“Here’s the baguette, that’s the courson, leave two eyes, OK now go” are some of the scariest words I know. I’m not the kind of person who just ‘goes’ at the best of times, let alone when bone-numb cold, hungover from the night before and armed with a box-sharp pair of secateurs. I’m campaigning for a name change as I don’t feel the tool’s official designation does justice to the damage a pair can do in the hands of a first-day stagier.
Pruning is scary, even more so when taking instructions from a handsome man in a language I hardly understand. One snip can set a vine back years. Cut in the wrong place and you interrupt the sap’s flow. Do this consistently and the effect is strangulation – visualise tying your garden hose into a triple bow. Cut too long and you create more work. Cut too close and you cause necrosis – Ditto when you cut the wrong way. Cause too many necroses and it becomes the shortest lesson in Greek you’ll ever need. ‘Nekros’ means dead. The end.
Cause too many necroses and it becomes the shortest lesson in Greek you’ll ever need. ‘Nekros’ means dead. The end.
Pruning is difficult. Mentally because every time you lift your head you see how endless the row is; how much more of the “we’ll start with the small parcel” there is to go – and physically because your back and knees are under eight-hour days of stress times eight weeks, without the dopaminergic rush you get from picking grapes. Just like the real world, Mondays hurt more because your body’s forgotten the flexibility it learned the week before. And it’s no fun when you’re working down rows so long it doesn’t make sense to stop at midi simply because you’re only one quarter in. But as the twinge I still feel two months after confirms, the last three weeks pruning in the Beaujolais were worse. There, vines don’t grow much higher than 60 cm low, the slopes are steep and the problem with Gobelet-trained vines is you spend so much time dancing around each one it’s hard to find your flow.
It gets easier: in my second week I felt I understood enough to finally formulate the right questions. But then there’s the danger of bringing attention to something you definitely should have known 400 vines ago. No one was looking over my shoulder, but I felt the pressure all the same. It’s an honour to be working vines whose custodian has carefully, thoughtfully, intentionally shaped them over the last seven years; and next spring there’ll be no hiding. It will be very evident who’s to blame.
But I expected all of this. What I never expected was to like it.
There are benefits of spending untold hours doing exactly the same thing in almost exactly the same place. While time drags slow on your watch, you speed through the seasons fast. This year I remember only two weeks of winter: its wet, its frost, its dead, lunch in the back of the van with gloves on, its darkness. Then out of the blue there was sun. I remember smelling it. I remember seeing stars for the first time at night and knowing tomorrow there would be no fog. That it would finally be bright.
You appreciate things which, when living life at its normal pace, you miss. I consciously heard my first bee, a sound loop back to summer. Every morning on our drive to the vines, I knew exactly when and where we’d pass the gaggle of geese. I appreciate soil now – how post-plough, the tumbled earth is milk chocolate soft and accommodating, versus where we pruned first for which a better word is ‘dirt’. Pruning gives you peace of mind to watch the sun disarm the frost, its light streaming through the wood as smoky ghosts. To count spider webs and watch hawks swirl. I knew when the song birds woke up late. How pigeons meant the work day’s almost done. Memories unrelated to anything blow through with such clarity you wonder how they, how we, work. And trust me when I say the same cider we drank every day in the wet-grey after work tasted so much better after a morning in the sun.
All the same, I’m happy it’s done. Pruning is how I imagine childbirth to be: too much pain makes you swear never again, but by the time winter pops out its head, you forget. It’s only summer, but fingers crossed I didn’t cause so much damage the handsome man won’t let me return.