farming

Homestead

I'm finding my Zen in this tiny town with more vines than people. The rhythm of life here is slower than I expected. Farm work is especially removed from the demanding pace of capitalist markets. An hour of my time is worthy in its own right, whether it's applied to work in the vineyard, the cellar, in making a meal, or taking a siesta. There are fewer boundaries. Idle time has its own element of productivity, just as work has a peacefulness about it. The summer heat melts existence into this one hazy day dream, where the value of a dollar is lost to me (even more so when I try to do the euro/dollar conversion rate mentally). 

Sure, waking up before dawn is almost painful (my job before this was working in a bar), but that feeling evaporates the second I hop in the Renault work van and it shuffles us down the gravel roads to the vineyards. Two dogs, Donne et Picasso, and three geese come with us. Donne is the veteran: she stands in the car at its side opening--no van door--and sticks her head in the wind as we drive. Last week she hopped out while we passed through a roundabout; we stopped in the middle of it until she jumped back in. Back home in the states, geese are like devil chickens. All they do is poop and steal. Aline's three geese are different. They're domesticated like cats: still independent, but they prefer to follow her around at the heels. By some feat, Aline has trained them not to eat the grapes while we work. Instead they milll around her in a loose line, eating weeds. 

I've seen six sunrises so far; a true rarity for a freshly minted college graduate. The sight is the stuff of fairytales. We go to work in the fading dark, the sky still a sapphire hue. Lately, the moon has been up just as early. Then over the far mountain peaks the blue gradient gives way to purples, pinks, oranges. A sorbet of color washes down over the valley, bringing Wednesday to the small villages nestled in its crooks. The vines are on hill slopes, creating dramatic shadows until the sun climbs high enough to cook everything evenly. All shades of green are added to the mix. The dogs sleep in the shade. The vista before me is in full focus by 8 am, with wild and tamed land patchworked all throughout the valley until they are met with the vertical walls of the surrounding stone mountains.

Aline and I work in silence, only occasionally calling to each other to check in. I usually get a single song verse stuck in my head for the day. It repeats in my head over and over like a mantra echoing my actions: turning the vines over and over. Wrapping and rewrapping branches and Kendrick choruses. 

The counter-intuitive principle to working outside is: the bigger the insect, the more gentle its nature.
— Aline, paraphrased

In the heat, the bugs wake up. The counter-intuitive principle to working outside is: the bigger the insect, the more gentle its nature. There is a large grasshopper-like creature that made me scream the first time I saw one. It's called a patagane, which is a Catalan word. It moseys around the vines without making much noise. Its bloated belly is striped black and white, and it doesn't jump very far. It's about the size of my palm, and is content to rest there if you pick it up. This is the most gentle creature in the vineyard. Well, those, and the cicadas, which you can hold and pet--if you're so inclined. I'm not. Once the cicadas wake up, silence in the valley is gone for the day. Colonies of large, black ants will bite my ankles if they find themselves walking across my shoes. The wasp sting from last week was the fourth different bug that has feasted on me here. Flies and mosquitoes go about their usual deviousness.

Thanks to my aversion to blind pain, my paranoia has listened carefully to every sound each of these creepy crawlies make. The hum of the fly is higher pitched than the buzz of the carpenter bee. The carpenter bee has a laziness about its flight path, making its hum slow and consistent; while wasps have a quicker buzz about them that almost pulses. Cicadas are too loud to mistake for anything else. Beetles have a similarly heavy beat to their wings, but they only fly in short bursts from place to place. 

Today the cicadas stayed back in the trees. A single carpenter bee kept me company, milling up and down whatever row of vines I was working on. I only I bit once, and I killed the ant that did it. 

A breeze kept the heat from piling up on the back of my neck and shoulders. It was 80 degrees Fahrenheit by 10 am. We don't leave until the work is done. On our way back up the footpaths to the van, I always turn around and look back and the field just completed: neat and orderly, glowing emerald in the high noon sun. A sense of accomplishment at the "real work" done beads up around my hairline and mixes with the sweat dripping down my face. I've earned another day here in this peaceful homestead. 

Olfactory Overload

It took me three days to make it to Perpignan, France, and as I arrived just past 10pm local time, my journey still wasn't over. Grabbing my green Teton backpack off of the convertor belt at the terminal, I was quickly the last one in the lobby as families reunited and left. Standing there, the lost duck that I was, Aline and her eldest son, Matisse, emerged from around the corner to greet me. I probably smelled like a lovely bouquet of stale, sweaty traveler, with a tinge of vomit from the half a dozen times I keeled over in motion sickness on take-off and landing. (Just talking about it now makes my stomach flip; I can hear the jet engines ringing in my ears. I am permanently scared by airplanes.) 

Aline looked lovely and tan in turquoise; her son: just as tall as her, and with a haircut that would have made him one of the cool kids in my old middle school. Que awkward exchange of hellos--I stick out my hand to shake "hello," while Aline simultaneously leans in to kiss my cheek, putting a hand on my shoulder in an almost-hug. My brain couldn't handle the translation. I defaulted to a nervous laugh. "Désolé." 

My bags were tossed into an old European work van, and we were off into the night. Latour-de-France is about 20 minutes away from Perpignan by highway. Aline asked me a few questions, but we rode mostly in silence. The darkness expanded as we drove further away from the city. All I could sense were the smells. 

The air outside was thick, the sea breeze cooked off by the humidity. Inside, the car smelled familiar: straw, dirt, grass, dog breath, poop, animal dander. Farm smells. I had arrived. 

All of Latour is situated on the rolling hills of the Pyrénées-Occidentales region. There is a steep driveway up to the house. Salvia, lavender, basil, and mint line the driveway in various repurposed containers. I could smell them clearly as night cooled the earth. Despite the late hour of my arrival, the French doors in the kitchen were opened out onto a rainbow tiled patio. Aline's husband and her younger son were at the table. True to French hospitality, I was fed fresh bread, local goat cheese, and their homemade, sparkling wine. The first real food I had had in days. Heaven.