Desire Line

The shortest distance between two points; a spontaneous mapping of our use of public space; evidence of an ongoing crime, committed by the masses; a pure expression of democratic will, the people manifestly having voted with their feet: a desire line is all of these.

Most simply put, a desire line is a shortcut. It is an unofficial rogue trail carved into the ground by the passage of numerous pedestrians dissatisfied with the sanctioned routes on offer. A lone walker flaunting the conventions of civilization and the restrictions of garden design cannot on his own create a desire line. Such a path is visible only because the grass that once grew there could not survive the busy traffic. The earth is compacted, the exposed rock polished. This takes time, repetition, and the participation of the multitudes.

Sometimes, where it meets the sidewalk, a desire line spreads wide like the bell of a trumpet, indicating that here short-cutters have converged from various directions to follow it. In this way it becomes a cartographic representation of its own use, in much the way that Ed Ruscha's Sunday-morning aerial photographs of empty Los Angeles parking lots serve as graphs of the preferences of the drivers who park in them, legible in the density of the oil-stains dripped onto the pavement from the pans of innumerable automobiles.

Depending on your perspective, a desire line is either a scar marring the symmetry and tidiness of a park, plaza or lawn, or it is the organic biproduct of maximized efficiency. I'm grateful to Laura for introducing me to this basic concept from the field of landscape architecture, for the desire line has almost unlimited metaphoric potential. Is it the result of taking the easy way out, or of standing up to convention? Are desire-liners lazy and lawless, or are they visionaries who think outside (or inside, or across the corners of) the box? Should society value individualism, or conformity?

Resistance to the desire line is futile. The disgruntled groundskeeper should not argue with the commuters hurrying home, ignoring his admonition not to walk on the grass; his quarrel is with the designer, who failed to do necessary research and tried to erase tradition with the rigid geometry of his ego. What hope is there that a fence and a handful of grass-seed can counteract the imperatives of desire?

A desire line serves as its own demonstrative proof of its benefit to the commons; its utility is rendered undeniable by its very existence.


Poop Horn (Suspension of Disbelief)

One of the more exotic episodes in my recent visit to the Loire valley was a day spent assisting in the creation of some of the semi-mystical preparations used in Biodynamic farming. Practitioners of the Biodynamic method view earth, cosmos, farm, crop and land from a holistic perspective. The health of each, and therefore our own, such farmers argue, are indissolubly linked. A field that is endlessly fertilized with powerful nitrates and sprayed with pesticides in order to maximize annual yields across a monocrop topography is a field that is ailing and poisoned. In this world view, the way most farmers use their land, and the way most of our food is produced, is deeply wrong; the equivalent for a human would be something like an endless repetition of Morgan Spurlock's experiment in Super Size Me, when he eats nothing but McDonald's products for an entire month.

Biodynamics, based on the teachings of Austrian philosopher-shaman Rudolph Steiner, typically goes well beyond the basic prescriptions for organic farming, and it embodies many similar ideas about environmental and soil health. As a general practice, I find it deeply appealing. Bruno Allion's farm and vineyard near Thesee, in the Loire valley, which I visited last week, looks the way a farm ought to look. There is dirt and mud, weeds and trees and grass. There are flowers and bees and ladybugs, and a happy pig in a comfortably big pen. It looks nothing like the vast and sterile monocrop lots on which America's corn and beef is produced.

 Looking over the horns

But what to do when the general appeal of a philosophy promoting a loving stewardship of the land seems diminished by peculiar prescriptions that seem odd, irrational and altogether divorced from the scientific method? This, for me, is the conundrum of Biodynamics. Take, for example, the "cornerstone of the Biodynamic method," Steiner's preparation 500, or cow's horn manure. The basic recipe is simple, if creative. In the fall, fill empty cow's horns with cow shit, bury them underground for the winter, and then dig them up in the spring. Although I'm certain cow dung is a high quality all-natural fertilizer, and cow's horns make perfectly good vessels in which to mature or compost the manure, it now starts to get weird.

 That's the, uh, substance, with which we will shortly begin to fill the horns.

