I recognized them even before Emmett waved as he went past. We'd packed those bags last fall, struggling to keep the nets from twisting or knotting up, leaving the bags at the end of their row of vines so Harry could slap duct tape on the side, writing the length of the net and its condition. That was October. The grapes had been harvested weeks before, and denetting was the last communal work of the season. The nets cut into your hands, already cold and stiff from the early morning frost just lifting as the sun reached higher.
The vineyard is up on a hill across the creek and past the clover field. By an accident of acoustics, the rise next to the barn and the rise of the vineyard converse with each other the way you might have spoken to your sister or your friend with the tin cans and wire you used to make telephones as kids. I could hear Emmett dropping the bags one by one at their rows, and then the truck headed back to the farm.
I'd been reading in one of the old metal lawn chairs the Old Man had refinished years ago, and I'd refinished years later, each of us certain our remedies would halt the inexorable return of rust, and each of us wrong. Now pockets of dry paint had floated up and cracked and the widening circles of dark rust rubbed off on your shorts while you sat there. But it didn't matter. These were chairs almost magical. Sitting in them, you were nearly touching the Old Man again, nearly hearing his voice, nearly watching him as he bent to the task at hand, patient, rigorous.
The Old Man had admired Harry for his workingman's ethic and his seeming inexhaustibility and the futility of so many of his programs. The vineyard was one; the Old Man knew it was never to be a money maker and that troubled and enthralled him. Why would anyone do something so difficult and so unlikely of success? I once told him that Harry and I made a game of calculating how much we made by the hour from our vocations. Harry was a little ahead at 13 cents an hour when the Old Man died.
Agriculture of the sort that goes on around here doesn't really resemble farming, at least not as the last century has understood it. There are machines involved, tractors, sprayers, mowers. But the land is too discontinuous for mass-production monocrop cash farming except in the flat plains around the rivers where the fields wave with sweet corn destined for the markets and restaurants of New York City, an hour and a half south. The land rises irregularly beyond the floodplain, responding to millennia of wind and water, glaciers descending and receding, tearing the land from one spot, revealing the stony bones of the earth, leaving floods of gravel and broken rock. In the lower middle of our pasture, a granite upthrust emerges, hidden by the grasses of summer and the snows of winter, revealed in the spring floods.
In this broken topography, we adapt our desires. There's the clover field on Harry's side of the creek, where the floods go, and on our side there's the hayfield. We share a part of the woodlot with its stands of sugar maples and its heritage chestnuts still standing though long dead from the blight. Some times are for cutting down and dragging out those old trees to be sold to the cabinet makers; some times are for syruping off and some for haying and some for gathering the old planks from outbuildings that washed into the creek in the hurricane or the big spring flood and can be put up in the half-collapsed woodshed to be used when someone comes with a restoration project.
Today it was netting time. The first year the vineyard was mature enough to produce well, Harry had walked the rows with his friend and teacher and they'd agreed it was nearly time. That was a Saturday, and Harry had called the crew and told them harvest was going to start early Monday morning. On Sunday afternoon he stopped by the vineyard to drop off some tools and found the vines stripped bare. It was surreal, the sort of disorientation you might have felt when you came out in the morning to get in your car and found it wasn't where you'd left it, and you wandered up and down the street, unable to believe it had been stolen. Harry, too, had wandered between the rows, stooping occasionally to see where the grapes had once been, until he came to the place that Nick had mowed too close, leaving the center shaved to dirt, and saw, in the dust, the dense interweaving of tracks from a rafter of wild turkeys. It was a bad year, worst of them all, though there'd been other bad years, years when nothing came of the harvest but a gallon of sour grapejuice, when the weather went south-- a late frost or an early hurricane or a sudden violent thunderstorm throwing hail. You couldn't do much about weather, but you could net the vines and keep the birds out. So we did.
I was heading down to the house when Emmett pulled into the driveway in the pickup, its bed carrying the rest of the tools, a cooler populated by old juice jars washed out and now filled with ice-water, and the last few netting bags. It's time, right? I called. I'm just going up to change: no buttons, long sleeves, long pants, gloves. He came out of the cab anyway. I wanted to tell you, he said. I was up at the vineyard Saturday and I got a free live music concert. Nice stuff. Made me want to dance up there.
