories, stories that mattered, like the story of an ancient civilization, the story of farming, or the story of climate change.
The anti-science advocate did scientific field work. The SEL-credit hustler dedicated sixteen hours a day to her only STEM course. When I arrived back on Princeton’s campus after a long week of hard work, I felt like a student reborn.
For the first time in a while, I liked science.
One thought on “Through the Olive Trees: My Reconciliation with Science in Southern Italy”
Really interesting and well-written piece.