Blackbirds in Wheatfield

With school ending, I thought I’d have a lot more time for writing, but that hasn’t been the case! Kind of a random post today…been working with my hands and thinking a lot about van Gogh. Anyway:

I had my final class on Thursday, and Friday I returned to work with Mathieu in the vineyard. It feels really good to be working again, and the nice thing about what we’re doing is that the work is very concrete. You can look behind you and see, physically, exactly what you’ve accomplished that day, and look to the next row for what you will be doing tomorrow. I respond very well to working this way, to have tangible goals, even if the goal is basically to make a pile of sticks. 🙂

What we’re doing: pruning vines. This is a huge part of winter work in a vineyard, and basically consists of removing last year’s growth and selecting a few strong branches to be pruned back to the second knuckle, where the new buds will burst forth in spring. Limiting growth allows the plant to put its energy into productive things instead of just making tons of foliage… There are several different pruning techniques, depending on age and variety and what you’re trying to accomplish (for example, a certain pruning technique might provide a good leaf-to-fruit ratio, but in certain regions of southern France, the cold dry northwest wind called the mistral can take the fruit right off the vine, so in exposed areas, a pruning technique might be used to promote a more condensed, protective system.)

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I have a set of electric clippers with a battery and motor in a little backpack, and you just kind of work your way down the row. After a while you start to see the architecture of the vine, and the task then becomes to simply remove all the excess growth, leaving behind a clean, simple shape with the majority of the strong branches pointing upward. It’s a very relaxing task, if monotonous, a bit like trimming a bonsai plant back to its essential Buddha-nature, and the spring sunshine and cool breeze combines to make for actually very pleasant work.

In some ways, it reminds me of untangling a big ball of wool, like I so often do when I’m knitting (and which I secretly love.) It’s about seeing the essence of things, and how they come together…the vine has its own logic system. I think about things all day.

I suppose I’ll bring music or French tapes eventually; but right now, I’m enjoying the silence and the smells of the earth waking up again.

My hands are tired now after a few days of this work, and the third trimester fatigue has me feeling like I’m moving slower and more awkwardly than usual. I get tired, bone achingly tired, so very easily these days, where even lifting my arms feels like too much work. Some days it has that flu-like feeling, and waking from sleep feels like surfacing slowly from underwater. The fresh air feels good though, as does the sense of purpose, so I continue, resting as I need to.

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An old man with a thick southern French accent came over to talk to us yesterday; he was gathering our piles of vine twigs for fire starter for his barbecue (this variety of grape produces very straight, short sticks that catch fire easily, and in fact it’s what we’ve been using in our frozen apartment in the fireplace to bring some heat and light in the long nights of winter.) He was smallish with grey hair and a red face and twinkling eyes, and seemed very nice. The older people in particular here have the most wonderful Occitan southern flavor to their French, a thick, earthy, soupy patois, and it’s quite different from what they’re speaking up north in Paris! I don’t understand it all, honestly…just words and sometimes enough to get the sense of the phrase. (He said “Voila!” at the end of just about every sentence.)

He chatted with Mathieu for a bit, giving smiling side-eye to me. At one point he laughed and said something to Mathieu, who smiled too and responded, “Elle est ma femme!” (She’s my wife!) After he left:

“Do you know what he was saying?”

“Not all of it.”

“He was surprised to see you here. There aren’t many women who are doing what you’re doing.”

It’s true. You never see women working in the vineyards. And when you add in the number of women with seven-month pregnant bellies, I’m sure the number dwindles further. 🙂 At one point, later in the day, Mathieu asked me if the battery pack for the electric shears was too heavy for me (I’ve had a lot of lower back pain lately.)

“No, not really.”

“Hm. Well, I suppose it’s acting like a counterweight.”

(Me looking blank, looking down, then realizing,) “Oh, so I don’t tip forward?”

“Exactly.”

It’s amazing for far and how fast you can throw a handful of sticks at someone!

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It’s silent work, and solitary. I can see Mathieu a few rows away, and hear the high pitched wine of his clippers as he performs the same task – with a lot more speed and efficiency and grace than I do, of course. There’s a field opposite us that is golden brown and empty and always full of black ravens.

It reminds me of that van Gogh painting, Wheatfield with Crows.

Van Gogh wrote that he was trying to express sadness and extreme loneliness; the central path leads nowhere and the uncertain direction of the flight of the crows lends a sense of lack of purpose, of being blown on the wind. Crows were used by van Gogh to represent death and rebirth…it’s a melancholy painting, dominated by that imposing sky.

It was believed by many to be the painting on his easel when he died, his final painting before commiting suicide.

Van Gogh was interested in peasants and farm workers throughout his career, and this interest drew directly from his religious yearnings and his early training as a missionary. Though he never completed his religious studies, he became drawn to painting as a path to express his “love of God and Man”; drawn to Biblical parables, Van Gogh found wheat fields to be metaphors for humanity’s cycles of life, as both celebration of growth and realization of the susceptibility of nature’s powerful forces.

Van Gogh used the digger and ploughman as symbols of struggle to reach the kingdom of God, and for him, storms were important for their restorative nature, symbolizing “the better times of pure air and the rejuvenation of all society.” Van Gogh also found storms to reveal the divine.

I guess I agree with that.