The big band had trouped in on Friday, taking over the studio, turning up the amps and working up the sets to play on Sunday down at the outdoor gig. It had been a noisy weekend, punctuated by feasts and field trips and long stories and tender fingertips and hoarse voices by the end. Now they'd packed up, promising to call when they made it home safely, dawdling in the driveway, the car windows rolled down so as to talk through just one more thing, before backing out and heading up the hill to Mountain Rest Road and then up Main Street in New Paltz and onto the Thruway.
When I got up to the vineyard Harry had brought the tractor round with the netting trailer hooked behind. He and Peter Lundgren had devised the thing; it was a contraption with chain and angled metal and a platform where Emmett would stand to pay out the netting from the bags through the raised guide as two of us, me on one side, Dennis on the other, would walk along behind, laying the netting across the long rows of vines. Dennis wasn't there yet, and while we waited for him we occupied ourselves with the small chores that make it go more smoothly later-- untying the bags and setting them within easy reach; testing the machinery. Then the three of us went down the rows, picking off the grapes that had already been pecked by the birds. You need to get them out, to interrupt the beautiful cycle that doesn't include human harvest or wine as part of its rhythm: bird; yellowjacket; moth; mold.
Dennis took the left side; I took the right. A few of the netting bags had been hand-loaded last year, after the ritual of October, for reasons I don't remember. But those nets were twisted up, and by chance the first two rows were trouble. When the nets twist, the solution is to spin the bag but it takes some time to get the instinct for which way to go, clockwise or counterclockwise. Midway through the second row Emmett remembered the routine, untwisting from the farthest spot back, and then continuing that spin down to the bag. We were ready to settle in.
The day had dawned cool, more like late September than mid-August. Now, though, the sky was cloudless, an intense, almost metallic blue that made the leaves of the sycamore trees at the vineyard's edge seem alternately vivid green and near-silver. The sweat stained our long shirts and pants and we pulled them away from the skin underneath as we walked back up from the finished rows, kicking the nets underneath the vines so the tractor wouldn't catch on them when Harry took it down the next row.
There was some casual talk--about the troubles with permits that had closed down the Hopped-Up Cafe where the other band played and where Emmett's brother was a regular; about the noisy motorcycle Danny Cross had bought to replace the customized pickup with the glass-pack mufflers he'd had to sell; about the grass-killer Emily had sprayed around her vegetable patch; about the variable amount of chlorine in the Rosendale municipal water we were drinking-- but mostly the talk was focused on the task at hand. Taking up slack! Emmett would call, and he'd hold the netting still while the tractor moved forward. Rip! meant a segment of the netting was torn open and Dennis and I would have to be careful to lay it right so that later Harry could come by and close up the holes with clips and string.
There were 23 rows, and we didn't take but one water break: the flow of things seemed to resist the idea of stopping and then starting up again. Once in a while a car or a pickup would drive past. Toward the end, the girls who lived in the brick house came out with their babysitter and the little dog and raced around the new-mown clover field, spraying each other with water pistols while the dog dug through the hayrows to find the dead-- voles, field mice, snakes, the occasional rabbit who had leapt the wrong way as the tractor and the haymow came up. Then they went in, and we set on the last row without speaking at all, leaving only the sough of the wind in the evergreens over on the far hillside and the grumble of the little tractor's 20 horsepower engine, still steady though the tractor dated to the '40s.
And then we were done. Two and a half hours, Harry said: half as long as last year, which was better than any year previous. We stood around the tractor for a little while, talking about the differences in technique this year from last. Then it was time to move on. Harry took the tractor back to the Feather Farm. Emmett took the pickup. Dennis drove off in his ancient Dodge Caravan with the bad muffler, and I walked down the hill to the house and, behind it, to the studio, to pull the cables and the mics from the carry-all bin and reassemble the practice space for tomorrow, when Kim and Sevan and David and Jim would assemble, to work on the next song, and the next.
I no longer practice alone. It has come to seem alien, even unseemly. What is the point of working on technique when what matters in the end is finding the time, feeling the music breathe, waiting for someone to suggest, someone else to affirm, then to take it up for a while, and then hand it off or set it down?
When we left the tumult and compression of the city for this place, it seemed we were moving from communality to solitude. But we'd had it backwards. Now even the dead commune with us, in dreams, in the wind, in the moon's travel, in fragments of words to be crafted into song, or work, or wine, in the talk of those we work beside or those who listen to us, as we work, while they, too, make the small adjustments, move rhythmically down the rows, lay things out in order, stopping, now and then, to hear the music swell from the old barn, cross the creek, and rise up the hillside to the vineyard.