Illustrated descriptive catalogue of American grape vines :a grape growers’ manual /by Bush & Son & Meissner, 1883
by Amy Glynn
It’s April, only a few days past budbreak. The tiny new leaves on the gnarled vines are the translucent baby-green of a peridot and have something of the same vitreous luster. They appear to be emitting light rather than reflecting it, illuminated like absurd stained glass windows fashioned by some kind of hippie transcendentalist Green Man, the elaborate latticework of veins prominent and tinged with lilac. It’s funny how delicate they look. This is not a delicate thing. Not at all. It’s a gobelet-trained Zinfandel vine that’s been leafing out exactly like this, with or without human attention, for almost 140 years.
The twisting trunk of the vine from which the absurdly plucky baby leaf is uncurling is as big around as my thigh; the bark is shaggy, frayed looking–an earned decadence. Bill hands me a glass and pours. The wine is dark, a deep ruby color with violet reflexes. It’s early, but I’ve been drinking for three days. And to be honest, the concept of decorously waiting for five o’clock stopped being a thing quite a while back.
Saucelito Canyon was abandoned during Prohibition. When Bill Greenough acquired the property he hadn’t known there was a vineyard on it; dense encroachments of poison oak and wild blackberry and various noxious understory plants had buried its careful geometry. Walking the property one day, he saw something purple asserting itself over a tangle of thorns and realized it was a cluster of grapes. A bohemian get-your-hands-dirty type, Bill rescued the vines one at a time, with hand tools and sheer grit, all while well-meaning friends told him he had gone crazy.
As it turns out, being constantly told you’re crazy is often, though admittedly not always, a sign that you’re on to something.
“Even though right now I feel ‘X,’” the therapist intones, “This is an opportunity for me to… ‘Y.’” He waits patiently for me to supply the X and the Y.
I have an Ex, and a Why. And a noxious understory for that matter. Not the same.
“Even though right now I feel abandoned and betrayed, this is an opportunity for me to learn self-compassion and master new life skills,” I say.
“How much does saying that change your emotional state?”
“Well, then, you need to find a truer statement.”
“That statement is true,” I say. My voice sounds flat and listless and like it’s coming from far away, like it isn’t mine. “Obviously.”
“Well, then, we need to locate the part of you, the sub-personality, that wants to hang onto the pain,” he suggests.
I say tautly that if he utters the word “reparenting,” I will walk.
“I wasn’t going to,” he says. But that smile. It’s a little smug.
There are a million ways to train and prune a grapevine. The choice can be made based on the eccentricities of the varietal, or of the climate or terroir–sometimes it seems like it’s mostly tradition, though that’s often an expression of the other stuff. Albarino likes to grow on pergolas. Vigorous Sauvignon Blanc is often trained on big pronged stakes known as elkhorns. On volcanic coastal slopes in Greece and Sicily vines are trained low to the ground in basket shapes, as a protection against sea winds and to optimize ambient heat from the crater. In California, especially in younger vineyards, training methods for vines are heavily influenced by mechanization, which favors a certain height, a certain lateral spread, a certain distance between rows. Around here, gobelet or head-trained vines are almost always Zinfandel, planted decades ago and still freestanding thanks to an upright growth habit and naturally stout trunk that gives them an affinity for the style. Head training optimizes sun exposure and keeps the fruit from getting sunburned, as the cascade of vines forms a light-dappling umbrella over them. They protect themselves, I think vaguely, walking back to the picnic table. Interestingly, when a plant does this, no one suggests the plant is ill, or guilty of some kind of moral failing, or problem. It’s not a problem. It’s a plant doing what it needs to do and being splendidly sculptural in the process. When a person does it, they’re spiky or prickly or thorny or some other adjective normally reserved for rosebushes and paddle cactus. I swirl the purple-red wine in the goblet and watch the tiny vortex at the center deepen, then flatten and disappear.
