Helen Mirren, English actress, Oscar winner. personally involved in the campaign to protect olive trees in his beloved Puglia
photo © GILES KATE
When Xylella Fastidiosa was first intercepted in Puglia in 2013, few believed it could have caused more than 21 million olive trees to dry out. Today, the entire territory of Salento has completely changed its appearance, the green and lush landscapes of olive forests have turned into endless expanses of dry trees. This bacterium, believed to have originated in Costa Rica, causes olive trees to shrivel up and die by blocking the plant’s xylem vessels, or rather the “veins” that supply the tree with essential nutrients. With clogged vessels, the tree slowly dries up and eventually dies. It was to fight this epidemic that she was born save the olives, a non-profit organization that fights day by day to protect olive trees and for a greener future. The exceptional ambassador of Italy, the great English actress, speaks about this exclusively on Wall Street. Dame Helen Mirren.
Let’s start with her role as an ambassador for a non-profit organization. save the olives: how this adventure started?
“We founded the organization in 2017, just before Covid. At the beginning there were about ten of us: an olive grower, a few locals and myself. At the time, there were a lot of rumors about Xylella Fastidiosa, but no one knew exactly what it was, it was discovered by CNR (National Research Council, approx. ed.) researchers in Gallipoli and was moving north. When the epidemic reached us in Trikaza, we realized its incredible severity. I remember once, when we were driving towards Gallipoli, patches of dead trees appeared before my eyes. There were a lot of unsubstantiated rumors at that time, people said that it was the olive orchards from the north who deliberately did all this because they needed this land, or they blamed the Chinese … There was a lot of confusion and all kinds of theses were going around, it was very similar to the beginning Covid: In the early months of Covid, no one knew exactly what it was, the same thing happened with Xylella. We founded an organization save the olives with the intention of shedding light on the truth so that people are aware of the impending danger.”
What is the mission save the olives Today?
“We are focused on the future of olive trees. There are two main areas of intervention: early grafting, a reversible agronomic practice that allows the anatomical and physiological fusion of two individuals belonging to different species or varieties, to preserve monumental olive trees, and the search for new varieties of Xylella resistant olive trees. It seems to be a simple task, but it is not. We have a very good agronomist from Salento who works with us and has been collaborating with CNR for ten years, carrying out research started in the laboratory in the field to find the best possible solutions. The challenge is not only to find varieties of olive trees that are resistant to Xylella, but also to find varieties that have a long lifespan and produce good extra virgin olive oil. This study covers the entire Mediterranean, not just Puglia. A characteristic of Xylella is that on the outside the tree may appear perfectly healthy, but the disease is inside it, and if it is discovered too late, the tree cannot be saved. They wisely called Xylella Fastidiosa “invisible fire”. We had 70 olive trees on the farm, they were strong trees, they were a hundred years old. I had to uproot them one by one and replant them all over again. In total, there are 60 million olive trees in Puglia, many of which are between 500 and 2000 years old, some were planted by the Romans, others were already growing when Cleopatra sailed from Brindisi… These olive trees have survived world wars, revolutions and environmental disasters. We have already lost 21 million, it is our duty to save those who are left. I consider them an important part of Italy’s heritage, just as the Colosseum and the Vatican are part of the history of this country.”
Tell me, when did you first fall in love with Puglia?
“My husband (American director Taylor Hackford, ed.) loved Umbria and I also love Umbria, but when we started looking for a house, I started reading a lot of articles about Puglia and was fascinated by it. One day we went to visit a friend who was at the Salento International Film Festival in Tricase. It was a beautiful night, calm, a full moon hung over the sea, and I thought to myself: this is where I want to live. We began to read about the history of this region, about the times when it was invaded, about the fact that even today there are villages where Greek is spoken. What really struck me was the warmth of the people: in Puglia, people are incredibly friendly, cheerful, interesting. I immediately felt better.”
He currently lives between the United States and the United Kingdom, but he said the place where he really feels at home is his masseria in Salento…
“I feel at home here. The best part is that people consider me a normal person, greet me when I shop at the grocery store, everyone is very polite. For them, I will always be an “actress” and some don’t even know my name. When we were looking for our masseria, I told my husband: promise me that when we buy a house, despite all the repairs that we have to do, we can spend the first night there. I wanted a house with doors, windows, plumbing, electricity and a sea view. After a while, my husband fell in love with what would become our farm. There was no water, no doors, no windows, no roof and no sea view. He told me: I found the house of our dreams.”
Her irresistible British accent is paired with her smile and Mediterranean charm. How would you define yourself?
“I am a curious, adventurous and very patient person. In Puglia and Salento, you need to be patient, because here everything moves at a different pace. It also requires a good sense of humor and great respect for the people who have always lived here.”
In addition to being a successful actress, she inspires women of different generations. What is your concept of beauty?
“Real beauty is kindness, generosity, beauty is energy, determination, beauty is love.”
In 2003, she was made an MBE at Buckingham Palace. How do you remember this moment? Did you feel closer to your country after receiving this award?
“The British monarch is the sovereign of the order and appoints all other members of the order. However, not everyone knows that it is your colleagues and the people you work with who suggest your name. This is one of the most important awards in the UK, this is the recognition of your country, this is your people saying: well done, Helen! I was very proud to receive this honor, I accepted it with great gratitude. My father immigrated to England from Russia when he was very young and although he is no longer with us today, I know he would be incredibly proud.”
For his masterful portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in Queen won the Academy Award for Best Actress. During filming in 2006, he sent a personal letter to Her Majesty. Can you tell us what prompted you to make this decision?
“Before filming began, I studied the character of the Queen for a long time and realized what an incredible service she rendered to the people of Great Britain. He possessed extraordinary self-control and a tremendous sense of duty. I wrote to her that we were making a film about a particularly painful moment in her life (the sudden death of Princess Diana in August 1997, ed.), that I admired her immensely and hope that our work will not be inappropriate. .
Do you think Charles III would be a good king?
“He will be an exceptional king: he has always been projected forward, he is an environmentalist of the first hour and can be considered the first ruler really involved in the fight against climate change. I remember that at first people thought it was somewhat pretentious, they said: who did he think he was? King Charles III always looked to the future, but never forgot the past and the history of his country. I think he will be a very good king and with his great determination will lead England to progress.”
If you were told that a movie was being made about your life, could you tell who would you choose to play yourself?
“I would choose Jennifer Lawrence, she is very similar to me in my youth. She is more beautiful than I have ever been, but in some ways we are very similar. I think she is a very good actress.”
To become what he is today, he has always put his work above all else. If you could go back, what would you do differently?
“I have made many mistakes in my life, it is human to make mistakes, and it is from these mistakes that we learn and grow. When I ask myself if I would do something again or not, perhaps the answer today would be no, but then I think that it is because of this mistake that I became who I am. Maybe I wouldn’t have stayed so long in college, I was studying to be a teacher, not an actress, and I could have become an actress much earlier. However, in college I met one of my best friends, we are friends to this day, we have lived together all our lives. If I had left, I would never have met her. Life is made up of just that, pros and cons, opportunities and lessons to learn from…”
Find out more: www.savetheolives.com