“Fallen on hard times?” he asked. His blue-eyed look pierces, all the way in and through. It was less a question than a statement. Just that and no more for the two days we worked together. A few seconds of connection.
We had followed the jeep he was a passenger in down the long dirt driveway, allowing a little space to keep the dust from overwhelming us. I was drinking a cup of coffee and the light of dawn had not quite filled the sky. We parked our Geo just as they parked the old jeep with a red racing stripe. He spoke as we all emerged from our rigs.
I wear a woven wool cap on the cold mornings of late summer. Though I wonder if it was overkill today with temperatures of 55 degrees. When the noon time temp is 95, 55 feels quite chill. The cap comes off before too long. But not before I’ve spent an hour meditating on his words. “Fallen on hard times?”
“He” is man nearing 80 years old who is one of 8 people picking grapes on a two acre vineyard a few miles down the road from my ranch. ‘He’ is wearing a sweatshirt with a university logo and a knit hat over a shaved head. I like the look of him without hair. He is remarkably handsome. ‘He’ is someone I respect a great deal. A man who grew up in the wilderness before paved roads and electricity were common, he has real skills. I find him to be one of the most interesting, independent and outspoken individuals I have ever met.
And that is in a small village of individuals. Not a village of monoculturists, but a place where people still live (to an extent) outside of the dictates of a society largely formed by media ideas.
So when ‘He’ makes a comment to me it is worth an hour of meditation. “Fallen on hard times?” is his inquiry in to why I am picking grapes. A job that is commonly assumed to belong to Mexicans. Illegal immigrants. A woman who is ‘supposedly’ in the 90th percentile of wealth in the USA….why is she picking grapes? A very fair question. An interesting observation. An irritating comment. An insight into world view of labor economics and social standing. Paradigm clashes?
To me, I am a woman helping a girlfriend, who is a wine maker and has a two acre vineyard. Picking her pinot noir grapes before the temperatures get too high. I live a few miles down the road and I love my friend after 16 years of being her neighbor. To ‘him’ (and this is what I imagine since I have not asked him why he picks) this is work that pays. It is work that he may not do if there were not money involved (and again I am making this up because of his comment). And if we lived in an area where there were day laborers available down near the hardware store then he might never find himself picking. But we happen to live in a remote and out of the everyday pocket of wilderness California. There are not Mexicans available for hire on the corner (there is no corner) near the hardware store (no store). So my friend asks her friends and a few trusted people she knows will show up to help. Some she pays and some pick her grapes as an experience and a gift.
But I pick and I think about how ‘we’ as a culture have defined work to such an extent that picking grapes is a ‘demeaning’ job that at least one person calls work that others will do if they have ‘fallen on hard times’. Because when I am picking the grapes it is impossible to ignore that it butt hard work. Literally. I am doing the equivalent of squats for three or four hours while holding my arms up and working both at the same time. I am sore for several days afterwards. I think of it as going to the ‘Boot Camp’ many pay good money to do. And I get to have this workout among friends out under a very blue sky, breathing clean air, in a place where wild turkeys roam by and big bucks saunter through. I might even see the bear that has been trying to eat the grapes every afternoon. It’s all a matter of perspective. The perfume of chardonnay, sticky sweetness running down my arms, the delight of popping a small cluster into my mouth as I continue to work...mmmm....as the cool dawn transforms to the warmth of a late summer morning....“He” speaks of this labor as work you only do if you have nothing better. And I (sadly) suspect that few people agree with me. Most people would see my picking grapes not as a luxury spa boot camp workout but as degrading labor for a woman who holds degrees in applied math and engineering.
When the sun breaks over the ridge line illuminating pine needles with a fine white light, a light I have tried to capture in fiber art for many years, I am not thinking about who labors doing what and where that places you in societal status, but rather I am thinking that all of us hold the possibility of expressing the grandeur of nature…that exquisite radiance....as one of the natural beings…just because we exist, not because of what we do. I wonder if maybe time is best spent melting in to our ‘right’ (whatever this may be) relationship in this natural world.