The close association of peasants and the cycles of nature particularly interested Van Gogh, such as the sowing of seeds, harvest and sheaves of wheat in the fields.Van Gogh saw plowing, sowing and harvesting symbolic to man’s efforts to overwhelm the cycles of nature: “the sower and the wheat sheaf stood for eternity, and the reaper and his scythe for irrevocable death.” The dark hours conducive to germination and regeneration are depicted in The Sower and wheat fields at sunset.

In 1889 Van Gogh wrote of the way in which wheat was symbolic to him: “What can a person do when he thinks of all the things he cannot understand, but look at the fields of wheat… We, who live by bread, are we not ourselves very much like wheat… to be reaped when we are ripe.”

Van Gogh saw in his paintings of wheat fields an opportunity for people to find a sense of calm and meaning, offering more to suffering people than guessing at what they may learn “on the other side of life.” At times Van Gogh was so enamored with nature that his sense of self seemed lost in the intensity of his work: “I have a terrible lucidity at moments, these days when nature is so beautiful, I am not conscious of myself any more, and the picture comes to me as in a dream.”

Van Gogh moved here to southern France (Arles) when he was 35, and it is considered one of the most prolific times in his life;  in less than 444 days van Gogh made about 100 drawings and produced more than 200 paintings.

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In May 1889 Van Gogh voluntarily entered the asylum of St. Paul near Saint-Rémy in Provence. There Van Gogh had access to an adjacent cell he used as his studio. He was initially confined to the immediate asylum grounds and painted (without the bars) the world he saw from his room, such as ivy covered trees, lilacs, and irises of the garden. Through the open bars Van Gogh could also see an enclosed wheat field, subject of many paintings at Saint-Rémy. As he ventured outside of the asylum walls, he painted the wheat fields, olive groves, and cypress trees of the surrounding countryside, which he saw as “characteristic of Provence.” Over the course of the year, he painted about 150 canvases.

After leaving the hospital, in May 1890, Van Gogh traveled from Saint-Rémy to Paris, where he had a three-day stay with his brother, Theo, Theo’s wife Johanna and their new baby Vincent. Van Gogh found that unlike his past experiences in Paris, he was no longer used to the commotion of the city and was too agitated to paint. His brother, Theo and artist Camille Pissarro developed a plan for Van Gogh to go to Auvers-sur-Oise ( a commune in the northwestern suburbs of Paris, France, located 27.2 km (16.9 mi) from the city) with a letter of introduction for Dr. Paul Gachet, a homeopathic physician and art patron who lived in Auvers. Van Gogh had a room at the inn Auberge Ravoux in Auvers and was under the care and supervision of Dr. Gachet with whom he grew to have a close relationship, “something like another brother.”

For a time, Van Gogh seemed to improve. He began to paint at such a steady pace, there was barely space in his room for all the finished paintings. From May until his death on July 29, Van Gogh made about 70 paintings, more than one a day, and many drawings..” Van Gogh painted buildings around the town of Auvers, such as The Church at Auvers, portraits, and the nearby fields.

Van Gogh arrived in Auvers in late spring as pea plants and wheat fields on gently sloping hills ripened for harvest. The area bustled as migrant workers from France and Brussels descended on the area for the harvest. Partial to rural life, Van Gogh strongly portrayed the beauty of the Auvers country side. He wrote his brother, “I have one study of old thatched roofs with a field of peas in flower in the foreground and some wheat, the background of hills, a study which I think you will like.

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This last one is called Wheat Fields After the Rain, and was completed in 1890, in July in Auvers-sur-Oise. This was the same time that he completed Wheatfield with Crows, now considered by many to be a sort of suicide note.

In a letter he wrote, “And the prospect grows darker, I see no future at all.” Later, he wrote,”the trouble I had in my head has considerably calmed…I am completely absorbed in that immense plain covered with fields of wheat against the hills boundless as the sea in delicate colors of yellow and green, the pale violet of the plowed and weeded earth checkered at regular intervals with the green of the flowering potato plants, everything under a sky of delicate blue, white, pink, and violet. I am almost too calm, a state that is necessary to paint all that.”

Four days after completing Wheat Fields after the Rain he shot himself in the Auvers wheat fields. Van Gogh died on July 29, 1890.

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Today…we worked in the afternoon, silently, me cutting ahead of Mathieu as the wind whipped my hair into a frenzy. It rained through the sunshine, and the clouds piled dark blue and ominous against that van Gogh-golden field. At one point, I looked up to see a low-slung elliptical rainbow hanging heavy in the sky. The light was glorious, and I wove my way throug the tangled vines like a spider, cutting and tossing the winding vines behind me.

I love thinking about van Gogh on these days, on what this landscape meant to him, how he tried to express the human spirit and Man’s connection with the divine, with life and death and the rhythms that pull us between these two points.

I talk a lot about missing glassblowing… I think what I’m trying for now, though, is for my whole life to be a seamless expression of art making…that you can bring as much intentionality and beauty and craft to cutting sticks in a field as you do when painting or making glass. Maybe there’s not as much difference between these acts as we usually think…The difference is just intention. Things to think about for me.

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One thought on “Blackbirds in Wheatfield

  1. Yes, I know I am biased. I am not an art historian. I love reading your words and learn something new every time. Thank you.

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