Two Encounters

New Years Day I reluctantly dragged myself from bed around noon and took a coffee up to the terrace to heal in the sun. Tout à coup, an Alfred Hitchcock movie broke out. The sun brought out more birds than I had ever seen. Run down for the camera, back up for the show. They’re starlings I believe. Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe describes them as “jaunty, quarrelsome and garrulous.” (Serious understatement) The voice is a “harsh descending tcheer with a medley of clear whistles, clicks, rattles and chuckles, woven into a long, rambling song.” Now multiply that by about 100,000 and you have some idea of the sound and why some people went looking for their weapons. The noise was incredible, as they seemed to call (or tweet) all their friends to say the weather was nice here and there’s a good tree for resting. This became a flash mob, the numbers grew, the tree was overcrowded and the quarrels escalated. I couldn’t come close to an estimate, 100,000 is probably low, but for you Photoshop skeptics, this photo is real and only covers a small section of the flock.

Starlings ©2012 Ron Scherl


After about 30 minutes, someone had had enough and fired off a gun, which the birds took to mean that the weather may be nice but they weren’t too sure of the people. They stopped talking and took off, and I went down to wash my hair.


Spent the next morning applying for Social Security and needed a walk after lunch. There’s something powerfully restorative about a walk in the vineyards, even in winter when the old vines look dead as can be. They’re not, of course and we know winter will end, the vines will bud, sprout leaves, grow fruit and there will be more wine. It’s just a good idea to get out there and remember. And if you need a longer perspective, there are young vines too, new plantings just taking root.

Pruning ©2012 Ron Scherl

I met an 89-year-old man with few teeth and the heavy local accent, which left me understanding very little. Here’s what I learned: he was born here, lived here all his life, fought in the war of 1940, his father in the war of 1914, and he knows that war is never good. His back hurts some, but he can continue working the vines because he’s not tall like me. His arms are strong from working the vineyards all his life. It’s a lot of work but he likes being outside. He also likes Barack Obama and a pastis now and then.

He continues to work his vineyards and I don’t think there’s anyone to take over when he no longer can. If that’s the case, another winemaker will purchase the land, or the vines will be torn out by a successor not interested in making wine. The land isn’t really suited for crops other than wine or olives, neither of which is likely to make anyone rich any time soon.  So what is best for the town: to let the land lie fallow, hope foreign investors want to purchase the vineyard, or seek subsidies to build housing for which there doesn’t appear to be a great demand? It’s a critical question for a town with an aging population and the answer isn’t easy. Mayor Chivilo sees the answer in a balance of new and old but getting there requires a sufficient number of local families continuing in the wine business. There are some, but at this time no one knows if there are enough. Change happens slowly here, but it does happen.

Being Organic

Spent the day cleaning the house and studying French until about 3:30 when I had to get out for a walk. Took one of my favorite routes through the village, passing five wineries, then out the road to Cucugnan, which takes me past several vineyards and a farm housing a few donkeys. Take a left at the municipal swimming pool to a small road through more vineyards.

Photo of road
Near the Swimming Pool ©2011 Ron Scherl


I walked up to a vineyard owned by Marcel Buhler that I have been photographing periodically since I got here. It’s a beautiful place, alive, organic.


Vineyard Photo
Maury Vineyard ©2011 Ron Scherl

After shooting for a while, I walked on. The next plot was clearly not being farmed organically and the difference was striking: everything looked dead. The vines, of course are alive, just entering the dormant winter months, but there’s nothing else. The insecticides and herbicides used to prevent vine diseases have destroyed everything else.

Comparing 2 vineyards

Look at the vineyard on the left, all the vegetation is thriving; there are multiple kinds of grasses, weeds and moss. The place is teeming with insects, flying around and biting my neck. The vineyard is farmed organically adhering to many biodynamic principles and is certified organic by Ecocert.  Biodynamism holds that the vineyard is a complete environment and the insects, animals, weeds, grasses, soil, rocks and vines are all part of the environment and necessary for its health. It is a philosophy based on the writings of Rudolf Steiner and is much more in use in Europe than the United States.


There is a clear connection here to “terroir” a concept that goes beyond the soil to encompass the entire environment of the vineyard and includes the effects of the intervention of human animals as well. Today’s Holy Grail of winemaking is a wine that expresses the terroir or has a sense of place. Here in the Roussillon it is often expressed in minerality that should come from the extreme rockiness of the soil. David Darlington in his book: An Ideal Wine: One Generation’s Pursuit of Perfection quotes winemaker Randall Grahm “To put it simply, if your soils are alive, you get minerals from them.”


It‘s difficult to come to any conclusion other than those farmers not using organic methods are poisoning the soil they depend on for their livelihood. This is where the influx of new winemakers like Marcel can make a difference; a healthy interchange of ideas, learning from each other is exactly what Charles Chivilo, the mayor of Maury spoke about as one of the benefits of foreign investments in the vineyards. So the old residents can learn organic farming methods and perhaps teach the newcomers to hunt wild boar. Because for everyone, it always comes back to the land.


Photo of Woman Mending Fences
Mending Fences ©2011 Ron Scherl

Just Before Leaving

Sunday, the last day we had together, Barbara and I went walking in the Presidio to see the new Andy Goldsworthy piece. What a joy!  I was, as I’ve been for the last month, obsessing over details, anxious, living inside my head and maybe a bit removed from reality. Andy Goldsworthy is a great artist. He not only brings you out of your head, he brings you into the natural world through a work of art that shows us the connections we may not see when self-obsessed and not very perceptive.

Andy Goldsworth in PresidioOK. Sorry about the iPhone photo, but as I said, I was not thinking. Not thinking clearly and not getting outside my own brain cells. But this piece turned me around, made me look around and made me happy. This made everything else go away. Made me love where I was at that moment and made me happy.  So here’s a challenge to the photographers out there. Get to the presidio, spend some time with Goldsworthy and, if he moves you, make an image. I really want to see it.