A Sense of Place

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When it gets to a certain point, you know one day when the phone rings it will be to tell you. But just because you expect it, doesn’t make it any easier when the call arrives. We got that call yesterday: Leroy had passed away.

Leroy Rasmussen, 82 years old. The first person who ever really believed in our endeavor with a clear conscience. A man whose entire life had been in the vineyard, until his health took him from it. Leroy Rasmussen, whose own Red Hill Douglas County AVA riesling cuttings are the reason for our Leroy’s Finest wine. Leroy Rasmussen, our straight-shooting, salt-of-the-earth cowboy vineyard consultant is no more.

Some time ago we had lost track of Leroy–his health deteriorating so that he was moved very quickly from the area, back to more his home place of Nebraska. After some e-sleuthing, I did locate him and we corresponded with his wife last holiday season. I had high hopes that Leroy might recover, but he did not.

Until I can get more of my thoughts in line, where my emotions are not getting the best of me as I write, I’ll leave you with this story of Leroy, one I wrote last year.

*******

Leroy Rasmussen, The Grande Dalles Cowboy Vineyard Manager

 

 We often think Leroy’s life is the stuff made for Hollywood: upon his return from the Korean War, a young man from the dusty ranges of Nebraska sets out on his own, taking his family to California. The initial plan falls through, and he gets into the grape business. It’s the 1950s. And in his lifetime, he not only teaches a young Marvin Shanken—pre-Wine Spectator—the word malolactic fermentation, he plants 1000s of acres in Sonoma, and then, years later, establishes a single-vineyard AVA—Red Hill, Douglas County—in Oregon. Leroy was a true salt-of-the-earth man, and out-of-the-box thinker. And he was our “cowboy” vineyard consultant.

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I_see_you_2012

“I have something to show you.” Out at the vineyard, a crazily windy day, Scott was doing some farming while Sam and I loitered along a section of the road that was nestled down between the hills and out of the wind, playing Sam’s freshly invented rock toss games.

“What?”

“Jack found an owl in the vineyard. I don’t know if it’s still there. I must have walked right by it, but then Jack found it. It was there, it’s big round face peeking at me, and its wings out.”

“Where is it?”

“In the vineyard. I’ll show it to you after I’m done.”

And off he went, leaving me to my racing thoughts. An owl in the vineyard! In daylight. It must be hurt. It has to be hurt. Why didn’t it fly away? What are we going to do? I hope it’s flown away, was some fluke thing, but in the daylight! On the ground.

Oh, was my heart pounding loudly while Sam and I made our way back up the hill, remembering that windy day when we found the flicker. Today, though, despite the excitement, emotionally I felt calm enough, something I didn’t remember feeling back when I headed down the hill toward the birdnet-wrapped flicker. Maybe my skin was toughening up, out here on the farm? Because now, the simple resignation that we’d have to figure out a course of action IF the owl was still there was what propelled my thoughts as we plodded toward the hill’s top. It seemed the practical had replaced the emotional, to some degree.

Back at the camper, I started to look for Oregon Fish and Wildlife on my phone in case the owl was still there, hurrying, hurrying, so I’d be ready when Scott came back. It seemed like forever, but I found it, and wrote it down. Scott had just come in and waited for me to finish. We all got in the car and headed down the vineyard road. Leaving Jack inside, we–Scott, Sam, and myself–got out.

As we stepped into the vineyard, the wind howling around our ears and pulling at my hat, I was rather nervous. But still calm, I had to be; we didn’t even know if the owl was still there, and if it was, we all had to stay quiet. A ruckus would not help anything. As we made our way down the hill, Sam wondered about the owl, and Scott was telling him something, I don’t know what it was because I was thinking too much of what we might find.

We walked some 15 yards or so down a row. “See where that matted grass is?” asked Scott. “That’s where he was.”

For a brief moment I was somewhat relieved. It had flown away! Until I saw a little face one row over to the east peeking under the wire.

