I imagine the Roman Catholic concept of Purgatory being something like visiting a GAME store at this time of the year. Very often selling products cheaper than elsewhere, the store staff also have world-beating customer-avoidance skills. This intriguing characteristic aside, I like to inspect the latest ‘must have’ trimmings for our modern lives – flimsy folding camp chairs with cup holders and impregnated mosquito repellent, or brittle, animated-movie-branded cooler boxes, etc…
I watch people with modest incomes spend hard-earned cash on things conceived and constructed to fail; to be unserviceable, unfixable – accessories designed to make money, to provide short term pleasure and then pollute the environment. They are devoid of concepts like sustainability, wholesomeness, consciousness and value-for-money.
Nthombekaya (meaning “only girl of the house”) Ndila is a 49 year old Xhosa lady. She grew up in an impoverished, disenfranchised rural Eastern Cape community with nine brothers. She is living proof that Apartheid’s shadow grows longer with time, not shorter, as the collapsing principles of those in political power smother out Mandela’s light. With the encroaching dusk, opportunities for her family’s upliftment fade away.
She has worked for me in my home for nine years. She is slightly older than me, considered in her words and resiliently resigned to the unfathomable unfairness of her life. She carries her melancholy like a rolled up umbrella on a cloudless day. She wears her Christian faith like a seatbelt. I asked her why she thought people go mad at the end of the year; why they waste money on expensive food they can never finish, and goods they don’t really need.
“It’s because it makes them happy,” she said. “But then they are in debt, and the stress eats away at the happiness.” She emphasises the words ‘the stress’ like it is an entity, an animal, of some rabid, murky kind.
For most of us the end of the calendar year represents the end of something much more meaningful than the passing of time. It epitomises the beginning of a new era. We look forward to things being better, and to getting a tough year ‘behind us’. This requires reflection.
However, to a winemaker, Christmas and New Year fall about half way through our grape growing year. It’s a crucial time of the growing season when the fruit is vulnerable to attack by fungus and other threats. You can’t afford to be on holiday. In the vineyard and on the land is where you want to be. Things are growing and needing nutritional care, water and sometimes a soft talking to.
On The Drift farm this is also the time we pick our organically-grown onions and deliver them to market. It is an extremely busy time, because in the southern hemisphere it is the high point of growth and natural exuberance. It isn’t a time for reflection. It is a time for flat-out commitment and tackling the challenges our climate and environment throw at us. This is the antithesis of deep, mid-winter slumber, when everything is slowed-down to the point of expiring.
It makes no intuitive sense for this time to represent the end or beginning of something. For our farmers, and winemakers in particular, the end and beginning of the year takes place around the winter solstice, normally at the end of June. That’s when we can reflect on labours past and look forward with hope to the future.
This makes it difficult to embrace religious reflection at this time. It’s much more natural to consider life and death, the presence of God, or the meaning of life, when everything is at rest and it’s bleak outside. You snuggle up in the warm duvet of your brain and comfortably grapple with these mind-expanding chasms of questions.
Luckily we have music, that hugely powerful manipulator of moods. And if you default spiritually to Christian doctrine, then with Christmas carols, even farmers can suspend instinct and find the headspace to reflect.
Weirdly for me, I make wine and cider in both hemispheres. So while the madness of misplaced hoarding takes place at the height of summer in South Africa, I am getting contemplative emails and taking deeply considered calls from my collaborators communicating from the sedate cave of the winter mind.
This juxtaposition is good. It means I am continually reminded to think deeply; even while this feels superfluous. Any fears of inadequacy and that inkling of helplessness remain always on the fringe of my bullet-proof exuberance.
So this is a mid-year missive really. We have the hardest months of farming still to come. Then the rain will bring a reprieve. Rock-hard, loamy clays will soften and swell and drink in winter. The seasons will swing and sway and the vines will dance to the seducing rhythm of life. We’ll be scuttling around the bandstand like children, half hearing, half distracted by the fireworks of our own ideas.
But hopefully we will be able to hear just enough to craft produce that epitomises sustainability, value-for-money, conscious living and wholesomeness.
Have a great 2015.
Love, light and a few glasses of The Drift Farm wine,