Monday, 28 September 2009
Cunning Old Benedict
My hands are stained and nicked. They look like I´ve murdered someone, but so do everyone else´s. We are cut and bruised and aching in the riñones, but we´re smiling, too. It is late September, and the grapes are ripe, ready for picking. Every extra hand is needed to get them all in on time.
I thought we had enough work of our own to do. We were already worn-out from the roofing project, the long hike over the mountains, framing-up a new book, and wrangling with the health insurance company that will not let me go. The stresses of living far from the homeland and family seem to pile up this time of year.
This afternoon Kathy and I sat together in the cool darkness of our bodega-cave, tasting a Bierzo reserva that´s right at its peak. She leaves us tomorrow, after two weeks of good company and great help; we were setting up for a nice Girls´ Afternoon in the Wine Cellar, the last for who knows how long?
But Brian rolled up with a wheelbarrow. We poured him a cup of vino, and we started plotting our next project: We´re building a chimney on top the bodega, so wandering pilgrims do not fall down the ventilation hole and die in there. (We have no light or electricity at the cave, and all the materials and tools for the chimney will have to be hauled up a very steep hillside that´s pocked with other chimney-holes and collapsed bodega-roofs. We like challenges here.)
And while we considered, and sipped our lovely vintage, a figure darkened the doorway.
It was Milagros, always a character to be reckoned with, a knife in one hand and a bucket in the other. It´s vendimia time, she said. Come on over to the vineyard and help out!
Brian once helped with a grape harvest in Italy, and Kathy was game for a bit of rural diversion: it seemed like a much better plan than anything we´d imagined for the afternoon! So we locked up the bodega, gathered up some knives and buckets and dogs, and headed over to the Promised Land, a vast stretch of fields on the other side of the autopista. Over there Esteban and Milagros and Leandra and Carlos keep their long-suffering vines of red Mencia and white Muscat grapes.
Two by two you take a row, and cut the vine from near the root, where the fattest, sweetest grapes grow. The harvest isn´t heavy this year, Esteban said, but other vines in the district, picked last week, provided an exceptionally sweet and mellow mosto -- the fresh-pressed juice that turns, in time, to wine.
Milagros said dogs like to eat fresh grapes. We gave Tim and Una a few, which they politely tasted, but they seemed more interested in chasing critters. We tucked into the job, and spent a good two hours out there in the cool breeze, filling great buckets with grapes and emptying them into a huge trailer behind the John Deere.
We stooped under the sun, doing work with a visible outcome, toward a final product we can taste right now, or wait a few months and taste in another form altogether. The dogs dug for field mice. Brian sang his great big rendition of "Blowin´ In the Wind."
I thought of St. Benedict, whose Rule pretty much codifed monastic life as we know it. He very wisely fitted periods of hard physical work into the monks´ everyday rhythm of prayer, study, eating, and sleeping. "Idleness is the enemy of the soul," he wrote, sometime back in the 6th century. "Therefore, at fixed times each day, the brothers are to be occupied in manual labor." So even the priests and theologians had their turn hoeing the garden, at least in the early days.
Can´t argue with that. And I know that picking grapes clears out the mind almost as well as a long walk does. The worries of the past week went into the bucket with the fruit.