Welcome, dear readers, to another month of taking metta off the meditation cushion and out into the world.
Last month’s article, Metta Corners the Market, shared the challenges of bringing the wine and cider produced in previous years at the small family-run vineyard where I’m still volunteering to various markets. In October, however, the gears shifted once more back to 2022 and harvesting this year’s apples, pears, and grapes.
I innocently expected to be wrapping up my summer of volunteering on organic farms with a few weeks of snipping grapevines and picking fruit, never dreaming that metta had a harvest of its own up its sleeve.
Our host took regular samples to check the sugar levels for each of the six grape varieties growing in their vineyard. Once one was sweet enough to ferment its sugars into the eleven or more per cent alcohol needed to be considered wine, we checked the weather forecast for the next dry day and got ready to pick.
An email alert went out to all the neighbors, and we prepared enough fruit crates, wheelbarrows, oiled snips, and dolavs—large plastic pallet boxes—to transport the fresh grapes on a trailer to the winemaker.
The first day of what would turn into a three-week marathon, we started first thing placing crates every ten meters or so down a row so pickers could keep filling them either side without stopping. Someone else would then wheelbarrow full fruit crates up to the trailer and tip them into the dolavs.
After all the ups and downs our host had experienced this summer, it was heartening to see just how many people turned up to help. Nearly twenty of us worked our way up and down the rows, trying to snip only bunches and avoid fingers.
Whenever it was my turn to barrow full crates to the dolavs, it was lovely to observe how quickly initial picking partners’ small talk at the start of a row deepened to heart-to-hearts by the end of a row, quite literally through the grapevines—not unlike Catholic confession. Out poured stories of nervous breakdowns and recent bereavements and family updates and uncertainties about the future.
And then, like a consummate wedding-seating planner, our host would swap everyone around for the next row. Even everyone’s dogs pitched in by hoovering up any dropped fruit, only to have juice-matted fur and bellyaches later that evening as their own personal fermentation process got underway.
We delivered some three tonnes of grapes to the winemaker’s that first day, a better yield than the vineyard had had in some sixteen years thanks to this summer’s heatwave. And, after a long hot shower to wash off the day’s sweat and juice, I sank gratefully into bed.
As we waited for the next grape variety sweeten enough to pick on a dry day, we harvested apples (for cider) and pears (for cider and perry). Picking our way through the fruit orchard proved as unstraightforward as picking in the vineyard was linear. We would first pick up any unrotten windfall beneath any fruiting trees, then spread out tarpaulins, “pank” ripe fruit off any branches we couldn’t reach, shake the tree, and then gather up all that came down. Any fruit too high to reach was left for the birds to enjoy with the approach of winter.
Those first few days in the orchard were a personal meditation on every imaginable shape, size, smell, taste, texture, and color of fruit. Some were small and pale and rough and tart, others big and bright and smooth and juicy. Surrounded by such amazing diversity and golden autumn sunshine, I couldn’t help humming a favorite childhood song as I filled crates:
Oh, the earth is good to me,
And so I thank the earth,
For giving me the things I need;
The sun and the rain and the apple seed.
The earth is good to me.
For every seed I sow,
An apple tree shall grow.
And there will be apples there,
Enough for the whole wide world to share.
It was inspired by Johnny Appleseed, an American pioneer nurseryman and folk hero who introduced apple trees and Christianity to large parts of the US and Canada in the early 1800s. During his lifetime wandering barefoot and wearing his cooking pot for a hat, he planted wild—rather than grafted—apple varieties over an estimated 1200 acres. As wild varieties are usually only good for cider-making rather than eating, Michael Pollan mused in his book Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (Random House 2002), “Really, what Johnny Appleseed was doing and the reason he was welcome in every cabin in Ohio and Indiana was he was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. He was our American Dionysus.”