The panic attacks were new, but my marriage had been on shaky ground from close to the beginning. I loved him and it was utterly shocking to me how vastly not-enough that was. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t enough. My family didn’t understand, and they increasingly made it clear they suspected–no: knew–the issue was me. My dysfunction. My inexplicably fragile ego, my mental illness. There is mythology and role-playing in all families, and in mine, I’d been the Identified Patient since I was a preschooler. I’m certain it has never been conscious, which sometimes, though not always, makes forgiving it simple. And I partly consented to it, too–the adults must know better than I did, and sure, I had Bad Feelings sometimes, and as I was frequently told, I had nothing to feel bad about. I had a good family. It wasn’t as though anything had ever happened to me. I don’t think we were spectacularly nutsy as a group: there was a seemingly normative, even typical, spectrum of mood glitches, irritating but understandable neuroses, maladaptive habits. One of which was a certain tendency to blame certain things on my contributions to the dynamic. Whether that was reasonable or not. The thing about objecting to the identified patient contract is that if you get upset with them, you only prove their point. Emotional dysregulation. Abnormal lability. Pathological defensiveness. Sure, there was such a thing as a mood that wasn’t a pathology. For other people. Not for me.
And he’d noticed. And when things got uncomfortable, he latched on with a vengeance to the faint but ever-present stream of implications and suggestions that I might not be entirely right in the head. Maybe it was even less than conscious in his case. Maybe. It turns out there are highly conflict-averse people who are also bent on generating it. I don’t know what the objective was. I just knew that when he discovered something provoked panic, he would lean in. If I objected, it proved his point. Needy. Demanding. Irrational. Drama queen. Crazy.
“What do you think is the main inciting incident for your anxiety?”
“Plenty of contenders.”
The EMDR specialist regards me coolly from across the room. Waiting.
I tell her about the appendectomy I’d had when I was five, the restraints and X-Files lights and how the anesthesiologist wouldn’t explain what was going on, and how I’d believed she was putting me down like an old cat.
“I think it’s why I have the phobic response to stomach bugs,” I say. The plastic egg-shaped things in my hands buzz softly, left, right, left, right.
“Can you visualize it? That operating room?”
“Visualize. Smell. Hear. Absolutely. Whether I want to or not.”
She tells me to visualize it in as much detail as I can. Then to edit the story in my head, to tell the five-year-old on the table: this isn’t death, that doctors mess up, that she should have been treated with more respect, yes, but that she moved on and grew up and it is OK to let this memory go.
Left. Right. Left. Right.
Afterward, she asks if I experience less anxiety when I picture that scene.
“I guess?” Other scenes flash past. A grotty apartment in Amherst. Cocaine residue on a Massachusetts driver’s license. An albino ferret. Violet light pulsing in a fraternity house basement; the smell of beer and tobacco smoke. Sunset, Grizzly Peak, light dwindling from fire opal to peach to the sullen ruddy glow of a waning ember; the highways pulsing too, streams of headlights and taillights in bleary glitter-spangles like some vast electric circulatory system, my own heartbeat on sudden overdrive as I hear the words under the words and realize the next attempt will be sooner than later; that he’s saying a kind of goodbye.
I turn my mind to the image of the operating room, as though I’m changing channels on a television. The light is bright and harsh. The nurse is bending over me; her crimped, flyaway iron-colored hair is gathered in a loose bun. She has dark, dry skin; her face looks like creased old leather. Her name is Phoebe. I watch her papery-looking hands as she fiddles with the IV drip. She is smiling. She has small, straight teeth. You don’t die here. Move on.
Saucelito Canyon is only 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean, but it’s decidedly inland by San Luis Obispo standards. Most grapes here grow within about five miles of the coast and very near sea level; the climate is so mild that sometimes the vines have to be chemically induced to go dormant. The marine influence still holds sway up here; the soil is diatomaceous and fast-draining and sandy.
I look back at the rows from the oak-shaded picnic table, at the pale leaves, the young canes still supple and moving in the air in a way that makes it seem to shimmer like a mirage. Wild brambles occupy the fringes of the vineyard. The hallmark note of Zinfandel is blackberries. You could be forgiven for thinking there was a relationship there, as if the berries are whispering to the grapes and giving them ideas. As it turns out, plants do talk to each other far more than we tend to realize, so this might not be entirely fanciful. Maybe terroir is secretly a consensus situation among elements that are all borrowing each other’s ideas. Zinfandel could reasonably be accused of having a bit of a one-track mind where blackberries are concerned, though there are plenty of examples with nuance; cherries and blueberries, nutmeg, peppercorn, cola, tobacco leaf, smoke. It gets a bad rap for being a little too intense to be socially acceptable, largely thanks to a certain tendency to express itself hotly. Saucelito Canyon is a cool zone for Zinfandel, resulting in wine that’s a little more restrained and reasonable and a little less like it’s impersonating Lord Byron.
