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Birdland Australia

Im a species of birdbrain, I admit it. Encircled by so many birds I sometimes fancy Im thinking bird thoughts, mostly concerning food.  With guinea fowl, chickens, ducks and geese populating the orchard, whose unnetted fruit trees attract in turn a massive population of non-domesticated birds, birdsong is the dominant tune on the farm radio. Even now, in the belly of the night, the magpies serenade the full moon, a young rooster boasts to his jaded harem and a whole collection of geese honk a glorious chorus, all in counterpoint to distant wave crash.  From a nearby hollow, a steady whine from a machine harvester shudders across the night.  And still its quiet.

I patrol the vineyard in maximum moonlight.  The kangaroos are here again, pilfering their quotient of grapes. Two clump off and pound into the fence where Ive repaired it.  One tears a hole through the wire and scrambles through, but the other spins back, heading my way.  I zap him with my flashlight, causing him to lope back into the vines.  Sisyphus R Us, comments my little tweet-brain.  Here we go again, again.  I suppose the whole "chase the animal out of the grapes” routine would be really annoying if everything werent so beautiful, the moon engorged to fullness, bobbing in the perfect clear purple charcoal sky, relentless waves resounding, restless birds clattering, kangaroos appropriating their tax of Cabernet Sauvignon.   

And then it clicks in my birdbrain.  Its a tithe exacted in exchange for all of this.  I am paying for the privilege of being here on this land with these grapes.  And then it clicks over again  they are animals and they are hungry and my fence is in disrepair.  Nice try birdbrain.   Time to fix the blasted fences.

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Fret some, net some‏

Lovely cool night half moon riding at its northern peak, waves cracking staccato, clouds far back in history. Malbec pick postponed once more, sugars still climbing, acid holding steady, flavors complexifying. I'm holding out as I chase some idea of flavor perfection, risking the loss of acid. I know it could blow out in a hot day, but we're facing sustained cool weather and the taste is bordering on the otherworldly. Courage. 

Cool dawn, the world of birds awake and combing the still dry land for life sustaining wet. Thunder squall a few yesterdays ago brought the cool, calmed the grapes, but failed to open the marri blossoms. There's that sleighbell ring of silvereyes, a kind of ongoing headache that brings on the dreads.

I skip down to the vineyard as a pair of young kangaroo males slip out through a hole in the fence like practiced neighbourhood kids pulling a caper. First one through the fence waits for the other to get through and catch up. Cheekily looking back at me before loping a short distance away. Moments later I "admire" their handiwork: they've pushed their snouts up against the net to strip whole sides of bunches. Softly done, no damage to the nets. Stealing sweets! From my candy store! Little hoodlums!

Moments later I encounter a long stretch of bird-ripped net as through a frenzy of scissors had descended in a ragged line. Arrgh! I could be out here all day long chasing, mending, and driving myself crazy. I think of a grower friend I encountered pumping boxes of shotgun rounds, dropping clouds of silvereyes, only to have more return in greater numbers. He said that shooting them made him feel better, even if it didn't make any difference. Really? Ouch. 

Contemplating that, I find a pair of wattlebirds with their big pointy beaks poking around the cabernet. I feel drum of wing beat as one darts free while I'm lifting nets to provide egress. I chase the other one back and forth, up and down the rows, but he just won't ditch. Can't he see his way out? And then it dawns on me that maybe he doesn't want to leave! I bend and taste a perfect grape and sympathize. Then the shopkeeper in me takes over and with renewed vigor I chase him out of my storehouse of precious nectar. 

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Farmer Mind

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Farmer Mind

I inhabit a category of farmer mind state, of constant fret about arbitrary birds bent on devouring the fruit. I start and finish each day amongst the nets in a dance of disturbed scrutiny. I'm on hyper-alert, prowling with perked ears, watching for telltale rips, skeins of mending cord at the ready. I'm almost muttering to myself. 

There's new roo poo too! Then "pow! slap! thunk!" - I've startled a golden male, who explodes out from handy shelter at junction of two nets. I give chase through scrub and up rows of new plantings whose leaves I notice he's munched on, in full pursuit until he lopes out through the open gate. I'm scolding him as I go and at the same time I am outside of myself, outside of this scene and the very dilemma of losing fruit to animals I revere. I'm going through the motions but am not attached in the slightest. What has happened to me? What is going on here?

