The phylloxera swept across the terraced hills of Otok Brać – Island of Brać – in the early 1900s, invading the soil. Native to North America, the tiny yellow aphids traveled across the sea to Europe in the late 1800s, feeding on vino roots and spreading their wine death like an infestation of involuntary Prohibition. The people on the island of Brać did not see it coming, and the families stood in awe and despair at the expanse of useless vineyards left in its wake.
And the families began to splinter. Some sought refuge on the mainland of the Dalmatian coast; some found their way to the university in Zagreb, while many began to feed the Croatian diasporas in South America, the United States and Australia. Those that stayed planted more olive trees, knowing that it would be 50 years before they would bear fruit, and that the hard work might mean a better future for those generations to come. The old olive trees watched, some for hundreds of years or more, and continued to put forth.
The terra rossa soil held them close, and it was the color of blood.
My wife and I arrived on Brać via a car ferry from the ancient city of Split. The third largest island in Croatia, Brać is within sight of the mainland, but hundreds of years ago, that distance was enough to insulate the people from the outside world. The island is small, only 396 square kilometers, and the pirates who roamed the seas drove the people away from the stone beaches into the hills of the island, where they built beautiful churches and campaniles. As our ferry came upon Supetar, or Sveti Petar (St. Peter), I felt like an invader must have felt as he came upon the small island.
The first things you notice about Brać are the stones…piles of stones everywhere. Fences made from stone; terraces made from stone. For hundreds of years the people pulled them from the karst to expose the soil necessary for grapes and olive trees. The men dug and the women stacked. And sometimes the stones were formed into bunjas, round huts built in the fields to provide shelter from the fast moving rainstorms and the oppressive sun.
Even if you know nothing of Brać, you probably have still seen its stone. If you have looked at a photograph of the White House in Washington, D.C., you have seen the marble that is cut from the island’s bowels. The stone is prized, yet the bits that protruded from the earth must have been the bane of the olden farmers of Brać. It is hard to imagine that the millions of stones and millions of hours spent removing and stacking them…
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