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in the lateral zone

Vines and grapes and wines, oh my!  I'm working on a vineyard in Raukawa (R-ow-kawa), Maraekakaho (Ma-rye-ka-ka-hoe) near Hastings (only a half hour drive from Meeanee, where I was doing strawberries), and learning heaps about grape growing, winemaking, stock trading and general viticulture.  George was able to hook me up with not only a job, but free accommodation and meals on his family's vineyard.  Hallelujah.  I've got my own room in a little guest house (with a big, full sized bed!!) and I spend my days in the sun, out on the hills where the grapes grow.  It's quite dry – the landscape that used to be almost violently lush is now summer brown and golden, and the healthy, green grapevines look like huge long snakes that follow the contours of the country.  The Richmonds have 1300 acres spread across hills and valleys and includes two small ponds.  George is the oldest child of four, and is the fifth generation to work the land – his great, great grandfather (or something like that) emigrated here from Scotland and established the farm and the family, and they've been here ever since.  The pride and history of the family's connection to this land is nearly tangible, and I feel lucky to have met up with people who not only work the land, but are a part of it.  The property is used to graze sheep and cows and to grow pinot noir and pinot gri grapes.  They're not a winery themselves; they sell their fruit to one (out of probably three dozen) local winemakers.  Hawkes Bay, the region I'm living in now, is one of the biggest grape-growing/winemaking areas in the country.  The climate is nearly identical to that of southern France – perfect for grapes.

I go out every morning by seven or seven-thirty AM, and work the rows with George.  We're culling lateral growths from the vines.  These are second growths that sprout from the 'armpits' of the main vines, and use energy and food that should go directly to making the grapes healthy and ripe.  It's fairly automatic work.  I've learned to spot the growths almost instinctively, and George and I move steadily up the hills, row by row, pulling laterals and tucking vines in and tying the supporting wires together where they've been spread too far apart by the heavy vines.  Mostly we talk, and we leave the radio on in the ute (which is kiwi talk for 'utility vehicle' or truck) for entertainment, but during lapses in conversation I find myself almost leaving my body, the work is so automatic, that I'll look up and realize I've just done six or seven vines without remembering them; I call it being in 'the lateral zone.'  George and I have quite a lot in common – music, movies, life-outlook, and as we spend nearly twelve hours a day together, his accent and kiwi phrasing has begun to settle in my head and on my tongue.  The sound “eh?” follows every third sentence (sounds just like the letter 'a' – slightly Canadian), instead of saying, 'blah blah blah – y'know/right/okay?” and it's started to slip out of my own mouth inadvertently.  This could be where it starts – the kiwi accent invasion.

I love, love, love, love feeling like a farmer.  The property is so huge we use trucks and 4-wheelers to get around, and when we go up to check on the irrigation tanks and other parts of the pastures, whoever is sitting shotgun has to get out and open and close all the gates.  I'm getting a wicked tan (at least on my arms and legs), and George and his family are doing their best to show me and teach me about all the different aspects of the work that goes on.  They've taken me up to see sheep and cattle being unloaded and then herded with dogs into the proper pasture.  We cruise around in the ute on the tops of the hills (no roads, just two-wheeled tracks worn into the grass and thistles), and every night we eat like healthy, red-blooded workers.  I don't remember when I've eaten so much red meat – lamb, steak, and all of primo quality.  True farm tucker.  There's a real problem with birds getting into the grapes when they ripen, so yesterday we hauled out the nets and spent the morning clipping them and securing them onto the rows that have begun to show veraisin (ripening).  George keeps his shotgun in the truck to pick off the mynas and starlings that sit boldly in the trees above the fields, waiting for us to leave so that they can descend and vandalize.  The talk around the dinner table often revolves around tractors, irrigation, upcoming stock trades, equipment, and animals.  We put in full, long days, but the work at the moment isn't particularly trying.  I'm not sure what I'll be put to work on next, when the tucking and laterals are done.

