As many of you know, things have been tough here in Texas for the past week. At our house, we were without electricity (which in our case meant without heat also) for two days, days we spent huddled around our fireplace, in a room we tried to seal off from the rest of the quite literally freezing house, trying to use our dwindling stack of firewood as frugally as was compatible with not, you know, dying from the cold. Now we have electricity and heat and, after a second wave of problems, even fresh water – though we’re rationing that.
In related news, it’s Lent!
One Ash Wednesday a decade ago, when I was new to Anglicanism, I knelt at a rail as Fr. Thomas, my priest, smeared a black cross on each forehead. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” he intoned, and marked the preteen girl kneeling next to me. Then, I heard her turn to her mom and whisper, “Does my ash look all right?”
Still kneeling, I started to laugh. Because of course it didn’t look all right. She had a large black smudge in the middle of her forehead. There is no way for that to look all right. But I also laughed because I heard my own heart in her question. I know I’m limited. I know I’m dust and returning to dust. I bear vulnerability, weariness, and mortality. I bear sin, selfishness, and struggle. But I still want to, you know, look okay. I want to pretend I am still all right. I have it together. It’s a well-practiced façade. I’m a ten-year-old girl with a big, black smudge on my face hoping to somehow pass as acceptably cool.
A couple of years ago our favorite local chef, Corey MacIntyre of Milo, created a multi-course meal featuring Matthiasson wines. I wrote about that memorable evening here. Teri and I were quite taken with the wines — they were very distinctive, we thought, and didn’t taste like the wines we were used to drinking. We were intrigued enough that we joined their wine club and since then have enjoyed trying the wide range of wines they make, some from grapes rarely grown in California.
Now, not all of the Matthiasson wines are great. Every now and then we get one that we find less than stellar — always more than drinkable, to be sure, but sometimes a little on the thin side. And if you don’t like wines with a mineral character you may not like these as much as we do. So there’s a tiny amount of risk in joining the wine club. But the successes dramatically outnumber the mediocrities, and we’ve come to love the terroir that we taste in all their wines.
I just received the newest issue of the Matthiasson newsletter, and it’s all about pruning. Now, all sorts of metaphors come to my perhaps excessively metaphorical mind at this point, but sometimes pruning is just pruning. And “just pruning” is a wonderful thing. I’m going to quote at length:
Why do we prune? Because if the vine is not pruned it reverts very quickly to its wild nature, climbing everywhere with its long, sinewy trunk and tiny, scraggly bunches of uneven grapes. Every year we need to assess the growth of the vines, and decide whether to prune them back harder, or to let them grow a bit bigger, or return them to the same size and shape they were the year before.
Part of the pleasure of pruning is that it is pure craftmanship, like woodworking or ceramics, a blending of form and vision, assessing the vine’s growth and adjusting the pruning cuts to its individual differences. It’s also a tactile relationship with nature, the living vines that could easily grow wild guided by our hands to line up in vineyard rows ready to bear another crop of wine grapes for our pleasure and nourishment.
As farmers we need help from others to prune all of our vines, the job is too big for one person. We have our small crew of long-time vineyard workers. We also have our interns this year, four wine-loving women who are learning the trade, starting with the craft of pruning, and soon learning the next steps in the vineyard as we follow the annual cycle. Each vineyard is a bit different, so Steve is enjoying a different side of the craft, the teaching, while he explains why one vineyard needs to be pruned a little differently than the last one.
If we prune correctly the vine will be balanced. That means it will grow just enough. If it grows too much, the resulting wines will be thin and simple. If it grows too little, the wine will be bitter and hard. The right amount of growth — what we call “balanced growth” — results in balanced wines that are delicious and show the terroir.
Isn’t that beautiful?
There’s a kind of artist’s vision to this, but also the kind of wisdom that Ursula K. Le Guin called, and that following her I have also called, handmind; something I’m craving the exercise of right about now. In the past week-plus my hands have been quite busy, as has my back — my poor aching back —, but there’s been little of the joy of a mind expressing itself in the work of the hands. (And my ash looks terrible.)
When I first read that description of the Matthiassons at their pruning, I thought of another narrative of handmind: my friend Patricia Hampl’s description, in her lovely memoir The Florist’s Daughter, of how her father arranged flowers:
He emerges from the walk-in cooler with an armload of flowers — tangerine roses and purple lisianthis, streaked cymbidium orchids, brassy gerbera daisies and little white stephanotis, lemon leaf, trailing sprengeri fern, branches of this, stems of that. He tosses the whole business on the big table, and stands in front of what looks like a garbage heap. An empty vase is set in front of him. He appears to ignore it. He just stands there, his pocketknife in his hand, but not moving, and not appearing to be thinking. He doesn’t touch the mess of flowers, doesn’t sort them. He just stares for a long vacant minute. He’s forgotten I’m sitting there.
Then, without warning, he turns into a whirlwind, Without pause, grabbing and cutting, placing and jabbing, he puts all the flowers into the vase, following some inner logic so that — as people always said of his work — it looks as if the flowers had met and agreed to position themselves in the only possible way they should be. He worked faster than anyone else in the shop, without apparent thought or planning. I could distinguish his arrangements — but they weren’t anything as artificial as an “arrangement” — from across the room from the dozens lined up on the delivery table for the truck drivers.
Above I mentioned Corey MacIntyre of Milo, and Corey was one of the people who helped my parish church serve as a “warming center” for the cold people of Waco last week. Please read the encouraging and uplifting story here.