“I’m not depressed,” I said. “I’m anxious.” The medication she had given me was not working. I still had panic attacks every day. They were predictable, punctual panic attacks. Around four in the afternoon I would become terrified that I was, for example, going to drop the baby and injure her. That she would get sick and I’d catch it and we’d both die. That she could sense my terror and would be psychologically maimed by it; that she would think I didn’t love her. No: that she would know I didn’t love her. I was terrified I must not love the baby because surely if I did I wouldn’t feel like this. My terror was inconveniencing my spouse, though the medication equally didn’t work for him. I didn’t feel any different, but he insisted it transformed my personality, instantly and in a seriously hateful way. I’d come to the psychiatrist looking for cognitive-behavioral therapy, in which negative or maladaptive thoughts are systematically retrained into some non-catastrophic alternative thought. It was supposedly effective for phobias.
Instead I’d gotten Celexa. After a couple months, I’d taken myself off of it. Irritated, she had given me Lexapro. She still had not noticed. I had taken myself off that too.
“It’s the same meds,” she told me.
“That makes no sense.”
“You’re resistant,” she said.
“Resistant? To what?”
“To the process.”
“My husband said he wasn’t sure if he hated me more on it or off it.”
“Well, sometimes codependent people are threatened when we try to make positive change.”
“I thought we were going to do CBT.”
My daughter had had been born unconscious and cyanotic in an emergency C-section after 18 hours of dysfunctional labor. It involved things like the epidural also being dysfunctional, and, in an eerie redux of my childhood appendectomy, the doctors tying my hands down as though I were having a violent meltdown rather than a baby. It was a bloodbath and the kid was dangerously close to not making it. But lots of people have that story, and move on to the pleasant business of sleeping in two hour increments and being intermittently feverish from mastitis. My husband was the Get Over It sort, which I envied sometimes. He was great at functioning on no sleep, he never told me that changing diapers was a mom-job, and he didn’t seem to stress out when the child cried for four hours nonstop. I was grateful beyond measure that one of us had it together. I was just devastated that person was not me. And it had become a get-over-it Cold War pretty much from the minute he’d started complaining that my “unhappy” vibe was harshing his new dad glow, and that had started within hours of the baby’s first successful breath.
I asked about CBT again. The little part of me that wanted to be taken care of was becoming monstrously pissed off that no one was doing it and it kept upping the ante. Sometimes I got migraines that lasted four days. Sometimes my back went out. Sometimes it stayed that way for days. Sometimes there was chest pain. Once it got so bad I had people call me on the half hour to make sure I answered the phone.
She said I needed to try Cymbalta, because it affected norepinephrine levels too and that ought to manage the chronic pain.
It did not. She gave me Zoloft. I decided to tell her everything was much better.
The fourteenth card in the Tarot’s Major Arcana, Temperance, is intriguingly sandwiched between Death and The Devil. In it, a white-robed angel with outstretched red wings stands with one bare foot on land and one in a stream. The angel is pouring water back and forth between two golden goblets. Behind the angel, the sun rises from behind distant mountains, and two yellow lilies bloom in the near background. On the angel’s chest is an orange triangle enclosed in a white square. The card represents balance and a sort of tranquil acquiescence to larger forces. It’s associated with healing, cooperation and reconciliation. Technically it’s a “fire” card, governed by Jupiter and the astrological sign of Sagittarius, but it combines all four elements and holds them in a stable, interconnected harmony. This card appearing in a Tarot reading generally indicates a kind of transpersonal energy of restoration–of tempering, in a person or a situation. It can indicate a need to address an imbalance or suggest that such a tempering is on the horizon. It is the balancing of energies, of past and future, of conscious and unconscious, of fire and water and air and earth. It is the card of the middle path.
Grapes are not middle-path plants. Vines are rebound specialists: they tend to express themselves most exquisitely in especially punishing conditions. Deserts, say, or the basaltic slopes of active volcanoes. These Zin vines have never been irrigated in all their 14 decades of life. They have endured privation, neglect, drought–and time. If you believe, as Swedenborg did, as John Chapman did, as Paracelsus and Luther Burbank did, that nature presents us with a “living sermon,” you must realistically conclude that the text preached by vines, and Zin vines perhaps especially, is that struggle builds character.
