The Snow Geese return in December.
Below them is a vastness of white and brown, the green is gone and the earth’s curvature is visible on the horizon. The earth is etched with lines that stretch and meander through a quilted landscape interspersed with patches of grey and reflected light. But from this vantage point most of this is insignificant and the massive bodies of water are all they see.
Far below them and distant miles away, a middle aged man, sitting in an office, surrounded by vineyards overlooking one of these bodies of water, lurches and gasps through the barren landscape of his imagination, struggling for the words, the images and the metaphors to describe these travelers from another distant, barren landscape. He needs the words to capture these travelers, to reach them, to hold them and caress them. He needs the words to unlock the secret code, so he can finally enter, so he can immerse himself briefly, in their story, in order to better reveal his own.
The earth is flatter now as they descend, brick and steel and glass extrude from the patches of grey. The etched lines grow shorter and wider connecting these grey islands, and one of these bodies of water now becomes a place of rest.
In mid December in his office, he hears them high above, he leaves his desk, with the responsibilities and his struggles piled high and rushes to the door and looks to the sky. The snow geese have returned.
A Blue Cauldron
As winters go, this was a winter. To call it a winter of discontent does not quite fully describe its malevolence. I suppose also that it is an act of optimism on my part to shuttle it off into the past tense, because while it was a winter, as of the first days of March with the single digit temperatures and feet of snow, winter still ‘is’ and its continued existence is an affliction to my own. Enough already, somebody put a stake in this bastard.
If you live outside of upstate NY and care to visit Prejean Winery in winter, you might hold the notion that to travel here, you first head north on Route 87 or 81 and just north of Scranton or Kingston, you reach that foreboding X on the map. That demarcation is the point beyond which, you assume is best described as “BEYOND THE WALL” where White Walkers and Wildings prowl. Well we certainly have our share of prowling, Wilding-esque types and plenty of pale, blue eyed ones, (melanin can be hard to come by in these parts) but it may surprise you to know that on more than one occasion this winter, I witnessed a rare occurrence, I looked upon Seneca Lake and discovered ice.
I have seen the north end of Seneca, near Geneva, partly freeze though only rarely and maybe once a winter, but this winter the lake battled mightily against the ice. Islands of ice would form, the channels and rivulets would grow narrower and as the day warmed these ice flows would dissolve back into formlessness, consumed in a cobalt blue cauldron. On one occasion this winter, ice formed from the Dresden shore east to the navy barge. That is a first for me. As much as things felt like we had gone “north of the wall” this winter though, things could have been worse, if not for the lakes.
Seneca Lake on a Frigid morning
There were mornings though, anxiety filled mornings for a grape grower, when Seneca was hidden beneath an impenetrable mist. From the distance, what looked like phantoms and wraiths glided through the vapor, barely recognizable until a flutter of wings or a splash revealed them. As foreboding and eerie as this sounds, that mist, that vapor is really a warm, protective breath, exhaled from the depths and one reason why these vineyards are here. Relative to the surrounding air, Seneca Lake is a four trillion gallon heat sink. But as much protection as Seneca gave, the winter still packed a punch.
Degrees of Loss
Grapevines are tolerant of cold weather but extreme cold can take a toll on a vineyard and while a winter rarely kills our grapevines, it can be quite masterful at making them unproductive. Thermometers are accurate enough if your only need is dressing for the weather but the border between cold and damaging cold in a vineyard is a finely honed edge; a few hours of arctic cold reaching across this boundary might prove that the fortification provided by eons of natural selection and 7000 years of grape breeding is not boundary enough. Or is it? Is this borderline we call cold hardiness, our measurement, an agricultural tool like a plow blade or a pruning knife?
The most accurate way(and it is imprecise at best) of determining the extent of bud damage in a vineyard is to check buds. We can look at a grape bud and see whether it is alive or dead and prune accordingly. This is a simple but time consuming process. A representative number of canes are gathered from a vineyard and the buds are cut horizontally across. If the bud is green it is alive and if brown it is dead. The image below shows what a live Riesling bud looks like. The image below this one,
A live primary bud on a Riesling cane.
A dead primary bud and a live secondary bud.
shows a dead primary bud next to a live secondary bud – built in redundancy. Grapevines, like so many other species, have evolved traits that provide them with the means to accomplish the main thing they wish to accomplish, continued existence. Not only are there primary and secondary buds, there is also a tertiary bud as a final backup. A grapevine has three chances per bud at survival and there are hundreds of buds per vine. If only a few buds survive a harsh winter, that grapevine could live another season.
Is this ideal for the grape grower or winemaker? Of course not. But grapevines could care less. A grapevine whether it is Riesling or Chardonnay or Merlot or Cabernet Franc does not care whether it is super ripe, whether the sugar and acid are in balance or whether the tannins in its fruit are supple. This grapevine wants its fruit ripe enough and tempting enough for a bird or other animal to consume it and carry its genetic message through time. Our pursuits are just that and not a grapevine’s concern.
An Ancient Text
What is it in the genome that drives any of these pursuits? What of snow geese? On St. Patrick’s Day of this year, on my way home, as I reached the top of City Hill, once again I saw that the Snow Geese had returned. Their winter southern sojourn was over and they were returning home to the Arctic, where they will breed and those offspring will then carry their genetic message through time. How many millennia have these birds followed this path?
Our vineyards survived the winter though not without damage, but I think that we can manage what the winter left us. We have managed the aftermath of bad winters before and while it makes our job more difficult we are resourceful and resilient, much like the returning geese and the vines growing in our fields.
Resilience is not the only trait we share though. We are all connected to these grape vines through our own genome, sharing about a quarter of the very same genes. We share a large amount of our genome with Snow Geese, as well as every other species. So much of what we perceive of these other species, we perceive as instinct, as a response guided and formed by the interaction between the environment and this genetic code within each and every cell. What guides our pursuits? How much of our behavior is influenced or formed by our genome, some or all? How much of what we do is a response to these strings of chemicals? Might each of us just be an avatar for this genetic code, a vessel made to carry this message over the expanse of time? I do not know, this is far beyond my training and education. But I think it is fascinating that we share so much with everything surrounding us, a commonality with every species that exists here and now on the earth and all that have preceded us.
We are all of us braided and woven together by an ancient strand of crystals.
The Eternal Return
Like an ancient time piece the snow geese return with the Spring. The Winter chased them south and now its receding draws them back home. They are always just passing through the Finger Lakes as their ancestors have and what have they witnessed? Did they see the glaciers receding and the mammoth’s last wanderings? Did they see the Iroquois gathered in their villages and did they flee the cannon fire that followed the Europeans? Did they see the early settlers clearing forest and planting crops or see the Irish immigrants building the Erie Canal? Did they hear the men mining salt or flee the steam boats chugging up Seneca? Did they see Harriet Tubman under “the midnight sky and silent stars” as she led slaves to freedom? Did they see the arrival of mighty companies like Kodak and American Can and did they see them go? Do they see us toiling in the vineyards?
Snow Geese landing near Prejean Winery.
Buildings of glass and steel silently withdraw into patches of grey again as they ascend. I rush to the door with my camera and as I open the door of Prejean Winery, they turn away from that slight break in the light. I guess they have learned to be wary of us and that is why they stay so far above. Perhaps though, from that altitude and that vantage point, they see us also recede back into those patches of grey and see us as who we are, a very small part of vast, ancient landscape.