It is my hope that putting this voice out into our world has value, not only for me, but for others, as well. I admit to sometimes entertaining dreams of it going viral, of infecting the world with my vision. But most of the time I am content to be motivated by Gandhi's assertion: whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Land, life, walls & wine

'It is the ferment of love that completes the wine' - Rumi

The first thing I notice about Appelsdrift are the holes. The second thing is the wall. But it is the holes, long lines of them, curving across the undulating landscape, that bring me here.

I notice them first as I approach along the winding tar road between the Akkedisberg pass and the village of Napier. Where this road reaches its highest point, is the turn off to Appelsdrift farm. From there a gravel road meanders upwards, towards the mountains.
I like to sense a landscape as I enter it, especially the first time, and I pause as I reach a crest to take it in. From here the road descends again, down into the farm. The house lies in a small hidden valley at the meeting point of shale and sandstone, the meeting of the undulating agricultural lands to the north and the fynbos covered mountain slopes to the south. The holes lie before me, nine hundred of them, patterning the wheat lands. The mountain slopes lie behind me. There is probably a wind and a coolness to the air despite the time of year, summer, the middle of harvest. As I take in the full circle of the place, it includes the wall. It enters at the edge of consciousness. Like a scratch on a record, a slight inconsistency, it is a curious question mark on my sense of the place.

Appelsdrift is the Jack's family farm, fairly recently acquired but earmarked to become the home of Flagstone Wines, its primary connection to the earth. The wheat lands patterned with profile holes are lands from which they want to make wine.
These holes will occupy me for many days over several visits, walking the long lines, back and forth. I am a soil scientist. It is my job to look beneath the surface. As I pick at the sides of each profile hole with a geological hammer and rub soil between my fingers, I read the profile to interpret its potential relationship with the vine.

The colours and characteristics of the different soil horizons tell me a story of the land, a story of the soil's genesis, of how the natural forces have interacted over ages to produce, from the solid rock that it once was, this exact sequence of horizons with these exact characteristics and chemical composition. How nothing more than the rain's moisture has created from the inhospitable, bare, beautiful rock, a cradle of life, a nurturing place on which so much depends, in which all terrestrial life, including us, is rooted.

Appelsdrift is part of an ongoing geological history that it shares with the rest of the Cape Winelands, at the tip of the African continent. It is a long and dramatic history of shifting continents and the building and destruction of mountain ranges. We think of the earth as stable, as constant but it is not. Its surface is never still. Like the ocean it is always moving, but to a different, slower rhythm. And like the ocean there are times when it is tranquil and times when it is stormy.
The mountains of Southern Africa have been worn down many times and rebuilt. The Akkedisberg, Lizzard Mountain, behind Appelsdrift, and the other fold mountains of the Cape Winelands were born around 250 million years ago, offspring of the mountains that preceded them. They were born in a land known as Gondwana, a super-continent comprising the present day Africa, South America, Antarctica, India, Madagascar and Australia, all joined. Appelsdrift's genetic material is pure Cape, sediments of the Cape Supergroup deposited from 450 million years ago, on the edge of an inland sea. Particles of sand, silt and clay, the degradation products of our mountain's predecessors, accumulated for a period of 100 million years to form a deposit 4 km thick. The hard quartzites that form the bastion of Table Mountain and others were laid down first, covered by layers of shale and sandstone. During this time Gondwanaland, afloat on the tectonic surface of the earth, toured south to cross the pole.
Then, 250 million years ago, during a geological event known as the Cape Orogeny, the sediments were lifted, buckled and bent to form mountain heights many times those of today. Like ebb of ocean tides follows flow, mountain building is followed by wearing down. In this continuing cycle, the particles of the next generation of mountains are now being gathered.  

During their long lifetime, the Cape's mountains have witnessed the instability and break up of their homeland, Gondwana. By 135 million years ago the Atlantic Ocean pushed its way between South Africa and South America and the continents began their drift apart. The originally horizontal deposits were re-arranged by tilting and faulting so that now at Applesdrift, the younger shales lie beside the older sandstones.

For the last 65 million years Southern Africa has been calm and its surface has moved gently. The swell of the Great Escarpment has drifted slowly inland - a few kilometres since the dinosaurs. The mountains are now lower. This period contains the story of the soil, the expression of the geological genes that creates individuals. It is this period that interests me most. It is the individuation in this often overlooked process that really matters to the wine, for this is the place of relationship between land and life.

