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When I first arrived with my family in the Alsace, in Eastern France, our property had a cherry tree that was about fifteen years old, which had never produced a single cherry. It had flowered beautifully every year, but there was no fruit.

When I first arrived with my family in the Alsace, in Eastern France, our property had a cherry tree that was about fifteen years old, which had never produced a single cherry.
It had flowered beautifully every year, but there was no fruit.

Then one of my sons climbed up into the tree and spent the afternoon sitting in it, pondering his ten-year-old life in between swinging in the branches in a fair imitation of a monkey enjoying itself. He didn't have a crash helmet, knee guards, kidney belt, gloves, safety-net, ropes or even an airbag strapped to his backside.

He was a free little boy enjoying himself.

The following year the tree cascaded fruit, all over the lawn. Our property owner distilled the cherries into "eau de vie". He was thrilled with the crop and told us that he was sure that the tree had reacted to our son ?communicating? with it.

He believed that the tree had not given of its bounty until it had been ?loved?.

So? fast-forward to the ?vendange? (grape picking in France) last month?

Marlene and I pick grapes for a friend in Pommard, in the Cote d'Or, which is a very select wine area south of Beaune.

While we were enjoying the "obligatory" two hour lunch of 'Boeuf Bourguignon' and Burgundy wine our host remarked that no plant on the planet receives as much attention and "contact" from humans as does the grape vine, over its hundred year lifespan.

He should know, because he is the person who is responsible for pruning each vine by hand, and then for trying the shoots so that the grapes hang protected below the foliage, away from hail or too much sunlight.
He clears away excess foliage by hand, so that 'rot' does not set in and the air can blow the spores away. He sprays the plants, these days with ever diminishing amounts of chemicals because he is training the vines to 'counter' the effects of mould and mildew by building up their natural resistance.
He worries over them, inspects them and dreams about them.

And then comes the moment of truth, when the "vendangers" arrive to harvest the crop.
These are the people who come every year to pick the grapes.
The quality of the wine 'that is to come' is in the hands of these pickers, literally.

Red Grapes on the VineRed Grapes on the Vine

We select each bunch of grapes as we cut from the vine.
Then we inspect it to remove any 'rot' and to ensure that grapes are properly ripe. In the sunshine, if we can see a slight translucence in the berries of the dark grapes, we know that the sugar content will not be high enough to transform the juice into good wine.

Some wine producers have tried picking with machines but the quality of the wine has deteriorated as a result. These machines blow, shake and then vacuum suck the grapes into their metal stomachs. The manufacturers of these contraptions claim that they can separate the rotten and unripe grapes from the good berries. However, the age-old contact between the pickers and the vines is lost.

Is this Important?

That will depend on whether you believe that there really is a contact between animals and plants, in this apparent symbiotic relationship that has existed since the beginning of ?Life?.

This year was a difficult one because there was a cool spell during the flowering of the grapes, and the period of flowering was extended from the normal seven to about twenty days. This meant that there were grapes of different maturity on each of the vines in a single row. The pickers had to choose carefully which grapes would be selected for processing and which would be discarded. The ?old days? of selecting and picking everything are long gone, for the producers of quality wine.

Marlene described to me how she felt, this year, as she picked the last of the grapes of the harvest. By this time she had become acclimatised to the back-strain of bending over the lines of grapes all day long. These grapes were white Chardonnay grapes, which are more difficult to find in the vine-leaves compared to the dark Pinot Noir.

I felt such a magic union with Nature,  she said.  The dawn light was angling across the vines and the golden bunches of grapes seemed to glow as if they had soft light inside themselves. They felt so cool and fresh to my touch, and I sensed I could feel the crispness of the juice and the tang of the wine that is to come. I could feel such a joy as I knew that I was doing something that has been repeated here for the last two thousand years. It was as though all the spirits of the people through the ages had come together for this important moment. I wanted to sing, but I had to keep quiet, in case the others thought I was nuts!

It is possible to join in with this experience, simply by coming to France at the right time of the year.

And you can get paid for your travail as well!

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Talk to the Trees

The Cherry Tree stood barren for close on fifteen seasons
It flowered but was fruitless in the garden
He watered it and fed it and tried to find the reasons
That cherries turned to pips that would just harden
One day my son Andrew climbed up in the leaves
He cavorted and he swung there like an ape
The first close contact that (for one who now believes)
This tree had ?felt?, like vintners feel the grape...
It would not give its fruit to fall down to its roots
And rot and lie ignored and in decay
The season that now followed, it had a thousand shoots
And cherries filled the baskets there in May
So when I hear that 'tree hugging' doesn't really work
I smile a little smile and then remember
This tree which gave its bounty, this gift it did not shirk
To give us Cherry Brandy in September

Chris Higginson
Extract from ?Perverse Verse?