March 1990

 
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Spring Work

on the Bluff

by

Shirley McNulty

Winters on the bluff were often cold. One especially bitter night caused a remark—later repeated throughout the neighborhood—by a young boy in school, "Eee, but it was cold last night. Grandma's pot froze over, right under her bed!"

In the winter when the sap in the grape canes had gone down to the roots, it was time to begin the work of producing the next crop of grapes. By this time the snow was often deep in the vineyard and the men needed their "felts and rubbers." These were almost knee-high leggings made of felt so thick that they stood alone to be stepped into. Over these were worn high-buckled rubber boots. Then on with the heaviest of overalls, sweaters, wool-lined coats, fur-lined caps and gloves. There would be hours of standing or tramping in deep snow and freezing cold, with pneumonia always a threat.

Trimming was the first job of the new season; it was an art learned early or never. At each vine along the row of grapes the trimmer stood momentarily before the maze of tangled canes, searching for the four which would be the nucleus of the new vine. Then clip, clip, clip with heavy steel shears he cut the unwanted branches, leaving two longer canes to go up and over the top wire and two shorter ones to stretch along the middle wire. These four canes would produce the year's crop.

A decision had to be made of the age and condition of the vine itself. If judged worthy of another year, a short cane on the trunk would be trimmed but saved for future replacement. If the main vine were considered too old, the sharp saw carried on a belt around the trimmer's waist would be used to cut off the vine above this shoot. A moment's work and a young vine would replace the old. Then on to the next vine.

It was a slow and monotonous job that lasted for days and weeks. Small wonder that my uncles and brothers stumbled sleepily to bed shortly after supper.

The end of trimming brought the hated task of "pulling brush". This meant tearing loose the unwanted canes from the trellis wires where they had been fastened the spring before and had intertwined securely. Pulling brush was arm wearying and exhausting. Not the least was the pain when a slender cane tore loose unexpectedly and slapped one across the face in zero cold.

The loosened brush was laid between the rows to expedite the next labor, taking out brush. This was work a horse could help a man do. The horse would plod the length of a row pulling by a chain a twelve-foot-long pole, guided by a man to gather the long strands of old vine. When they had moved beyond the rows, the driver slapped the horse on its rump with the reins to warn that he would release the pole and the horse should step aside not to be hit by the pole flying over the top of the dropped pile of brush.

In the evenings of early spring, the hillsides across the lake were dotted with countless bonfires as the piles of brush were burned.

The next operation was done before the ground thawed. Out came the stone boat, last used in the harvest, now with a platform added on which a man stood armed with a heavy maul. Below him in the open body were piled six-foot posts hand-sharpened into rough points.

The man on the ground carried a hammer and a carpenter's apron filled with staples. He walked from post to post and rocked each post to make sure it had not rotted in the ground. If firm, his only task was to supply any missing staples to hold the wires. But if the post was feeble, out came the old staples, and then the rotted post. It was thrown onto the stoneboat beneath the platform. On top stood the other man with the maul ready to drive a replacement post into the old hole. When it was solidly in place the wires were fastened to it with staples. The rotted-off posts were taken back to the house and sawed into firewood to use in the stoves.

For the next job a team of horses and the big bobsled were required. All winter the pile of manure outside the stable door had been steadily growing higher. I suppose it was another bequest from our English background, but ours was the only barnyard on Bluff Point to be laid with cobblestone—shades of English novels where the wheels still rattle over cobblestones.

The manure was pitched from the pile onto the sled and drawn to the vineyard where a generous forkful was placed by each vine. This was the only fertilizer the grapes received.

The last step of manure spreading was the most hated. The boards on the back of the outhouse were pried off and the pit hurriedly emptied. The cleanings were taken to the vineyard farthest from the house and spread. The pit was sprinkled with lime and the boards replaced for another year.

Now came work in the vineyard that women took part in, tying the vines. Tiers carried bundles of willow shoots on their back in a sling that tightened on the remaining bundle as willows were removed. With a special knife in one hand, the tier pulled one end of the willow from the pack and tied the center grape stem firmly. If the trimmers had left a short cane coming from the ground, it was tied with a willow to the bottom wire to grow into a new vine.

Normally the two longer canes were tied over and along the top wire and the shorter canes were tied left and right along the lower wire.

During the year a special variety of short, slender willows grew by brooks and in marshes. They were either cut or bought from people who supplied them.

When mother and I worked, we had time to chat. At eleven-thirty mother would leave to get dinner. As she walked down the row toward the house she would gather up her apron and fill it with tender dandelions. Fried with bacon, these would be a main part of lunch, taking the place of other spring greens.

A spring day might turn wintery, but the work went on. Some women were allergic to willow sap, and tied with fingers cracked and bleeding. One could always count on a backache by nightfall from the weight of the willows.

A little later in the season the horses were harnessed to plow between the rows. Back and forth they plodded, down the middle, then one side and then the other side. It was left to our clever Jerry alone to tug the wheel hoe, a large replica of the hand hoe. It needed to be skillfully guided in and out between vines and posts. The horse needed to be sensitive to the slightest signal that the hoe might be snagged on a vine or a post and stop before doing any damage. Jerry was careful and clever, he was a perfect vineyard horse, envied by the neighborhood.

He also seemed to know exactly when the clock read eleven-thirty and at that moment became a different horse. Woe unto you if he were forced to go around an endpost and down another row. He would swerve from side to side and keep going snag or no snag.

The only thing to do was unfasten his traces. He would head for the barn at a fast walk, pause for a long drink at the barn pump, whinny a greeting to Daisy in the next stall, dip his nose into his grain or begin chewing hay. At one o'clock he would come out, a reformed character, and work perfectly until five o'clock when the rebellion would start anew. My brothers didn't mind, they had chores to do then.

Daisy was slightly smaller and she was a sponger. She had a lame shoulder from catching a foot in a manger and had learned to work half a step behind Jerry in harness so that his traces would be taut before hers. This meant that he would always perform part of her work along with his own. This he did sweetly and gladly, never giving her a reminding nip in the neck as a lesser horse would have done.

The other female in Jerry's heart was my mother. Out of greed more than jealousy, Daisy was not above taking advantage of his fondness. Occasionally when they were loose in the barnyard Daisy would look over the gate and see mother out in the yard. Immediately, a whinny would go out for Jerry. At once he would come on a trot.

"Yes, Madam, I am at your service. What may I do for you?"

"I wish this gate to be opened at once."

"Certainly, Madam. Your wish is my command. Pray step to one side."

Then would come the breaking of nails, chains, and boards as Pegasus, in the form of Jerry, leaned his weight against the gate. Then they would amiably jog side by side down the short lane that led to the kitchen door. A little whinnying and stamping of hooves would bring out a broadly smiling mother with a thick slice of bread generously sprinkled with sugar for each of the culprits. Then would follow a few minutes of endearments—how smart they were, how brave, how clever, all accepted with nods of the heads, low whickers of approval, and streams of sugar water.

Then they could be turned around, given a pat on their ample rears and sent back to the barn. On the way an irate brother was repairing the gate. No amount of whinnying and shoulder nudging could convince him that it was necessary to visit the "Missus" once in a while, so the subject would be dropped.

1990, Shirley McNulty
 
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