One horn's worth of the fermented dung, generally about 80 grams of the stuff, is mixed into a suspension with 20 liters of rainwater by stirring it in a whirlpool vortex for a full hour. It is then whisked or sprayed over the fields. One horn is used to treat about one hectare of land (roughly 2.5 acres).  Not to bore you, but I did the math, and that comes out to 0.00074 grams of poop per square foot. If you've ever done cocaine, you'll understand this to be a minuscule quantity unworthy of your attention, a speck of fallen dust so small as to be all but invisible. You may also recognize from your long nights crouched over the mirror the way in which the ritual of preparation dominates the event; the horns must be buried in a specific way, and the stirring activity should alternate from clockwise to counterclockwise, perhaps "attracting cosmic influences into the liquid." The spritzing of the fields appears in photographs to be not unlike the splashing of holy water from a Catholic font. Biodynamicists describe the use of Steiner's preparations as a kind of soil homeopathy, and there doesn't seem to be any more scientific proof of its efficacy than there is for most homeopathic medicine. Just like homeopathy, I'd love to believe it works, but it sure does stretch the imagination.

What are we doing? We're making pâté de poop a la corne, you dipshit. I promise I filled some horns up myself, between photographs. (That's my main man Amane Hagiwara on the left. Within a few years I expect that you'll be seeing his name on a wine label or two. If you do, I suggest you buy the bottles).

 Locked and loaded, and ready for burial.

Bruno Allion has a beautiful farm, and he grows some serious grapes. I know, because I spent my first three days in the Loire valley harvesting them.

Looking wistfully into the pit. You gotta believe...

Next week join us for Biodynamic Preparation #503, cow intestine stuffed with macerated chamomile flowers. No, I'm not kidding.


Forkful of Gamay

For the very last decuvage of the season, the boys down at the Puzelat -Bonhomme operation decided that the visiting gringo was just the guy to get in the tank and scoop out the grapes. The idea is to shovel out 40 hectoliters of sodden, semi-fermented berries (that's 4000 liters) that have been happily bubbling for ten days or so, while their sugar turns into alcohol. The poor bastard in the tank uses a pitchfork to fill one plastic tub after another. These are then carted off to the pressoir to be mechanically trampled. The carters have far less work to do than the forker, and they delight in looking down into the tank and abusing the sweaty and fitness-challenged shoveler within. One tends to get covered in a good amount of wine.

In the tank, or as the British say, in the soup.

Grapes are heavier than they look.

Jerome looks on with some skepticism

Aah, thank you. Yet another empty crate to fill up.

Shin-deep in Gamay

Are we done yet?


Sticky Fingers

The good news is, I'm toiling in the vineyards of the Loire valley, helping collect grapes for the famed natural vintners Jean-Marie and Thierry Puzelat. The bad news is I'm working hard enough that I barely have time to blog about all the fabulous wine I've been tasting. The day starts at sunrise amidst the dewy vines, and for most of the day my fingers are so sticky and covered in grape juice that I'm afraid to get my camera out, lest I gum it up with natural sugars. Nevertheless, I've managed to take a few snaps.

Côt, the grape that goes into Puzelat's wittily named "In Côt we Trust."

One of my fellow vendangeurs (grape harvesters). Her french is only marginally better than my chinese, which is to say just about good enough for us painstakingly to have established that she is from China. Her silver rice paddy hat wins her the vendange fashion award for 2010. There are painful similarities between my posture picking grapes and those archetypal National Geographic style images of South-East Asian women bent double in the rice paddies.

Grapes. (Not Thierry Puzelat's: note the lack of grass, weeds and wild herbs, and the regimented rows, like box-hedges. These are vines that have had fertilizer treatments and likely been sprayed with pesticides, and they will be harvested by machine, not by our merry band of vendangeurs. Thierry's look wilder and rawer, vines growing in a complete ecosystem. But the mist in the background was irresistible.)

The team to beat when it comes to making time down the rows is a family foursome from Laos, including the eternally smiling matriarch known simply as Mother.

Many more grapes. The only psychological relief from picking comes from reaching the end of a row, but the rows vary wildly in length. One commonly hears expressed such sentiments as "what a bitch of a row that was," although the length of the row has no impact on the length of the day.

I could get in really big trouble here, as nationalism seems to be a strong suit in Eastern Europe, but I'm pretty sure Artur is from Estonia Poland and Igor is from Latvia.

Menu Pineau, or Arbois. Thierry Puzelat is one of the few producers of this all but forgotten grape, with which he makes incredible white wine. That's him humping some sort of case in the background.

The writer's hands at the end of a row of ripe-to-bursting Gamay.