Monday, November 30, 2009

Adventures of Molly the Wine Dog #5: The Planting

I've heard that Oregon kids are born with webbed feet. I not sure I believe it but I'm curious enough that I plan to pay attention the next time the Busy Girl takes off her boots. It has rained off and on every day for the last five weeks - my first on the farm. My paws are wet all the time and it takes a lot of licking to keep that mud to a minimum. The rain is nourishing though - lasting for an hour or two, then clearing, leaving a brilliant blue sky and more often than not, a rainbow - sometimes two. An hour later and everything is dry to the touch, my paws are clean and there is no humidity. it is so beautiful on this farm you want to cry, but if you pitched it as a movie location, you'd be told that is was too much like a Lucky Charms box - sounds sweet, but come on...

We wait and wait for a dry day - two actually - as the wine man mutters about the soil draining and getting dry enough to be turned and worked and readied for the grape vines patiently cooling their heels in storage at a nursery. The wine man and wine wife putter around the house, unpacking boxes from their move out here, painting stuff and planning the vineyard layout over and over and over, waiting and waiting and waiting. Every morning they lay in bed and stare at the ceiling, listening. I lay as still as possible at the foot of the bed, not wanting to draw the invitation to go outside and do my morning business. It's raining outside and toasty in here. 'nough said.

Finally, after five weeks, the two dry days come and the turning of the fields begins at dawn. The Wine Man is working three parcels, a total of five acres. The long, narrow, straight strip of land to the right of the driveway is a perfect parcel, only it's facing the wrong direction necessitating short planting rows and pain-in-the-ass tending. He'll call this one Leonard's, after his Dad. The big, curvaceous, mound that's a little lumpy here and there is called "Mama's Ass" after the big, curvaceous, slightly lumpy left butt cheek on the Wine Wife. She's a good sport who thought of that herself. None of us would have the nerve. The third parcel becomes "the third" in a moment of mental laziness. Maybe they should call it Trip, like you would the third son.

The Wine Man rides the tractor dawn to dark on the third dry day, turning most of Leonard's and Mama's Ass. This land has been home to livestock with miles of cross fencing the Wine Man removed, chewing up his hands and more than one pair of gloves these past five weeks. The earth yields to the machine, chocolate brown, damp, mother earth funk smelling stuff. It spills left and right of the blade, peeling slightly as it is still damp from months of rain and years of rest, undisturbed. I follow the tractor and gobble up as many fleeing mice as I can hold. Stuffed and bulging I law down in some tall grass and nap, outa sight, outa mind. Once turned, the field must be disked, which involves a series of large cutting wheels that grind the clods of earth into finer and finer pieces. This readies the soil to yield to the urgent push of new roots and to pull moisture deep enough to saturate them and dampen them during the long hot summer without rain or irrigation.

Two fields turned, one field raked, then three days of rain. Sigh. One day on the tractor dawn to dark. Another field complete. Two days of rain. Sigh. We settle into this uneasy rhythm with scarcely a gopher popping up from his hole to keep me running. The Wine Man shrugs off his high power tendencies, left behind in his corporate job, and takes on a "do what you can" shrug to cope with a feckless Mother Nature. It is hard. I can see his mind grinding away along with his teeth as the rain foils a day's plan and then another. He knows you can change your life and change your surroundings. You can even chuck your family, change your name and run off to Brazil or Oregon. But whatever you do, wherever you go, you bring yourself with you. And, the tendency to pollute this new life with bad habits from your old life is a strong form a gravity. I can see him fight his urges to control the uncontrollable. He settles into a new pace - waiting out the rain, grabbing the dry days, riding with the rest of it. And, in due time, the fields are ready for planting.

The Wine Man and Wine Wife had a wild, but short-lived idea that they would plant each vine with their own hands. Some simple math revealed that 5,000 vines, covering five acres would take ten wine man/wine wife days to plant. In ten days time the bare root stock would die of exposure, so that plan was scrapped. With the help of ten strong men planting can happen in a day, weather permitting.

