Sandhill Cranes and Wine


Three Sandhill cranes landed, framed by the fading grey oak of the pasture fence. The cranes moved slowly across the paddock out beyond the grape arbor, and loomed tall over dying weeds and hay grasses. The birds with lovely feathers stayed and grazed for what seemed a long time, though their gaze remained cautious toward the house. I let Stella, our shepherd, out the front door for her morning rounds. She circled the house, yet the cranes kept calm, drawn to the sweet low lying alfalfa. I wondered, perhaps Stella cannot see the birds or perhaps, their soft, ghostly grey blended with her black and white view of the world.

I keep a small row of assorted fruit trees along the drive. The Macintosh apple trees normally bear fruit though the deer claim most. Two peach trees have been productive over the years but both lost large limbs from the weight of the spring snow. With the exception of a few plump peaches, the trees, though leafed out, were barren.

I planted two new hybrid apple trees by the pasture fence a year ago in the spring to replace a perfectly formed mulberry tree lost to disease. The mulberry had been our favorite, the juicy black berry fruit especially enjoyed by our three grandsons. We never quite got around to making mulberry jam because berries somehow disappeared right off the tree. The mystery of vanished fruit was solved with little detective work as purple stains dotted the white tee shirts worn by Zeke, the middle boy, and Walker , the youngest. The oldest, Grady, naturally told on his younger brothers, though I suspect that he also participated in a free for all berry fight. Mulberry juice disdains the effort of modern washing machines.

Then a year came with no fruit. The sweet wood invited pests inside the bark. During the snow of winter, we watched helplessly out the back window while woodpeckers throttled the mulberry, pecking for hidden bugs.

A summer-long drought had followed the strangest spring weather I can remember. Ninety degree days in March caused fruit trees to bud far too early. A seasonable yet heavy late spring snow nipped life from the fruit buds. The weight of the wet accumulation tore limbs and broke orchard keepers’ hearts, along with their pocketbooks

The grapes had started out well, apparently not affected by the spring snow. In June, I fought my annual battle of conscience; whether or not to spray the vines with pesticide. Just once in the dozen year life of my vineyard, have I sprayed the fruit. The grapes flourished that year but I always worried; about the birds, about tainted wine, about my family and friends eating grapes from the vine, though I always warned them to wash first. I chose not to spray, to take my chances, trusting nature to take my side.

In July, I began to notice birds fluttering in the vines. Thankful I hadn’t sprayed, I enjoyed watching sparrows come and go, through the deep green leaves that camouflaged the cedar arbor. On the hottest of summer days, walking the aisle beneath the leaves is much like entering an air conditioned room. But when August arrived, many of the hopeful fingers of fruit were gone. I fretted over the loss and hoped September would leave just enough for a modest vintage.

In mid-August I noticed the two new apple trees being affected by the dry season. Flora have a way of acting out to describe their needs. Leaves curled only slightly, and colors faded in barely noticeable hues, in a plea for water. A small fir tree, planted in the spring, behind a row of healthy blackberry bushes, also wanted a drink. I put the drip hoses out with a nagging guilt, and hoped that I had not waited too long.

After Labor Day, with rain finally in the forecast, I fertilized all the trees. This year’s harvest was lost but in the growing business “next year” always gives hope. The sun came out before hiding in rhythm with a musical beat, and I pounded the fertilizer stakes deep around drip edges. Rolling clouds and a few sprinkles of rain slowed the process only slightly and soon I finished. A muscle twitch portended an ache which I soothed with a drink of cool well water while resting in a soft chair by the woodstove.

I sat back and pondered the grapes growing sweet on the arbor I had built from cedar saplings. In good years, the vines produced enough grapes for two or three dozen bottles of wine, only a bit oversweet, and several cartons of canned jelly, flawless on fresh warm bread with butter, and a surprisingly tasty marinade for both chicken and flank steak.

Outside, the arbor flourished with carefully tended with vines I had trimmed back and formed on a cold March day. The vines had returned healthy and filled with leaves through the summer. Buds appeared on the purple-brown virgin leads, and one day, without notice, small and gentle fingers of fruit, on tiny bright green stems, had sprouted from pinkish flowers.

The midday sun broke through the clouds and beckoned me back to the arbor. Grapes grown sweet waited to be crushed to wine before winter arrived.

The cranes looked on as I set out to the arbor and picked surviving grapes by hand. Carrying a large pot, I thought I might need to buy grapes this year, or maybe try using juice from a local fruit market. But I had never used someone else’s grapes in my wine. I began to pick along the outer side of the arbor, the sun still out and the wind freshening. I used a different method than in other years. I picked each grape individually or in strands of two or three and carefully dropped the fruit in the pot. I found a few bulging bunches. My spirits rose. Working my way around the arbor, I pulled back leaves and beheld more and more of the juicy orbs hidden in dark, shady reaches.

The sky darkened as I turned under the canopy, the first pot almost filled. Raindrops hit the leaf ceiling above me, but underneath, I stayed dry.  My fingers chilled like the grapes in the shade. As I reached, occasionally a grape was broken and I tasted the fruit, thick and sweet. The rain hitting the leaves echoed, and drops continued as the sun returned, lighting the earth. I was transfixed by the sun shining above a light autumn shower.

After a couple hours, the year’s crop lay in the pots. I had picked about ten gallons of promising fruit and returned to the house, cleaned up the fermenting crock, and began pulling each stem away from each grape. I separated the first four pounds, and kneaded the fruit in a large bowl, squeezing with my hands, and smelled the rich sugary juice as the grapes turned magically from fruit into a liquid mixture. I finished the first bowl. The crushed grapes were ready for the crock. But what to do with my hands?  If I picked up the bowl it would slip, break on the ceramic tile floor, the coveted juice would be lost.

Instead, I licked the thick juice, first from my palms; then from the back of each of my sun-browned hands that tingled from the tannins in the fruit, and finished by licking each finger. The taste was exquisite.

Startled from reverie by an intense prehistoric croaking, a herding dog bark, and the whinny of the Haflinger pony out by the barn, I ran to the window curious, but seeing no cause, trotted barefoot out the door, and felt cool green grass in my toes. Three cranes soared high over the grape arbor, circled the barn and the pasture like angels having shed ghostly grey masks, and flew to the west over tall red pine trees, in search of water.

Tom Conlan

Tom Conlan lives, writes, and tends his grape vines in the highlands of Northern Michigan. He has captained a Coast Guard Cutter, sailed the world’s lakes and oceans, and now searches for the elusive brook trout in backwater streams where they love to hide. Tom’s work has appeared in print in Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Issue #12, in the print Anthology, Puppy Love, in Tulip Tree Review #1,in  the anthology, “The Water Holds No Scars,” and is forthcoming in QU Literary Review His work  was chosen as a finalist for the Annie Dillard Prize in the Bellingham Review. Tom attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte, and a Master of Science from the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California.

Contributions by Tom Conlan