I catch a green flicker of silvereye in the new cabernet block. I duck under billows of white and stalk him along columns of pendant blue fruit. He has flown into a pocket and has snared himself, a rapid fluttering of wing against net. I gently encircle his quadrant of white mesh and he settles at my touch. Unrolling the net with great care, I snatch him, a mere puff of life, pulsing in my bare hand. He is a hot soft pocket of rapid heartbeat. With a tiny explosive dash of olive flush he slips into the trees.

I trudge home in the dying light, fully convinced he will tell all the birds of my mercy, thus ending the deluge of invaders forever. I fancy myself some sort of St Francis until I sit down to roast chicken dinner.

Next morning I release three more silvereyes and a honeyeater and stitch six tears before the sun dries the dew. Please harvest, come soon and end this chapter of fret. 

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Many shades of gray

In the predawn gloaming, I pad down the sandy path to the shore.  White combers reflect deepest gray horizon across charcoal distances.  I scramble over slick sea splashed stones as a fissure splits the sky and silver light spills in from the heavens.  Black and gray clouds shroud headland, a lone wisp of ashen rain darkens nearby water, as dim crash of waves resonates in my chest.

The sea is choppy. The spray is sharp.  Periwinkles, like porcupine spines, point out over red garnet rock, snailing my pace.  I pause in the gray at the edge of the gray, chill water bracing my feet.  With mask clamped tight, I submerge and kick down into hole in reef through leaden foam, startling dark fish.

Im battered against rough gray hard foamy something, and with trace of steely blood seeping away in the swell, Im fearing sharks.  Theres a cray in the pot but my lungs are bursting and I surface into ashen dawn foam, gulp air and return.

With gloved hand grasping the gorgeous twisting purply redness, I inspect underside and thrust him into waiting catchbag, then climb into the great gray morning, dreaming of breakfast.

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Should we be picking?

Morning.  New moon opposes Saturn.  Flower day.  Should we be picking?

The malbec seems to have stalled in its ripening. Five successive days and virtually no change despite warm days. Sugar and acid hold steady. Flavor otherworldly, continuing to intensify, but still…

Honeybees hover at the edge of the nets.  What does that signal?  Why are they here in the earliest of hours? Then a telltale “peep”. Silvereyes!  I open the nets and clap my way up and down the rows to move them out.  I’m the head monk clapping through sesshin!  Intoning “Om mani padme hum” as I move down each and every row, the scrutiny of the net my exercise in mindfulness.

Birds gone, I am a fisherman mending nets once more, finding rips, so many tears since yesterday.  The marris have not blossomed.  The land is oh so dry.  The silvereyes have taken sips out of grapes and the honeybees are drinking the sweet nectar of the riven berries.

The innocent thieves in England, stealing bread to feed their families, were exiled to Australia.  The innocent aboriginals pushed off ancestral hunting lands in turn took livestock to feed their families, were punished severely.  The silvereyes and kangaroos, sipping and chewing my grapes have been shooed away.  Am I too soft?

Birds in the nets signal picking time, do they not?  What do they know that my lab tests and inchoate palate do not?

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Birdcall

Theres a welcome chill in the air signaling a change of season.  Now cool dew greets my parched feet when I emerge in the morning.  Bits of moisture cling to leaves and a slow zephyr crosses low to the ground.  The cock sings goodbye to the diminished moon, the light now red, now golden as the sun asserts himself.   A lone cocky zigs across the open field, a flock of western ringneck parrots squeakasizes across the orchard, and a noisy mob of crows are hanging around.  Im not really sure of their business.  They have been harassing the guinea fowl, whose numbers are mysteriously down.  Ive been wondering if they work in concert with the foxes, possibly stalking and pinpointing the domesticated birds and helping the foxes to hunt them?  By abetting the hunt, I surmise, they might then get to participate in a feed   Occasionally Ive seen both fox and crow together... 

When it comes to observing birds my observations are woefully incomplete.  If only I could fly!  Or at least situate myself high in a strategically positioned marri.   Nature drops hints, I work on my attentiveness, and I infer.    But its mostly conjecture.  My observations are in proportion to the amount of time I spend aware outdoors.  I try to be out as much as I can, but Im often preoccupied.  Preoccupation is an enemy of observation.   I try to listen to the birdcalls as a way of refocusing my awareness.  In this system, birdcall translates as look up!.