Zinfandel vines are head-trained because they can be – their trunks become stout and gnarled and they do not require cordons or trellises to keep them from toppling from their own weight. They do what they do whether you’re helping or not. In fact, the less you help, in some cases, the more extraordinary they become.
Blackberries get that, as anyone knows who’s ever tried to rout one from a place where it wasn’t wanted. No matter how carefully you dig the roots out – probably lacerating yourself in the process on their viciously recurved thorns – some chopped-off leftover feet deep in the soil will respond to the insult by activating a sleeper cell of new canes, spiky jihadists who will stop at nothing to show you they, not you, are in control. Tenacity. Wild and rapid and lashing in the one case, slow and implacable in the other – the Zin vine and the bramble are immovable object and unstoppable force, and they meet on the mid-palate of this stuff.
The panic attacks ratcheted up in intensity. I became afraid to take the baby to the park because some contaminated, prodromal-virus vector child might touch her. If someone else’s kid was about to fall off the swing set I’d freeze, because I didn’t want a virus-vector-child touching me, either. I lived in a state of inexplicable existential dread, and the bursts of OCD ideation made me feel possessed. Sometimes I’d take leftover pain meds from the c-section in hopes they’d sedate me a little. Sometimes it worked.
Before my daughter’s second birthday, a psychiatrist and three psychologists had all diagnosed me with PTSD and I hadn’t believed any of them. The diagnosis seemed like an insult to combat veterans and genocide survivors. Absurd. Nothing had happened to me. One of them suggested that things had indeed happened to me, and that trauma wasn’t about who had been through the worst thing anyway, that it was simply a matter of some people’s brains being wired to re-experience frightening things versus remember them; being unable to get distance from them. Sure, a traumatic childbirth could cause it. So could a traumatic marriage. So could a rape or the suicide of a lover or even, for some brains, a well-meaning family who incessantly said “you’re delusional” when they actually meant “I don’t like what you just said.” Still, calling any of those things “trauma” in that way–it felt extravagant, almost histrionic. I wasn’t comfortable with it.
Could you fix it? Rewire the brain?
Yes, she said, most people believe you can.
I was determined to fix it. I tried neurolinguistic programming. Acupuncture. Some conventional and some unconventional strains of talk therapy. EMDR. Somehow none of this had the effect I would have expected at home. I think I imagined positive feedback. I think I assumed my effort to fix the problem would be perceived as… as good. As tough or brave or what my dad sometimes called plucky. Instead, he decided to cope with things he didn’t like by conducting what is known in psychobabble circles as a “distortion campaign.” He accidentally-deliberately left a self-help book inventory on the bedroom floor. It was titled something like “How much is your spouse’s Borderline Personality Disorder affecting your daily life?” Every single box was checked. He told people things. Told my parents he was worried about my mental health, making sure I was in earshot but not part of the conversation. Told the marriage counselor I was spending ten thousand American dollars a year on shoes. Told me, repeatedly, that I had forgotten we had that conversation, that I was the one who had moved the furniture, that he wanted to talk to my doctor, look at my prescriptions, know how many drinks I’d had. He fixated on “my drinking,” which I never thought was especially spectacular.
To cope with that, I got taught how to tap my head and collarbones and limbs in a ritualistic manner and intone, “Even though my marriage is difficult, I completely love and accept myself.” The same mental health professional meanwhile taught him that sarcasm was a form of domestic violence and that he was a victim of it.
Though it’s probably also the most obsessively-cultivated plant on the planet, a grapevine is a wild thing, a creature consecrated to Dionysus and to Pan, to old European gods of chaos and wilderness. They don’t seem to fight their own nature much. They seem like they leverage it, accepting chaos and order as two faces of the same god, two impulses of the same force. They have evolved in the context of a close relationship with humans, who crave order but are better, generally speaking, at conducting chaos. Vines have a chaotic core as well, not only when rendered into an intoxicant but right there in the ground. Tangling, tendrilled, grasping, endlessly unfurling and branching above and below the surface, they throw themselves wildly, wantonly, into the task of eating sunlight, seeking groundwater, creating carbohydrates and anthocyanins and chloroplasts. The tendrils spiraling off the canes will seize anything they can touch. They will grasp and pull and choke. Winemakers like to talk about how grapes don’t “want” to fruit; that they do it as a Hail Mary when their own living conditions have been made so insupportable they consider it imperative to reproduce themselves as a failsafe. I’m not sure. I imagine they appreciate having order imposed on them. I imagine it is a relief to be tended and shaped, just as it is a relief to be disinhibited and inebriated when there is too much stricture.