A barn owl. And it was still there, with its wings out, in what appeared to be a menacing posture the more we looked at it, but it was not flying anywhere. We stayed for a few moments, me snapping some pictures, trying to see if the wings looked mangled or it looked mangled somewhere else or anything that might help me pin down and understand why that guy was there, and describe the situation to whomever I spoke with next on the phone. I had never been so close to a barn owl, and marveled at that strangeness of this little one’s face; the triangle of white, the  blackness of its eyes. And its beauty. The dark spots on its back and wings jumped in the light, and its gentle buff color was a perfect disguise for the grasses it was now in. We didn’t stay too long, we didn’t want to bother it any more than we had to, and anyway, now we knew: we had a barn owl on the ground that could not fly, and we had to figure out what to do; we weren’t just going to leave it there.

Back in the car I dialed Oregon Fish and Wildlife, but, it being Saturday, reached no-one. So I called the Oregon State Troopers as recommended by OFW and told them my owl story. They took the information, and the gal told me a volunteer would be calling me back sometime. I questioned the experience of the volunteer and how long I’d have to wait and hung-up satisfied knowing it was an Audobon-type rescue person. Now I had to wait for a call back. And there it was. Not the volunteer, but the State Troopers, relaying the number for a more local wildlife rescue spot in Rowena, Rowena Wildlife Clinic, just down the Columbia River a few miles from The Dalles. I called them and got the answering machine, suggesting if I had an injured animal that I try to capture it and put it into a padded cardboard box! My message relayed I would not try to do this, please call back.

For a few minutes after leaving the message, Scott and I thought about how we might capture the owl; I had rounded up an injured duck once, gently securing it in a blanket before placing it in a box and hauling it off to the Audubon Society Wildlife Care Center in Portland, and had done the same thing for a young Scrub Jay, too. But an owl? With talons and sharp beak? No, we needed professionals on this.

Of course Sam was getting hungry now, it was well past lunchtime, and he had forgone breakfast on the drive out to wait for MacDonalds to begin their lunch service (oh, the things that kid will do for a cheese burger), so he and Scott headed to town and left me and Jack on the hill in the camper, waiting for a phone call.

Antsy, I looked up Portland’s Audubon Society number, to talk to SOMEONE and try to figure out more about our owl. And I’m glad I did. The gal there asked me about its wings and if one seemed to be hanging. The wings seemed to be fine, I told her. She told me it could be the owl was simply eating. In the daylight? I asked. She said if an owl doesn’t get enough to eat at night, they’ll hunt in day. I told her we had plenty of rodents on our hill, and I wouldn’t think that would be the case, but what did I know. She asked about any downy plummage. I told her I noticed the chest feathers blowing in the wind, but maybe it was just because it was so windy and not because of them being downy. She said if I could send some pictures it would be a great help. So after hanging up, off I tramped to look for our owl again.

I found him, wings no longer outstretched, but now tucked close to his body.

He was hunkered down under a vine, next to a post. For a minute or so he didn’t even seem to notice me, but then lifted his head. I spoke to him, and saw his eyes readjusting toward me. Just a little bird, it looked like. I also noticed more downy feathers. I got what pictures I could on my iphone, nothing too exciting because I didn’t want to get too close; the grasses were also blowing wildly. Back at the camper I sent one then called Audubon again, to update the goings on of the little owl.

We chatted briefly, I told her about the downy plummage, and then there was an “a-ha” moment. It’s possible, she told me, that this was a fledgling. Barn owls, she said, spend around 2 weeks on the ground after they leave their nest, because they can’t fly. Where would this guy come from, then? I asked her. Do you have an out building where they might nest? she asked. Nope. Well, she said, this guy hopped from somewhere. We hung up, she telling me the expert would get back to me sometime, but that it was a busy day at her center.

So it might be a baby. Where did it come from? We had a number of owl houses in the vineyard, boxes we had put up to help entice owls for rodent patrol. Could it be finally a family had moved in? I looked out the camper window and sure enough, there was an owl box not far from where Scott had found the owl. I headed out again.

What a grand surprise. The base of the pole on which the box is attached was littered with owl pellets. I looked up at the box, the sun in my eyes as I peered toward the hole that faced eastward, out of the wind. And there was something looking back. An owl.