As for the crows, they are around, and in force.  When I go to the orchard to check on the chickens, they swoop away with a whoosh of wind through outstretched feathers. One remains behind, perched high in a tree as lookout, scrutinizing and commenting.  Crows are very smart.  They observe, remember and talk about it.  They are always on the job.  Their gain, my loss.  Over the past few months theyve discovered some secret outdoor laying spots and have carried off eggs.  Ive found eggshells in the vineyard.  Cheeky things, leaving calling cards where I’ll find them...

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Making Lemonade

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Making Lemonade

 I walk through the vines picked yesterday and am utterly staggered when I come across buckets of fruit missed by the bucket boys.  We work so hard to distill an entire years work into a limited number of precious grapes and to find buckets, along with unpicked bunches hanging on the vines is frustrating and disappointing.   My stomach churns as I go up and down the rows, stunned by how much we missed.

When life deals you lemons, make lemonade.

So Im under a shady tree with my boys and we are hand-squeezing chardonnay into a great steel pot.  Silvereyes dart in and out of the foliage.   The honeybees have already discovered us and have descended for a sweet sip.  They rise and subside on the wave of green berries as we reach gingerly into the picking bucket for the next bunch.   My boys soon tire of the squeezing routine and drift off to play.  I tune in to the rising jet-engine roar of the surf, and feel something shift in me.  I look at the grapes as if for the first time.  They are miraculous.  Perfectly formed.  Amazingly designed.  And I am feeling the texture of skins, the nature and depths of various fleshes and liquids, the slippery hardness of seeds, the delightful scratchiness of stems, of pedicels, the unique and amazing architecture of all.

The grape is a miracle of design, and proof of a divinity.  No human could ever  have come up with this! My hands engage in a holy celebration as they squeeze cuticle and exocarp and mesocarp, carrying sucrose and tartaric and malic acid, and flavor and aroma compounds into the waiting bucket.  

Its amazing.  And it’s tiring.  After the first bucket my hands are sore from squeezing and Im contemplating how to do this quicker, more efficiently, and most importantly, not with my hands.  I consider my feet, perfectly designed tools for grape squishing, but Ive been walking barefoot all summer and they are not of the godliness level of cleanliness.  Perhaps I can enlist one of my sons?  But they are off somewhere

I continue squeezing, sore hands and all, mantracizing through the pain, putting good energy into each squeeze.  I start to consider presses and the use of force and my thoughts turn to winemaking itself.  What type of winery to build?  This my first wine made here.  Necessity is a true mother.

And my thoughts go out, each step anticipates a more complicated one, something like ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, and I am reinventing the history of winemaking.  First crushing with hands then contemplating body parts and how to minimize exertion and then the mechanism of the crush and the virtues of presses and the scale keeps expanding.  How much do I need?  What are the grapes calling for?  What does this land ask for?

I consider the grape and how it pops and splits and bends and slides.  I think about liquid and mass and cleanliness and godliness.  Always thinking God.  This work is a perfect meditation.  I am drifting off in a divine revery, lost in the rhythm of it. 

I place three steel pots in the vines allowing the natural yeasts of the vineyard to mingle with the freshly squeezed juice.  They rest there overnight and in the heating morning I transfer them to a fermentation vessel fitted with a proper vapor lock which I place in the shade.  My boys are pumped to be participating in this level of winemaking.  The conversation turns to moonshine and hooch and the delicious idea of something almost illicit.  One of my sons is actually deeply interested in what we are doing.   I demonstrate the hydrometer and his eyes widen.  Hes all for testing oak chips on flavor.  We are mad scientists, mad about wine.  Mad to bear witness to the alchemical transmutation of something amazing into something amazing.

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Can you taste it?

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Can you taste it?

I finish putting the newly pressed Chardonnay into barrel as the sun stoops under the horizon.  We celebrate with some lovely wine and then I head off into the purpling night.  I trailer the pressings to the vineyard, where theyll join the new compost pile. This pile started with the shoots and leaves topped from the vines just prior to netting along with a now browning pile of hand pulled weeds.  A reddish moon is lifting above the trees and Jupiter twinkles alongside.  Im zombificated.  This can keep until morning.  I unhitch the trailer as a breeze gusts into the peppies.   

