The death of Chavela Vargas earlier this month stirred up memories of our first year working this bench of land above Ayers Creek. We arrived at the farm as capable gardeners with no commercial berry experience. This gap was factored into the purchase agreement. The owners had estimated the value of the annual production of blackberries so we allowed them to sell the crop that year and remain on the farm during the harvest rent-free. The crop value was deducted from the purchase. In exchange, we observed the details of the harvest. It soon became apparent that we would be working with 100 to 200 people, most of whom did not speak English. Nor could we speak a stitch of Spanish.
Cri Cri, Francisco Gabilondo, the Singing Cricket.
Adopting a variant of Professor Harold Hill's "Think System," we decided we could learn the language listening to Spanish music, assisted by a bit of tutoring. In the manner of young Ron Howard learning the Minuet in G, we would pick up Spanish just thinking about it. We stumbled onto the music of Chavela Vargas first. Her strong, elegant voice tinged with longing brought us the beautiful boleros of Agustín Lara, Alvaro Carrillo and others, filling the car on our way from Portland to the farm every morning. Soon we added Germaine Montero singing the rhythmic and insistent folksongs of Spain and, of course, Mexico's Singing Cricket, Cri Cri. Montero performed in the company of the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca, and many of the songs were transcribed by him. She also recorded Lorca's poems including "Lament on the Death of a Bullfighter." Born and raised in France, her native tongue softened her Castilian Spanish. Francisco Gabilondo Soler was an accomplished singer and composer who is remembered fondly as the children's troubadour Cri Cri. Several months into the think system, a major advance was marked when we realized the refrain of Cri Cri's El Ratón Vaquero was actually sung in English.
The following summer it was up to Zenon and the two of us to develop the future character of the field. People working in the field referred to him as both the "row boss" and the "majordomo." Titles are far more important than names in the field, so we asked him what he preferred, and thence forward he was the majordomo. It was in this role that he told us that Anthony, el patrón, needed to go through the field and show them what was expected. The majordomo followed explaining how to pick the perfect berry, seeking the slight dullness and ease of detachment that betrays the fully ripe one. In a nod to the singing cricket, each year that first week became known as "la escuela de la mora" – blackberry school.
Just as Cri Cri's English was a bit difficult for us to discern at first, so was Anthony's Spanish to the people in the field. Blank stares demanded a more theatrical effort. Generally, people picked good fruit. If someone was picking poorly, el patrón closed his eyes and reached into bucket where he had spotted the most horrible looking berry. Into the mouth it went, followed by a shudder, an anguished wince and a rapid swallow. "No, no, no, the blackberry is food," he would opine in a sad voice and broken Spanish, "and that one was not yet food. Next week, maybe." Then lapsing into idiom of love learned from the boleros, he would explain that every berry that goes into the bucket should break your heart because you know how delicious it would be in your mouth, yet you must part with it. A giant anglo in white shirt is somehow less imposing when he is relaying the pleasures of eating fruit using the words and cadence of love and longing, with a touch of Cri Cri's humor. For the coda, a perfect fruit was picked, savored for a moment, and in a languid manner el patrón declares "la boca conoce la alma de la mora"—the mouth knows the spirit of the blackberry—followed by a smile of contentment. By the 30th or 40th sour berry, the patrón's shudder and wince were very convincing, yet quickly assuaged by the sweet one that followed.
Prior to Ayers Creek, our experience with blackberries was limited to picking them along the field borders on Sauvie Island. Some sweet, some bitter, some sour, some just plain insipid, and all were seedy. We were listening to Vargas singing boleros when we began our affair with the sublime Chester, and like other songs associated with fond memories, it is hard to separate the two. A bolero will never come to mind when contemplating the seedy Himalayan blackberry. Fourteen years later, the field is very different. We stopped selling to Cascadian Farm after 2007, shifting over to fresh market only. Just ten people work for us today, and they carry out a range of tasks on the now diversified farm in addition to the harvest. No more blackberry school. But the character of the field which the majordomo helped us establish that second year hasn't changed, and the desire for a berry that brings a song to mind remains. Upon reflection, it is a good thing that we didn't use conventional language tapes for travelers, or we would have ended up describing the berries in terms of luggage and menu items, or that berry on the right is good, the one on the left is not good. How dull it would have been. Te amamos, Chester. Gracias Chavela.
Photo of Chavela Vargas by Elbabirusa (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Francisco Gabilondo (Cri Cri) by Francisco Gabilondo Soler (GabiSol) CC-BY-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.