That was it. Our guy was a young barn owl who had left the nest. I was thrilled. We had owls, and what we had stumbled upon was just a part of the life-cycle of this beautiful creature.

I went back to the camper and since I had not heard back from the Rowena Wildlife Rescue Center, I called them again, with hopes of talking to someone more local, probably for more verification of this new discovery. I got through. I chatted with Jean a bit, and I felt comfortable enough with the idea of leaving the owl now, knowing it was a fledgling, but I wanted to be to be as close to 100% sure he was OK to leave. The big thing in my head was to try and see if the wings were ok. I had asked Scott what felt like a million times that day TO HIM if he was CERTAIN both wings were extended when he first saw the owl. “How many times do I have to tell you they were?!” he would exclaim. So I told the Jean about the wings being out the first time, the hunkering down the second time I saw it. We discussed me going back and trying to coax some more defensive behaviour, just to check its wings. She told me other than the spread wings, a barn owl would jump backward and try to show its talons, and possibly screech. She had to go because she was just about to perform surgery, but told me she’d listen for my message with what I found.

I headed out again. The little guy was still hunkered down. I edged closer and closer. No defensive behaviour, but the swinging of his head back and forth and up and down. By this time Sam and Scott had come back and came down the hill to find me. We all sat near the little owl. Scott spoke to it this time, and told him we wouldn’t hurt him, and how glad we were to have him there. Sam didn’t seem to really care one way or another. I got more pictures then headed back to the car to call Rowena with my update. It wasn’t long before Jean called me back, and said what I described sounded perfectly normal.

So there you have it. Tear have finally come to my eyes as I write this and think about that little one, alone out in our vineyard, still within sight of his Mama, but still. In the end, we collected as much information as we could, spoke with experts, and made our decision to leave him on the hill. But oh! such a small, fragile life! Of course I worried all the way back to Portland and then last night about him. We have coyotes near the vineyard and I’m sure fox are around as well. Then I read Great Horned Owls will hunt these little guys. And I’m already nervous about the bird netting we ensconce the vineyard in when the grapes ripen. All I can do is keep my fingers crossed that it’ll all be OK. And smile for the new little owl life and his family, out there on our hill.


[If you ever find a hurt or “misplaced” animal in the wild, click here for some information that can help, from the Rowena Wildlife Clinic, in Mosier, Oregon]

 

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Well, more like their scent. And thankfully not everywhere I look/smell around because that would just be wrong. Lilacs in February? I found this little lovely in in Pier Park, right next to where we live, one of two small bushes nestled under the towering firs that have decided: it’s time. You can’t blame them — it’s been unseasonably warm. In reality, though, they are more an early May/Mother’s Day bloom out this way, and if all the bushes happened to be flowering, that would be trouble: too warm.

We want, no, make that NEED, our vineyard to slumber for another few months, so that a late season frost doesn’t cause harm if it awakens too early. Although what can you do? Even though our land is 90 miles away in a cooler, drier climate, 90 miles really isn’t that far; it’s almost 60 degrees F here in Portland today, and in the low 50s right now in The Dalles. As long as the nights stay cool, though, we’re good, and Weather Underground is showing some rather chilly nights during this period of warmth. If we were making maple syrup (which we can’t out here since sugar maples are not to be found — dang it!) we’d love this weather. But it puts me a little on edge vineyard-wise. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it, how something so lovely and scented as a lilac can make one worry?

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nov2

Oops! Didn’t realize it has been so long since I last posted. I pretty much took some time off to do Mama things (cards, cookies, and cadeaux) and actually got them all done for once, with very minimal duress–a very interesting result from stepping a moment (or in this case, a month) away from the wine biz/start-up/swimming-against-the-current fray. Hmmm.

Anyway, while 2011 is still only yesterday, I’d like to leave you all with a month-by-month visual of the sights and colors of the The Grande Dalles and our Uncultivated Life (note the yellow boat serving as wade pool in front of our Campeau) out in the wilds of the wine world.

    

January: We released our wines at the rustically swank James John Cafe in North Portland. Chef Owners Suzanne Bozarth and Aaron Solley would accompany us to New York in March, to the James Beard House.