Morning arrives clear and cool, the moon hanging watchfully in a cerulean sky, smell of smoke still present.   I pad down to the vines and begin forking masses of seeds and skins and stems into the red and brown pile of compost.  Another year has shot by, the cycle continues.

I wander down to the Chardonnay to give thanks.  The energy in the vines has already shifted - altered by the grapes being lifted.  Its palpable.  Having released the grapes, the plants are bringing their energy down and inwards.  The leaves will continue to senesce, to yellow and brown and fall.  Each vine will go deeply within, connecting with the mystery in profound privacy throughout the winter. The dream of Persephone.  Finding strength and renewal in the quiet, reemerging revitalized in the spring.  This endless cycle is celebrated in the wine. 

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Harvest

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Harvest

My inner alarm wakes me far in advance of the clock.  The sea is ringing.  A vixen coughs so close at hand, she could be out in the backyard.  I emerge into a fully moonlit night, Jupiter riding tandem. Dew lies heavily on the grass, its presence a miracle.  Until two days ago, the heat had been unbearable.  Day after day loading the earth with an intensity of scorchitude.  Breezes stuck so far back in Winds throat that even the earths evening exhalations were sweltering.   In the morning following, it was as if Wind had cleared its throat with a cough of hot cloud, spray-painting smoky colors of morning.

But all that was altered with the cloudburst.  Like an unpredictable, unexpected blast of indispensible freshness that transformed everything, the rain brought vital cool and renewal.  And shortly we will be picking perfectly ripe fruit that has cooled down naturally, that has been washed in lightning charged rain, that carries both the vibration of intense hot summer and the shift into the cool autumn change.  These grapes speak of relentless dry heat combined with life giving moisture, of old and new commingled and augmented by one another.  The taste is amazing.  This wine is going to be significant.

The crew alight, strap on headlamps, and we bend to the nets.  We are covered in dew.  Wet t-shirt covered.  Drippingly soaked, deliciously cool, shiveringly exhilarated in the work. All through the blue light we carefully roll the nets, pausing to clear snags, working soundlessly in cheerful unison.  The nets drip audibly, suspended at the end of the rows, the dew seeping down to the earth in little rivers of song.  It mixes with the ever-present sound of the sea.  Morning birds are greeting us. A flock of white tailed black cockatoos weave a pattern in the morning sky. 

I cut the first bunch and give my thanks.  And then the pickers are here and the game is on.  

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Chardonnay Eve

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Chardonnay Eve

Its Chardonnay Eve.  The crew has been briefed.  The winery is ready to receive grapes.  Stacks of picking buckets wait expectantly at the head of the vineyard.  Two trailers decked out in sky blue omni-bins are parked strategically alongside the blocks.  Preparing the nets is all that remains.

I walk each row with arms outstretched above my head, lifting the nets clear.  Leaves pop off with a satisfying tear as the net rises up from my fingertips like a trampoline.  The leaves bounce for joy.  Sporadic shoots have grown through and I snip them off from below with my secaturs.  They must be freed from the net or risk tearing the nets.  Occasionally I do find gashes, presumably from birds and I pause to repair them.  This stitch in time will save nine when we net next year.

The leaves are wet from todays lovely downpour, but the grapes are dry. My skin is coated in fine bits of comforting, relief-giving wet. The water is both blessing and benediction.  I dig into the earth noting the rain has barely penetrated the mulch.  The grapes have had a shower but will not be absorbing any water.  The situation couldnt be better.  We will be able to pick these perfectly ripe and clean grapes at a cool temperature.   If all goes to plan, we should be finished by mid morning before the day heats up.

The sun slips beyond the ridge when I begin to free the nets from the wires.  Ive waited till the last minute for this last task as I dont want to encourage any birds to come snacking with harvest mere hours away.  I can hear silvereyes and a honeyeater and a wattlebird somewhere in the surrounding trees.  And as dusk falls, the vineyard is ringed by a large flock of white tailed black cockatoos  They racket away in the marris.  I can hear honky nuts dropping to the ground as they feed and squawk.