It is because the Cape's story of ongoing soil formation has endured so long that, of wineland soils, our's are the most ancient on earth. Our vines are rooted in antiquity. Our soils have witnessed many changing climates, the rise and fall of sea levels, the ongoing evolution of life and the birth of the fynbos 5 million years ago.
Soil mapping on Appelsdrift is a challenge. Almost every hole varies in significant ways from the previous one. Something about this meeting place of sandstone and shale, this place of connection, has encouraged diversity to flourish. The soils that I am mapping have developed in 400 million year old shale sediments and yet they reflect a balance at the cutting edge of this landscape's evolution. The shales weather, continually. They are dissolved and recreated as soil horizons. The land is lowered. Quartzitic fragments that resist the ravages of time, accumulate at the stony surface in this slow progression downwards.
Soil is about the relationship between earth and sky, between depth and surface, between internal and external. It is the meeting place of opposites, the balanced centre in which they are reconciled, around which the cycles of life revolve.
During my work there, Appelsdrift becomes more than just another farm and job. It becomes the view, the mountains, the silence, the wind, the open space, the company around the dinner table. Being there challenges my ideas, opens me to possibilities. After days spent walking the long lines of profile holes and evenings spent around bottles of Flagstone wine, I began to make connections. Beauty is important, but not only the beauty of surfaces, but also the beauty of relationship and depth. I think about roots, that roots reflect in the canopy. Inward and outward are always mirrors of one another.
I am inspired to ponder both soil and wine, the relationship between them, the importance of each. I develop a sense that there is greater depth, that the meaning of wine is not only a marketing creation, that our society's surface understandings of the relationships between soil and wine, and between wine and us, are mostly inadequate. It reinforces my conviction that it is imperative that we look beneath the surface - to the dark and dirty, beautiful complexity of what lies below.
I question whether our analytical thinking within the hegemony of scientific materialism is giving us all the answers. Does it reach the required depths? Shallow soils make me think of depth in different dimensions. I ask what is the meaning of good terroir? What is good wine? What is beauty?
Each authentic wine is an individual. The concept of terroir is that the specific growing environment of the wine, its ground of origin, imparts on it a uniqueness that can be identified. Through the importance attributed to terroir, wine, alone as agricultural produce, particularly in a globalised market, can retain an authentic connection to land. By interacting with it can we benefit from that connection, especially when we are mindful in savouring wine's beauty and appreciating its complexity?
Plant scientists talk about a soil-plant-atmosphere continuum when describing evapo-transpiration, that part of the water cycle where plants use water from the soil and feed it to the skies. Similarly I like to think of a soil-wine-person continuum, a part of a cycle of life that connects us to land. I suggest a connection to those ever-revolving cycles, from which modernity has become disconnected, cycles that range from mountain building and erosion to budburst and harvest.
We have a long history of an intense and passionate relationship with wine. It carries weight and meaning. It was the first of Christ's miracles. I believe that its importance for us is not only due to the surface beauty of taste but to the deeper possibility of connection. Now more than ever we have need of its meaning. In a society dependent on caffeine and its productivity we need the balance of wine to help connect us to land, to what is important, to our ground of being.
When we are rooted in this ground we can express our terroir of connectedness. Such expression has value in our world. Without connection, authenticity is lost. Without connection there is a danger that wine, land and life all become commodities.
I always enjoy returning to Appelsdrift, and it has become a welcome ritual that I crest that highpoint on the gravel road, and pause. I take in the rolling hills, the land that I now know better, and the mountain. I am drawn to the wall.My curiosity about it is increased when I learn that its history and purpose are unknown, that it possibly predates colonisation. When I finish the soil investigation, I finally visit it.

The wall is of stone, the hard, white Table Mountain quartzites that are the bones of this land. A meter and a half high and half a meter thick, it runs up the mountain slopes, steeply in places, for several hundred meters. I think of Robert Frost's Mending Wall. No neighbours meet each year to walk this wall and mend it. There is no point. It serves no purpose. And so gravity and time have left their mark. But a kind of equilibrium has been reached. Those stones most likely to, have fallen. They lie scattered to each side, leaving the rest more secure.
I walk the wall from beginning to end. Inexplicably, as it has begun, it ends, abruptly. It confounds any sense of usefulness. For what purpose was it built this way? But then I consider that nothing about the way I feel as I ride there is about usefulness. Nothing about my walk along the wall to ponder its end, the pauses to take in the view, the steady gain in height, is useful. It is not chargeable time. And yet the whole experience creates within me an elation.
I think of a friend's stone sculptures, which are solid, obvious, heavy and yet, in their simplicity, pose profound questions. For me the wall, in its stone beauty, does the same. It suggests something beyond commodity. Walls are usually about separation. That is what makes them useful. Perhaps this one, though, is about connection.
I imagine a nightmarish future evolution for humanity. A society of incredible technological prowess and economic efficiency, entirely disconnected from land. Their historians, anthropologists and marketers are confounded when they look back at previous civilisations like ours. If it was nutritionally unnecessary and could easily be replaced by more efficient products, why did we go to so much effort to make wine?

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