The end of the strawberry era went well.  Anne, Kathrin, Sabine and I got to spend some extra time together, cooking and watching movies and enjoying the fact that soon we wouldn't have to ever pick strawberries again.  On our last night in the shed in Meeanee, we returned to Te Mata Peak, this time by car, and with a full picnic dinner.  Laughing and eating, we sat looking out over the land to the west, and watched the sun grow redder and redder as it spread itself across the horizon and eventually set.  A lovely ending to three weeks of close companionship and fun.  That was a week ago, Saturday.  Sunday I had the pleasure of spending a morning with Elliot, my friend from Tauranga, Jasmine's brother.  He happened to be in the area, so he got in touch with me and took me out for a lovely breakfast at a restaurant near the ocean.  It's been ten weeks – such a short time – but the amount of connections I've made with people and places make me feel at home in this country, completely.  I have friends and almost-families from one end of the North Island to the other.  Spending time with Elliot, halfway across the island from where we met, was as easy and as natural as running up to Wolfeboro for coffee or lunch with a Kingswood friend.  This country, this island, once so large and formidable, has shrunk to a small, small world, but a cozy, wonderfully comfortable world.  That was Sunday, and later that afternoon I found my way to the Richmond's, and have been working and enjoying their company ever since.

Two nights ago, George and I went into a nearby town to see the film “The World's Fastest Indian,” another new NZ film, about Burt Munro (Munro!!), the kiwi who set the land speed record for motorcycles in 1967 at the Bonneville, Utah salt flats.  It stars Anthony Hopkins, and I'm not sure if it will come out in the States at all, but keep your eyes open for it on DVD in a month or so.  Phenomenal.  The tag line for the film is “Based on one hell of a true story.”  Absolutely wonderful – the acting, the cinematography, the story – all are just beautifully done.  One of those funny, moving, inspiring movies where you leave with a big, silly grin on your face because it's so damn good.  And for you all at home, it has the added benefit of giving you a great sense of what NZ and NZers are like.

The absolute highlight of the week with the Richmonds so far, though, was getting a ride in the helicopter that came to spray a neighbor's pumpkin fields with pest and herbicides.  OH, MAN.  The Richmonds have big, spring-fed water tanks on top of one of the hills.  The helicopters land, fill up the spraying tanks with water, and someone working from the ground mixes up brew after brew of chemicals and poisons to pour into the spraying tanks as well.  George and Derek, his father, brought me up to the top where the sprayers were working, and arranged for me to catch a ride with the pilot when he drove back to the hangar.  It was a small, bubble-type 'copter, with only two tiny seats behind the wide, curved glass.  In order for me to ride back, George had to take my weight in equipment in his ute, to maintain the balance and lift of the machine.  The ride itself: HOLY CRAP.  So cool!!  We lifted off from the hill, and dropped down into the valley, where the pilot took a couple passes over the pumpkin field as if he was spraying to give me a feel for the lift, stall, and turn maneuver that the helicopter was capable of doing on a dime.  I had to wear headphones with a microphone to communicate with Phillip, the pilot, but I'm afraid I didn't have anything intelligent to say – I was too busy laughing and exclaiming at the craziness of being up in the air in a giant bubble.  I could feel the lift and pull of the wind through the blades, and I could see all the way to the ocean.  I have got to learn to do this for myself.  Flying could become an addiction, I think. 

Tonight there will be a bbq and waterskiing down on the pond – one of the ponds on the farm is big enough for the family's jetboat and for skiing.  Family and friends from the area will come by to drink and eat and enjoy a summery Saturday evening in the country.  And then the week will roll on.  I've agreed to work for two weeks, and don't anticipate staying longer than that, simply because I want to keep moving, finish up my North Island tour, and then head south to hike while the weather's best, but if next week's anything like the last one, it's gonna be good.  All the best – I hope you are all doing well.

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