John has been complaining about his hands lately. They’re cracked and irritated and purpled with wine stains.
Made worse when we filled our first oak barrels to age 1200 bottles. It was a bit of a circus, as always when we do something for the first time. He gripped a fancy nozzle to feed the barrels and yelled to keep me alert on the pump. We assumed there would be some kind of signal indicating almost full, like when you fill up your car. No such luck. No signal, just an exploding geyser of purple, gushing into the air, all over the pretty barrels and all over John.
Right on time for winter clean up. Time to move thousands of liters from one tank to another in sequence, remove the sediment, (“racking”) scrub the tanks furiously, move the wine back. Inside the tanks with lots of cold water, a wet suit that keeps you soaked to the bone – even in gloves, hands take the brunt of it.
I admit, I have a thing about hands. Doctor’s hands, dentist’s hands, mason’s hands, garage mechanic’s hands, sculptor’s hands…
When we met, John was sculpting in wood, although his stone “cat” is my favorite of his early pieces. The years haven’t allowed much time for sculpture, but recently I’ve been wondering (and hoping) what his next subject will be. Perhaps that peculiar oak branch from the two-century tree that toppled in the winds of 2009. Too heavy to drag up to the house, he tucked it under the cliff where it’s been curing and waiting.
It may be quite a wait, for I sense he has a larger, more urgent project in mind. I didn’t understand his methodology when we first moved to the farm, he was everywhere at once, starting projects in every corner of the land. Clearing up the dying orchard, tearing the ivy off the cliff, digging out the silted up lavoir…
You’d think he’d be pleased with the frenzy of so many projects in the hopper, but instead, he grumbles every time he looks toward the river and takes in an eyesore of dying trees on the facing hillside. Another abandoned parcel. The valuable acacia’s have had a slow death, infected by mistletoe and smothered by the impenetrable thorn bushes.
I watch him through my binoculars. Every afternoon he takes his tools and his purple cracked hands to the hillside. Red jacket, orange chainsaw, slicing away at the underbrush and dead trunks. Creating neat piles of firewood. Whistling at each miniscule sign of life. Placing ribbons to note survivors to spare from fire and steel. Imagining what will emerge. Imagining the view.
At the same time, he announces that his sinuous oak branch is cured. Out come the old sculpture tools. I watch him contemplate the wood, with its strange aperture in the middle. He’s wondering what’s masked under the rough exterior; wondering what he has to remove to reveal what is there. A gingerly way with the chisel, a bit taken off here and there, he goes quiet and inside himself as he tries to seduce the subject to reveal it’s name. Intention, energy, thoughts, hands.
Little by little, as the name of that oak piece emerges, other names are emerging here too, on a very different scale. Hillsides, pastures, springs, woods… they’re all being explored, poked, coaxed and imagined. The entire Domaine du Petit Roque has become fertile ground for a hands-on, long term, large-scale, walk-about sculpture project in process. A lifetime of work, even for this peripatetic man with purple hands.
Fortunately, he has an extra pair.