alex jeffries

While the body works, the mind wanders

Published (updated: ) in france, letters from near and far.

It is 6am and we are in the vineyards, the sun a pastel orange smudge on the horizon and the reason we have been coming hours earlier than the previous week. The forecast for the afternoon says 37, and 40 for the day after (100-ish in Fahrenheit), and those are unpleasant temperatures for tending vines. To squeeze in the work, we start at dawn and plow forward. The day’s task has three stages, all with the goal of pulling the plants high-and-tight so there is room in each row for the tractors to come through, uproot the weeds, and leave the grape vines in relative peace so they can go on their merry grape-bearing ways.


While the body works, the mind wanders. The hot earth, the breeze through the fields, the water breaks, it’s all too reminiscent of teenaged summers in Sacramento. Breezes that broke the triple-digit temperatures during weeklong soccer camps and the nighttime practices, of never being quite clean during a cross-country camp because we had just run or or were going to barbecue or go run again or we had finished the day’s second run and it was time to sabotage the girls’ tent so really why get clean, of walking to my car after a practice at my junior high to find she’d left me a note and an orange ribbon and though things were still early they were exciting, of not letting the temperature or time of day decide when I could or would run (I suppose I haven’t changed much in 15 years, because I went for a run here one afternoon at 38 degrees before doing the maths and realizing that’s 100…).


It is 8am, and we have moved on to another grouping of vines, now Malbec. Today’s task has three parts. First, we lower the iron guide wires on either side of the plant, each in various stages of rusting or nearing completely rusted or so rusted that they break and need to be swapped out after thirty years of service, to the ground which then allows us to do the second step and adjust the wires to remove some slack and get on to the very satisfying third step which involves pulling the wires back up, clipping them together, and insuring the plants and all the various tendrils are gathered together for that cozy family photo and then we get to the end of the row and look back and it is clear and it feels good.

From chaos to order. Take that, messy bedrooms of my youth. Take that, entropy. Take that, universe.

Then we do it again. And again. They have 10 hectares, so there will be a couple of weeks of agains.


Occasionally, we chat in French. From my offering of stumps as gifts to Madame Dusite, to conferring on strategies to take on the gnats, it breaks up the morning. Then I study in the afternoon, take a mid-afternoon break to scheme for the summer’s end in Spanish, and slip back into butchering French for dinner with Yohann and Anne-Cecile. In between pouring them their own rosé and trying (and, perhaps, failing) to describe how television ratings work in America, it occurs to me I have, with varying levels of intentionality, disconnected from home.

As far as English goes, I have this letter… and regular visits to The Ringer because NBA free agency is upon us and of the two hats I brought to France, one is from a Northern California winery and the other is my Pride-themed Sacramento Kings hat, and not that I expect a big play in free agency for the team with the longest playoff drought in the league but one never knows (plus there are several insufferable Lakers fans in my life and I need the summer to effectively plan my retorts to their offseason lunacy).

And as far as home goes, I expected a certain amount of letting go, as I put my 916 number on hold. But then after a week here, I did the same for social media. More than anything else, it’s my own problem (What am I using it for? Why am I sharing? Who even cares? Why does it matter who cares?), as I am not unlike a horse who needs blinders to focus on the race. Unstructured Free Time, Languid Afternoons and Social Media combine for a tasty cocktail, but I think this summer is just for wine.

(And cheese.)


It is 10am, and all of the battles we are fighting here in the Loire Valley, the lovely, castle-infested, sweltering garden of France, could be solved with pesticides (and that we aren’t using them is more or less The Point of an organic farm, and I am learning that more through bug bites and blisters than didactic rants about the essence of the earth — mostly, they talk about the weather for the afternoon, with occasional jokes about Monsanto). That is to say, instead of holding my breath while walking through a cloud of gnats to keep them out of my nose, instead of blinking furiously to keep them out of my sensitive, city-slicker eyes, they could just be… gone.

Instead of our shared observing that around this time of day there seems to be an insect changing of the guards, as the aimless little ones subside and the big ones who bite (and bite hard!) take over the human-pestering shift, and instead of counting how many bites I get the second I take off my shirt, they could just be… gone.

Instead of all the work that goes into making it easier for the tractor to remove the weeds, those weeds, too, could just be… gone.

This is just to say that many of the things we categorically reject (be it Democrats, Republicans, the Twilight movies, or pesticides) have benefits and positives, and it is worth understanding why farmers might, after decades of bending over to pull weeds while fending off bitey, noisy, nasty bugs, consider something else. I don’t have an answer other than I’ve worked at two organic vineyards, am heading to an organic goat farm, and potentially another farm after that, so I hope to better understand at least this perspective.


It is noon, and we have put in enough work for the day, both in the sense of exaggerating our farmer’s tans and in tending to the vines. We have handled well over one and half hectares of the ten or so that they use to produce 45,000 bottles of wine a year, and it is with those numbers in mind I decide I have earned a third slice of bread at lunch.

We are in the van riding back together. I am in the back, with the spool of fresh iron wire, with the rusted connecting pieces, with the tools. We push up on the back vent, allowing in a breeze and a view of the hot air balloons surveying the vineyards. There’s talk about the weather (hot, still hot, perhaps less hot).

With a bump, we leave the gravel path and the vines for the day.