Thursday, October 23, 2014

Farm labor, the Doggie Committee, and Professor FluffyPants (France, pt 1)

Laura: We’ve been working at Lavande De Lherm for a Kiwi/Brit couple, Ian and Suzie, in the Lot Valley in southern France. The farm was incredibly charming. We’ve been helping them with post-harvest stuff:  pruning, weeding, planting new lavender bushes for future harvests, that sort of thing. 

Pulling up lavender varieties that do not produce good oil, to be replaced with better producers

Jerry: The Lot Valley is the home of AOC Cahors – aka O.G. Malbec. It’s also known for black walnuts and killer AOC Rocamadour goat cheese. Climate-wise, it alternates between chilly Altantic fogs of Bordeaux and the endless summer of Provence – which makes it work well for lavender. 

Ian and Suzie use a modified tea-leaf harvester. It sort of a giant lawnmower on an adjustable-height bicyle frame with big cloth bags to catch the lavender. The base part of a lavender plant has leathery, oily leaves, like rosemary, and then it sends up long stalks with the flowers. You set the harvester at a height to cut off the long stalks and leave the base intact, and push it up the rows.

I don't know if you've ever wondered how lavender was harvested, but now you know.

Laura: Mas Sarat is not a town so much as a collection of a couple houses, a couple miles from the slightly larger collection of houses called Lherm. The best part about the area is the animals. Not livestock, but pets. Because it’s so rural, they all roam freely. The dogs are smart and sizeable and the cats are actual hunters. There’s also a bunch of chickens wandering around. No one seems to know to whom they chickens belong, where the eggs are, or even how chickens can survive just being allowed to wander around like that. 

I dubbed this one Professor Fluffypants.

Jerry: The neighbourhood has formed what I call a Doggie Committee. Most canines around here are some form of herd-dog, all intelligent, well trained, and independent. They mayor’s dog, Quick, manages a herd of Rocamadour goats entirely by himself, without human aid. Dogs who do not have full-time herds in their care have self-organised to look out for the humans. Our corner is managed by Gaspar, a german shepherd belonging to our immediate neighbour, Antoine.  On any given morning we find in waiting in the middle of the road, tail a-wagging, supervising the daily routine.

The white kitten who lives with Gaspar is an honorary member of the Doggie Committee, assigned to a special high-up detail for places like trees and shed roofs that the other dogs have trouble monitoring. 

Gaspar and the White Kitten

Laura: Nuska, a black mutt puppy of about eight months lives with us in the mornings. She and Isla, a collie, belong to a Dutch expat family down the street, but when her evening humans are at work she comes to us, helping pull weeds and full-body frolicking over rows of lavender. Nuska has about as much energy as any living creature should be able to contain. To my question: “who wants the stick?” the answer is invariably Nuska. She is certain the entire world is just an extremely large collection of things to play with.

Only instead of a cup, it's rows of lavender plants.

Jerry: When we leave the property,  Gaspar jumps up at the corner to make sure we are escorted. Humans can’t be allowed to roam the streets by ourselves, of course – we might get lost or hit by a car. New humans like us are especially vulnerable and require the most supervision. Nuska arrives like a lighting bolt, barking until Isla is summoned up the hill. A little runty one, Sila, comes dashing out when we pass her house to join the cavalcade (canine-cade?) and soon we observe the white kitten is leaping along the path from treetop to dumpster to fieldstone fence as a sort of advance scout. By the time we arrive, we have a full escort of no less than five dogs plus the kitten.

They've even devised an elaborate teamwork system to cope with herding a species as contrary as humans. I’ve observed Gaspar hand custody of us off to a shaggy black and white dog that lives in Lherm. He had other business to attend to, and when it was obvious we were walking out of range, he circled us like a panicky nursemaid, barking until the shaggy one came running out to cover his disobedient charges. They sniffed and wagged and circled, and then Gaspar darted back to his other obligation. The shaggy one supervised us faithfully around Lherm for over an hour and walked us all the way back out to Gaspar’s corner. Not until Gaspar met him and resumed custody of us with some mutual tail wagging did the shaggy dog head back into town alone.

This is the act of going ANYWHERE around here.

Now, humans, sonny, ya gotta look out for.
They tell you never to chase cars but humans, I tell ya.
Humans will step in FRONT of cars.

Laura: Aside from the chickens and dogs, there is also an incredible amount of gigantic mosquitoes. I mean GIGANTIC - about the size of a SAUCER. Everywhere. They are also really dumb though, and fortunately do not seem to have formed a committee.

They appear to be trying to carry home balls of lint that are dragging them out of the air. Our working theory is that they are strong enough to escape from spiderwebs, but end up with bits of web on them that then catches other things. The result is a disturbing, drunken flight pattern in which they attempt to take off and fall slowly on your head. I am the goddamn Karate Kid of killing these things. 

What the hell kind of mosquito is big enough to wrap it's legs all the way around a shovel?

Laura: We've also been collecting walnuts off the ground. You don’t pick walnuts – the fruits fall from the trees on their own when they’re ready. You wait until the fruit rots off and gather the bare nuts. There’s a special stick with a rolling wire ball at the end, which somehow magically picks up walnuts but not leaves and debris. It’s a bit like how stuff always gets stuck inside a whisk. You roll it over the ground with a motion like mopping. Hard, round objects like walnuts push between the wires, which then pop back into place and keeps the walnuts in, while sticks and leaves fall out. You spread the nuts on wire racks and let them dry thoroughly for a couple weeks, et voila.

Walnut gathering is a pleasant way to pass the time. I listen to David Bowie or the Pixies while I do it.

Shockingly clever.

Jerry: Speaking of music – the Big Jambox my brother gave me last Christmas is the most used object of this trip. It’s a small rechargeable Bluetooth speaker that allows us to bring a sound system anywhere, including while working in fields or orchards. If anyone is ever planning to work as oddly-first-world transient agricultural labour, I highly recommend one.

That’s the basic outline of how we’ve been living this past month. In the next two instalments we’ll cover the awesome food and booze we’ve been consuming, Cro-Magnon cave paintings and getting drunk with the mayor.

1 comment:

  1. I am owned by a herding dog. I understand exactly how hard they work to keep their two legged charges safe.