But my own barefoot days in my new-found Eden came to an abrupt end when a new volunteer arrived last-minute. After all the highs and lows of this summer volunteering alongside more “takers” than “givers” as described in previous articles, I was initially excited to welcome a cider-enthusiast days before we were due to start pressing all the apples we’d picked.
He seemed harmless enough their first morning in the orchard. After lunch, he already seemed like a different person—and by dinner with our host family that evening, a different person yet again. In hindsight, I now realize I was witnessing a serpent shed its skin several times daily. At the time, however, my only clue that something was amiss in my surroundings was that I stopped sleeping.
I innocently put my insomnia down to the full moon, and meditated through my sleepless nights.
Making cider begins by shoveling apples out of the dolavs and into a shallow water bath to wash off any dirt and leaves. An elevator then scoops them up to be churned through a “scratter.” The pulp is then pressed by hand into square frames, wrapped in cheesecloth, and the resulting “cheeses” stacked between wooden frames for the hydraulic press to squash and extract any juice. This juice then gets pumped into storage vats for fermenting, and the remaining pomace is used as compost for next year’s fruit trees or grape vines.
It’s a noisy, sticky, and messy process, but essentially linear once you get the hang of it. What worried me was how unstraighforward it all felt—everything seemed off kilter and everyone seemed at odds. Maybe my lack of sleep was simply catching up with me? I pressed past my doubts and carried on helping where I could.
My first clue as to the source of the unease was when the local vintner who helped a few days a week stopped by to check on progress. A normally placid soul, he confided to me privately that after only ten minutes of meeting the new volunteer he had felt the urge to slap him and had already caught him telling several lies! He then teased that I was headed straight to nirvana after the summer I’d survived.
As I watched the hydraulic press squeeze the juice out of the latest stack of apple pulp cheeses, dot after dot connected as to why I was feeling so uneasy and everyone around us was getting triggered—our cider-enthusiast also loved brewing trouble.
The Dharma’s timing was impeccable, as minutes later a new volunteer appeared. I later discovered that this new volunteer is a fellow meditator.
In the days that followed, I walked an interesting daily tightrope of living and working alongside both the most and least helpful volunteer I’d encountered this summer. It took three days for my new ally to connect the same dots I had about the bad apple in our midst, and together we tag-teamed the remaining harvest, pressing, and clean-up in mutual equanimity as every button possible in the people around us was “pressed.”
The day after we picked the last grape variety and pressure-washed all the equipment for next year’s harvest, the heavens opened with a downpour of Biblical proportions to wash away the rest—our cider-enthusiast departed to stir up trouble elsewhere, and we had a good laugh over coffee at how sitting out any game-playing meant we’d ultimately won.
But, most importantly, we finally got a full night’s sleep worthy of nirvana.
And so, dear readers, whatever may be pressing you to your absolute limits these days or causing you sleepless nights, please remember to be as kind to yourself no matter how noisy, messy, or sticky the process gets. The Dharma and Dionysus may well be mixing you a surprise drink with an unexpected equanimous helpmeet when you return to Eden.
Or, to metta-morphose Miranda Lambert’s hit song “It All Comes Out in the Wash:”
Every little stain,
every little heartbreak,
no matter how messy it got
You take the sin and the men,
and you throw ’em all in,
and let metta put that sucker on spin
And the laundry list goes like this:
every teardrop, every white lie,
every dirty cotton sheet, let it line dry,
all the mistakes, all the wild streaks,
that’s why the good Lord made bleach
The Real Person Behind the Legend of Johnny Appleseed (Owlcation)
The Botany of Desire (Michael Pollan)
Miranda Lambert – It All Comes Out in the Wash (Story Behind the Song) (YouTube)
The history and origins of cider (Great British Chefs)
4 Types of Toxic People to Avoid | Buddhism In English (YouTube)
Related features from BDG
Sowing the Seeds of Light and Life, Harvesting the Fruit of Rebirth
Acceptance and Autumn Leaves
Metta’s Fuller Circles
Once Upon a Time – Storytelling as a Means of Healing and Social Reconnection