Two dry days pass -- then another. The Wine Man, Wine Wife, Tall Boy and Busy Girl go into town and leave me to my own devices. I run after some squirrel smells and dodge a few yellow jackets itchin' for a fight. I dig randomly in the soft dirt and turn up smells of gopher and rot. Yum. I look up to see headlights of the family truck barrelling up the road, shooting a plume of muddy water with each rut they hit. The Wine Man and Tall Boy shove the girls out of the truck, K-turn and call for me to pile in and we take off. We arrive home well after midnight having been to the nursery to collect the vine stock and eat some donuts along the way. This is living.

Two men have been working evenings in the rain for the past week to calculate the precise placement of each vine in rows - marking each spot with a one foot chunk of bamboo. The rows are 8 feet apart with one plant every six feet of length. This is low density planting and will yield luscious quality fruit while preserving the beauty of the land.

It looked like a big pile of wood chips, blond, moist, sweet-smelling and piled high in the trailer hitched to the Wine Man's truck. Buried deep within the soft, fetid layers of smell lie what looked to my eye like a pile of gnarled sticks splotched here and there with candle wax and smelling like funk. Yuck to look at, but yum to my nose. Snniiifff. I shove my nose deep in the shavings and get a nudge on the rear from the Wine Man who'd rather I not snot up his vines. Each vine planted sews us all to this farm like we've never been attached to a place before. Seems a shame to bury such a sweet smell before having a little roll in it. Sigh.

Bare, naked and helpless, the vines are a dark and twisted love lingering at the brink of death. About a foot in lengths and brown nearly to black, each shard is covered in hair of its own making - roots and shoots of desperation as they tried to grow in the cold and dark storage designed to keep them from doing so. They struggle not to die by pushing out new life.

The Wine Man's hands filter through the chips to pull one vine free and cradle it in his fingers. Those hands are vivid to me as they hang by his sides in my line of sight every minute of every day. He pats my head, gently tugs my ears, gives me a bath and fills my food dish with those hands. So familiar. He wields a hammer to smash something with exquisite precisions and then gently touches the Wine Wife on the back of the neck, pressing his thumb behind her ear. And, now, examining these infant vines for the first time - like holding his newborn son in his arms after the Wine Wife's 21 hours of labor - he sees them with his own touch and feels the restlessness of something so fragile and so powerful it reaches into your chest and squeezes your still-beating heart. A thousand times. This one first time.

A crew arrives to plant. Ten strong men with sun-baked skin and tired eyes. Ten pairs of hands that have done this before. A thousand times. Two men with hand-augers will push 5,000 holes into this brown earth, each a pristine vessel into which to tuck a single vine. Experienced hands grasp each young vine and sever the new growth, creating an urgency for them to rebuild in the soil. I imagine my toes being severed one by one, turn my head and pad away to happier thoughts. I watch as other hands thrust the vines into the earthen holes again and again, working through exhaustion to a gratifying finish, gently tamping the soil that fills each hole as it if was never there. A thousand times. This one first time.

Then, as suddenly as it began, it is over. The crew leaves a dusty trail as they head to the next place to do the next things in an endless stream of things to be done. A thousand times. This one first time.

The Wine Man, Wine Wife and I are alone in a field of sticks, poking up from the ground in all directions around us. A sea of expectant little faces peering up as if to say "what's next?" Or "What were you thinking?" Like a newborn's wide eyes looking forward but not focused past the nipple, wondering where we are going, careening through the black together, illuminating only one footfall at a time.

The Wine Man's hand reaches out toward the Wine Wife in the gathering dark to pull a snarled thread of twisted root from her sweater, then takes her hand in his. He says to me "blrks ack nsprll dog, home." And, we three walk the road through the vines together. A thousand times. This one first time.

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