February: It’s a quiet time out on the hill, but still much for little vineyard gnomes to discover.

March: “Columbia Valley Terroir” unveils itself at the James Beard House in NYC: featuring our wines and sumptuous regional Northwest Solley and Bozart fare.

  

April: A slow start, but the land starts to warm and the greening of the hill begins.

May: Guerilla roadside Wine Stand at the Old Garage during Memorial Day Weekend in the Hood (Hood River). Best line of the weekend asked by someone who drove in, got out, and then quickly left after asking: “Is this legal?”

  

June: Wine in hand, an evening walk out on the land. Sam! Get out of Dave’s wheat!

July: Fire season. Thankfully this was not on our property, but still causing much damage to someone else’s across the way. Reminded us of the 2009 range fire that headed straight toward us, stopping three rows in our vineyard. As the story goes, the Old Coot was the only person who went in our vineyard to fight it. Still need to thank him.

  

August: Wasco County Fair! Aptly themed, “Barn in the USA.” For the second year we sponsored a Demolition Derby car. Yeah! Hot day out there in South County in that fairground valley. Whew!

September: Still warm out on the land. In this picture, because we didn’t quite make it to our Deschutes River swim spot, the little boat had to do.

  

October: Harvest. We made it. And we made it into Google Earth’s One World Many Stories campaign. The only wine story IN THE ENTIRE INDUSTRY to do so.

November: A seasonal quiet begins its descent, along with some early snow.

December: While the last hues of Fall in the Columbia Gorge peep through the mist, our wines are beginning to shine in New York City, and at some Michelin-starred restaurants to boot! Where exactly, you ask? Annisa on Barrow Street. Blue Hill NYC on Washington Place. Dovetail on West 77th Street. Henry’s on Broadway. Penn Wine and Spirits at Penn Station. First & Vine on First Ave. Yippy skippy!

As thankful as I am for our accomplishments in 2011, there are still many miles to go before we can sleep. Many miles. So, while I look forward to 2012 and all the exciting things we have planned, I wish you all a prosperous and healthy New Year and from time-t0-time, to step off the beaten path, for it is what often makes all the difference.

~ stephanie

 

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Blame it on my Anthropology undergrad work, but I have written that, still feeling fairly new to the wine industry, I often feel like Margaret Mead, looking in on and trying to understand the behaviour of some lost tribe. As a participating observer having now lived 6 years among “the people,” things still baffle me, and I like to wonder why.

No matter how hard I tried the other day, it seemed I could not shake that Chateau following behind. Sam and I were off that day from Portland to the Willamette Valley, to pick up some of our wine at Oregon Wine Services  (very nice people) in McMinnville, and en route, I had the best chuckle: a Chateau on wheels. It was just a camper, but how funny to see a “Chateau” traveling through Oregon’s best-known wine country. It’s apropros in a way, you know, how wine and chateaus like to go hand-in-hand here in the USA? As if a chateau is some marker of what, authenticity? Prestige? The “Old Country”?

I always say, “Only two letters separate ‘arrogance’ from ‘ignorance,’ meaning, in my pointy head, there’s not much that differentiates the two words. Don’t get me wrong, I like chateaus just like the rest of us romantic souls, but only when they’re the real deal, LIKE IN FRANCE, or GERMANY or some other country where the provenance is legitimate, and not some contrived artifice used for marketing. Which, c’mon, it is.

Not that there are many chateaus in the Willamette Valley, if there are any at all—things seem pretty real down that way on the physical landscape of rolling, verdure hills, and tucked away places. On the brand landscape there might be a few; a quick Google search turned up Chateau Lorane (no picture of a chateau, though); Chateau Bianca (again, no image of a chateau), and Chateau Benoit (not clear if a chateau is really there, either, since all I found was a label, and no chateau on that).