Cicero translated the Greek sophrosyne, which means moderation, to the Latin temperantia. Later, temperance got twisted with the Latin concept of abstinentia – typical modern nonsense, removing the middle ground and creating alls and nothings, alwayses and nevers, which are pretty much nonexistent in nature. Temperare means “to mix in due proportion,” and it refers to admixture of alloys to create a metal of desired hardness and resiliency, an admixture of elements of human disposition to create a balanced temper, a balanced mind. Interestingly the word “tamper” probably also derives from the same root, as it was originally meant to refer to the working of clay. The sense of interfering or meddling appears in the 1500s.
What does it mean when your efforts to temper yourself create an even more extreme imbalance? My husband had issues with my temper, and by the end, he had reason. Once, I put the heel of my boot through the drywall. Once, I hurled a birdbath at the back fence. Some of the drugs I was fed to “temper” my temper backfired and created a worse one. Tampering with my brain’s chemistry instead of accepting it exacted a toll I’m still not sure I understand.
Resiliency? Hardness? We need both. Things that cannot bend tend to snap under pressure. Things that bend over for anything don’t develop structure. Knowing when to flex and when to stand your ground is one of the things we learn in the field and it is often an unpleasant lesson that we fail and must repeat.
“Can you picture a river?”
“A particular actual river?”
“If you like, or a made-up one, it doesn’t matter.”
“What’s at the bottom of the river?”
“Right,” the therapist says. “Can you imagine yourself being down there at the bottom of the river sitting among those stones?”
“I can breathe underwater in this scenario?”
She laughs. “Yes.”
“Okay.” In my mind’s eye clear, cold water rushed past me, and the stones, liver-colored jasper, white quartz-riddled granite, basaltic blues and serpentine greens, were worn and rounded.
“Look up. What do you see?”
“The sky, distorted by the water.”
“Right. The water is rushing by up there on the surface. But at the bottom?”
“It’s still. Or, stiller.”
“Exactly. Do you think there is a way you can make a practice of picturing this, picturing yourself being one of those stones, and holding onto the thought that whatever is tossed around in the current above you, you don’t have to get caught up in it? You can stay down there and just watch it go by?”
For a few minutes it did seem as though I could do that, that it could stay real.
She smiles. “But isn’t it better than being thrown against the rocks and cracking your skull?”
I supposed it was. I also wondered why there wasn’t a third, better choice.
Sometimes, though admittedly not always, people calling you crazy is a sign you are onto something.
The first sip of Saucelito Canyon 1880 conveys something I can only describe as electricity. It tastes concentrated, powerful. Like almost all Zinfandels, this wine does express blackberries, but that note is decorously in the background, ceding space to ripe raspberry, black plum and cherry notes. There’s a hint of cinnamon, something cola-like, and a ghost note of rose petals. It unfolds like a long-kept secret, slowly but not languidly. It’s energetic, full of tension–balanced.
Everything has a purpose, a job to do. Those vines and I seem to have been given the same task, something to do with making sense of memories. We don’t have a choice. As an act of poesis, the vines struggle to find water, to make sugar out of light and dirt, to make order out of chaos, something cultivated out of something wild. Vines are Pan’s folk and are saddled with a lot of information about things that are wild. You can taste that. If you’re really paying attention you can taste drought. You can taste time. Vineyards are an illuminated manuscript on that subject, and wine the ink in which the text is penned. Nothing truly contains them; they contain everything. And whatever we can grasp at a given time, we express. They tell me I might resent my own tenacity – that I might not want it, that I might find an unbearable pressure in it, this having to get up over and over again no matter how little progress or payoff there appears to be. But that it is mine.
They tell me it is better this this way.
About the Author:
Amy Glynn is a poet and essayist whose work appears widely in journals and anthologies including The Best American Poetry. Her second poetry collection, Romance Language, is forthcoming from Measure Press in late 2020. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, she is currently serving as inaugural Poet Laureate of Lafayette and Orinda, CA.