I pull the nets free of the wires and begin to roll up the inter-wires.  The trick is to go with the coil and to get a good grip with each turn.  In a flash of tired insight I decide that there should be a Farm Olympics and re-coiling wire should be an Olympic event.  Coiling black pvc irrigation pipe will be one as well.  These tasks take terrific skill to do properly and greater skill to do quickly.

I have little of such skill.  Each task takes me a comparative while, but I perform each one properly.  If I cut a corner now it will take me longer to fix it later.  Doing it correctly the first time round is always my aim.

By the time Ive finished, the light is fading into iridium and a very full moon has floated up, with Jupiter as companion.   Theres nothing more to do.  We are ready for harvest.  

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Fire in the Sky

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Fire in the Sky

Morning sprints in on a trail of fire, acrid smoke seeping everywhere. The paddocks are misty with a reddish brown haze that colors and obscures everything. The world has gone indistinct. A hot wind spirals a choking swirl of yellow. It's inescapable. My eyes are smarting and there's a tickle in my throat. The actual bushfire is 175 kilometers away in Northcliffe, but it tastes like it's right here. 175 kilometers away actually is right here. 

I head off to sample the Chardonnay and as I get ready to stoop under the net I meet a frog. He's living in the little microclimate of damp under the vines where it's so lovely and moist. I'd have thought it gets too hot under the summer sky for him but apparently it's wet enough in the vines for him to thrive. There surely are ample insects to gorge on here. I scoot along the rows randomly gathering grape bunches, ducking under elaborate spider webs, careful to not upset their handiwork. The atmosphere is clean in here. The morning breeze off the ocean has cleared the skies and air. I can no longer smell the smoke. The grapes are clean and cool and free of smoke taint.

I'm hungry for relief from the relentless sun and continue on, praying for the sun to take a vacation, for dark skies and chilling winds and fresh rain to come. I know that that goes counter to what a grape farmer should think, but I am desperate for a change. We will pick in a couple of days and I simply don't care if it rains or not. I'm parched, miserable, intolerant and expectant. I'm told precipitation is on its away, but there's no evidence of it here. 

Evening finds me in the shade of the apricot tree, watching clouds mount up in the darkening sky. Was that lightning? Moments later a drop of rain pings my head. It's the tiniest loneliest drop. I nearly hold my breath to not jinx this godly gift. Then another few drops spit down. A few more and I could fit the sum on the point of a pin.

And then a whole lot of big drops bomb me, and without my having spotted it happening, the sky has morphed into a deep crimson and purple and various shades of dark, and a brigade of clouds have blown in and lightning bolts are zinging here and there. One after another and the thunder is rolling across the ridge and my shirt is wet and the sound of rain pounds on the tin roof and the sky is a renaissance painting of activity and colors and it continues raining, it doesn't stop, it really is raining now, and a smell of life arises all around from the parched earth.

I'm soaked. And the storm is raging on, clearing the air, bringing a change, of sentiment and of season.

Harvest is less than 36 hours away. 


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Bring on Autumn, please.

I've returned from travels to an unfamiliar dry world. The marris fade into a shimmer of white and the grass is every shade of taupe. Swirls of hot breeze circulate like dragon's breath, the sun glowers from a cerulean sky tinged in white.

Restless dreams punctuate a too hot night. I waken with unquenchable thirst from a stupor of jetlag and overall apprehension and step out into a placid night. Nothing stirs. The world still exhales the warm vapor of yesterday's exertion. Middle of the night and I'm sweating.

I gobble cold cold cold rainwater, gasping with the sheer pleasure of it. Water! I'm swearing from drinking it. Is this not strange?

First light finds me barefoot and moving. A lone magpie trills to the end of the moonless night, blue dawn counting down to sun's blast. The vines cocooned by nets radiate a wall of cool. Sanctuary at last. 

Lone male kangaroo chowing on new malbec plantings clomps away, turns, scrutinizes me. He's been uninterrupted for ages and now assumes this is his spot. I note where he's pushed up against the nets and had a munch of grapes. The ground is decorated with his poops. Oh well, enough for all.

And then the sun reaches through the trees like god's spotlight and the temperature spikes immediately and I'm back in Sweatville-Australia and can barely think.

I duck beneath cover of net and taste my way through rows of Chardonnay. It's very far along and sweet, with complex flavors and plenty o'acid. We'll be picking soon.

Sun barely up and I'm in Hades. Bring on autumn and harvest and what's next. Please. 

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