Up Washington way there are some actual chateaus, as well as “chateau” brands. Chateau Ste. Michelle would be the acting queen of Washington castles and brands, the oldest wine biz up there. Then there’s Chateau Champoux, but I don’t get a sense that there’s an actual chateau on the premise. Nor at Chateau Rollat’s. Things look more promising for Le Chateau Winery, since that’s what the “under construction” website suggests. There is a chateau up on La Montagne Rouge (all this chateau talk is making the French come out of me, sorry), as we all know, one of the founding partners having connections direct to la France (there it is again). But all these other chateaus, I just don’t get. We’re not France!  Two years ago I was still wondering about all this chateau stuff, but more with a peek into Cali, and here’s the post I wrote, if you’re interested.

Anyway, we don’t have a chateau on our hill, and have no plans for one. But what we DO have is something we like to refer to as the “Campeau” (or “LE Campeau,” if we’re feeling very French), so we might fit in a little out there in the wilds of the wine world.

It’s not even a Chateau, like the one cruising so close behind the other day, it’s a Komfort (that’s right, with a K). “And it’s paid for,” Scott pipes in, “as of this week.” And klassy, in its own, krazy way, I might add. I wonder what Margaret would say.

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Can’t believe it’s been two years since I started writing this blog, when I had a heck of a lot more time because Sam went to bed at 5:30 and STILL NAPPED! And I had a very reliable gal who came over 2x a week besides. Now my posts are a little hurried, I know — kid is growing and changing every day, and my last gal was too Portlandia, causing me to lose faith in good help for now. So there you go.

There are a lot of little gems from the days back, and I’d like to dig up a few, because they’re still relevant, and they give me some breathing room while Sam and I start “crafting” things for the holidays.

The following was posted December 22, 2009

A TRUE WESTERN TOWN, A TRUE SENSE OF PLACE

The Dalles Bridge: A Western Bridge for a Western Town (sorry it’s fuzzy)

Hooray! The Dalles has been named a “True Western Town” in True West Magazine’s top 10 list of, you guessed it, “True Western Towns” for 2010.

I’ve always had the feeling, from the first time we showed up and actually spent some time in The Dalles looking for vineyard ground—instead of simply rumbling by on 84 as I imagine most do, because honestly, from a car window, The Dalles kind of shows its ass to the world and who would want to stop? The auto repair and RV spots, the strip malls and former old rundown Aluminum factory site now razed to a bunch of bare earth…and that’s probably enough said*—that it was, at its soul, a quiet, Western town.

And it is: at its center you’ll find restored, 19th century Victorians; one-way down-town streets lined with high-windowed brick buildings; farm rigs and big hats going by; cowboy boots and western wear; plus all what the article in True West speaks of. And all against the backdrop of enormous, grassy hills that echo Connemara to me—or pictures I’ve seen of New Zealand—on the Washington side, and heights of basalt outcroppings with scrub oak and sage on the Oregon side; the Western character is hard to miss.

Once our vineyard was planted, it felt like—and still does—a little vineyard on the frontier, all alone under the watchful eye of Mt. Hood in that striking expanse of rolling hills of wheat, the Klickitats just across the river, the hawks and kestrels soaring against the blue, blue sky. The occasional truck or car zipping down Emerson Loop Road can’t even wake me from this reverie, so few are there.

From people I’ve talked with, not many know about The Dalles, few know even less about the geographic Big West that’s just past the bend in the Columbia River heading eastward out of “The Hood,” or Hood River (I call it The Hood—don’t know if others do). How dramatically the landscape changes; away from the rain influence of the Cascade Range where the average precipitation reaches 75 inches—The Hood approximately 32—the verdure of the densely forested, canyon-walled-passage drive from Portland is replaced by a set out of a Leone western, with open, golden—sensuous even—rolling steppes, rim-rock rises and scrub-oak gullies where I imagine a young, poncho-ed Clint resting, or, more likely, on the run (ah, Clint); for every mile you drive east from The Hood you lose an inch of precipitation, and in this area, in the rain shadow of Mt.Hood, a scant 14 inches of precipitation is the yearly norm. Lewis Mumford, an early 20th century philosopher of the urban landscape (among other areas) eloquently describes the Columbia Gorge’s scenic transition in 1939 as “[unrolling] itself like some great kakemono of classic Chinese landscape art.”

I don’t subscribe to True West, but the categories of “Renegade Roads,” “Classic Gunfights,” and “Frontier Fare” from its website pique my interest in becoming a regular reader. I hope what might be more inviting to you, my dear Reader, if you haven’t been, or if you don’t know, is The Dalles and surrounding area itself. It quietly sits like an undiscovered gem, only seen by the more discerning eye who relishes the new, for the individual who is not afraid to step off the beaten path and find their own island of quiet, while the rest of the world rushes loudly past. A true Western town with a true Western sense of place.

*update: Google’s shiny power station and the area’s funkelnagelneu grain elevator stand out like beacons near that old aluminium factory site, hopefully heralding in more bright things to come.

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My jaw dropped and eyes teared when I saw the devastation of that little cold snap we had last week. “Holy crapola” was all I could say, again and again, as we drove into the vineyard, and saw all those fried sangiovese leaves along the farm road.

Holy crapola. The dark clusters, only last week comfortably housed under a fall canopy, looked so desperate now as they clung to the plant, cringing below the now crispy leaves. “Get us out of here!” they seemed to be calling from behind the net. “Help!”

Help us!

Granted, this cold snap did not kill anything other than the leaves, and not even all the leaves across the board; the vineyard’s hillside got it in different places. Definitely at the bottom where it’s the coldest, and hit and miss across the midsection and top. Click on this picture to enlarge and you can see the line of “normal” looking yellowed autumn plants, and the dark, fried plants at the bottom.

Our Vineyard Gnome Surveys

What did this occurrence mean for us? It meant we had to make decisions that would otherwise not have had to be made if it were not to have happened. Like speeding up harvest, for example. We were out picking the cabernet sauvignon last weekend, as planned, which also fell prey to the cold, but it was the sangio we were still waiting for. Turns out another cold snap is moving in (and why shouldn’t it? It is the first of November, after all — like everyone else, we are a good three weeks behind harvest) and to mitigate the risk of sangio ice-wine, where the berries actually freeze on the vine, we picked it today. So it’s pretty much a done deal out there.

What a year. There are worse things, like the bank telling us our funding stops here, which they did. Yesterday. While ketchup may do just fine with a fried vineyard, I’d prefer a stiff drink for that news. And a good, warm fire for us to gather around, while we enjoy this evening’s last bit of sunshine in Portland for a while. We’ll figure it out, with ketchup or not.

 

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After the doom and gloom of the other day’s HIT post, a little color might be a welcomed addition. These images are also on our Facebook Page, in 2011 October Colors in a Western Vineyard and Place album, but I don’t trust the links FB provides, so they’re here, too — enjoy —

A Little Bit of Upstate NY for More Harvest Cheer

Tempranillo Showing Its Autumn Color

North Side Grey Rabbitbrush*

Acres and Acres of Vines Under Net

Blueberry Dan's Bounty, Grown on Our Hill's North Side

Light Makes it Through An Uneasy Harvest Evening Sky

Cabernet Sauvignon Kept Safe from Pesky Birds

*Many thanks to Andy Plymale, for pointing out my error — I thought the yellow-flowered plant was some type of sagebrush, but Andy told me it’s Grey Rabbitbrush, a very good native plant to have on the land, I found out. Thanks again, Andy!

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Let’s just say, last night’s frost was not little. Scott spent the night at the camper, up checking temperatures throughout the late night and early morning, with a helicopter on stand-by if the freeze would be that severe. It was not good–not the 15 degree junk our little vineyard endured the first year we planted it, more at the 25-27 degree mark –but what was not better was that by all indications, there was no warmer air to push into the vineyard, the temps at the top of the hill below freezing, too. And pushing freezing air around was not the solution we were after. So the helicopter was called off, and the damage done.

How much? We don’t know. The question now is, is the vine still working if all leaves were not destroyed? We were planning on harvesting the cabernet sauvignon this weekend anyway — how much might the fruit degrade if the plant is no longer active? And what does it mean for the sangiovese, all those vines so laden with lovely fruit, but still a ways off from being what we need? Scott’s trying to figure all this out, on his way to his day-job that keeps the bills paid and at least THAT worry taken care of.

Scott just said, rather simply,”It’s a fecked* up year that continues to be fecked up, to the end.” I tried reminding him that the riesling and tempranillo we just brought in last weekend turned out just fine, that is, the sugars and acids were in balance and so we can breathe a little there. But then he reminded ME that we were only looking at 3.5 tons of fruit there, mostly because of the season’s earlier cold temps, and we still have 8-10 tons hanging. What could I say to that?

So we’ll see. Fingers crossed, aGAIN.

*I changed this to the more polite term, for us American English speakers. Irish readers might still feel the full pain.

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Yesterday I held a flicker in my hand, feeling its chest heave and its little heart beat, right there on my skin. Speaking to it only increased its agitation, so I stopped, and waited for Scott to return with Sam–who was having a tearful day, scared by all the grasshoppers and wanting to go home as soon as we had arrived–and something to help extricate the poor bird from the netting it was caught in.

When I saw Scott kneeling on the hillside, at the end of a net-ensconsed row, I figured he was working on a drip tube, a leak or something. Then I saw it was something under the net, and he called me to come down, asking, “Do you have any cutting thing in your bag? A knife or something?”  I didn’t.  “What’s caught?” I was fearful of hearing it was a hawk, or worse, our resident kestrel. “It’s one of those long-beaked birds you like.” “A flicker?” “Yeah, a flicker.” Just as bad, I thought. A flicker.

Scared beyond all get out of what I might see when I got there, there it soon was, wild-eyed in Scott’s grip, as he tried unsuccessfully to release it. He showed me where the one wing had netting stuck tight to it, and our plan was to cut it out.

I’m alone on that steep hillside with the bird now, the sun peeking past the billowy white clouds, the air warm and gently scented with sagebrush and dried grasses, the start of Fall. The ground feels soft under my knees as I try  to gently, yet firmly, hold this fearful feathered creature. I use my fingers and create a stronger vise-like position near its neck area, so the bird’s head becomes a cork and the rest of the body can’t get through, and am more careful with the wings and body, not knowing what damage might be there–its right wing greatly entangled in the green webbing. I look into its dark red eyes and hope and hope and hope that all will be well.

Not knowing how long it has been tangled, it is still feisty, and strangely calm. While I wait for Scott, I undo its big, leathery clawed left foot. Mistake! For as soon as I get that free, the wiggle becomes more determined. And it is soon caught up again. I decide to just wait.

I hear voices, and look up the hill. Soon they appear at the top, and down the hillside Scott comes, carrying Sam so the grasshoppers don’t get him, I suppose. They get to us, and Scott tells me, the only thing he found to cut with was clippers, no knife. We’ll make it work. “Hi little birdie.” Sam, now three, speaks to the flicker. We tell him matter of factly how this little guy got caught in the netting, and now we’re doing our best to get him out.

I have to hold the bird now in one hand, so Scott can get to that leg that had become re-entangled. Done. Now all that’s left is the right wing, and now with the bird almost out, the netting comes easily away. The flicker is free.

Please excuse me while tears come to my eyes now as I write; in the moment there was no time to be emotional, it was simply holding that bird and wondering what would it be able to do once it was released?

I jump up because the flicker obviously senses its recent detanglement, its fight now stronger than ever to leave my hands. “Don’t toss it,” Scott tells me, as he watches me lift the bird while I steady myself on the hill. “I’m not,” I tell him. “I’m taking it away from the netting.”

I walk the few steps across that 30+ grade, to what we call the north side, and set the bird down. And just as soon as my hands move away, it departs. Shaky, but flying, wings broad and nothing visibly damaged, it jumps right into the air, and disappears over the contour of our hill. Why it decides to turn back toward the vineyard, we will never know. “Oh, please, please, please, do not land or drop down there,” I think. I share my concern with Scott, who simply says, “We did what we could to help it, there’s nothing more we can do.”

As we walk back up the hill, I realize there is something more I can do: somewhere, somehow, get a tougher skin.

 

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