Category Archives: The backstory

What is biodynamic farming anyway?

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By Flickr user eyeliam (http://www.flickr.com/photos/eyeliam/542571706/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In A Vintage Year, the main character, Harris Tucker, ends up working as a farmhand on a vineyard that happens to be bio-dynamic. I decided to make the farm bio-dynamic instead of organic for the interesting aspects of bio-dynamic farming. I did a lot of research and have found that a lot of bio-dynamic farms tend to be vineyards, especially those in North America.

Bio-dynamic farming was developed by a German scientist, Rudolf Steiner, in the 1920s. The idea behind it was all about helping the soil be the most fertile soil possible, and to work with the plants and animals raised on that soil. In the ’20s, a lot of farmers were becoming concerned with the quality of their crops based on the chemical fertilizers they were using. They had noticed that the quality of their crops was deteriorating.

Steiner went to work, believing that there were many factors involved in developing good soil that grows superior produce. He believed that soil fertility could be increased by using field preparations and compost preparations. The field preparations he developed are called 500 and 501 — these are the ones that involve stuffing a cow’s horn with manure and planting it in a field for the winter, then digging it in the spring in time for field preparation for planting. Compost preparations consist of herbs stuffed into the stomach of a red deer, or the lower intestine of a cow, and left in the sun for the summer, then buried in the winter and dug up for use in the spring. These preparations, six in total, are dubbed 502-508.

Planting your crops is based on the cycle of the moon and whether it is a root, leaf, flower or fruit type of crop.

Annual crops are rotated from year to year in order to stimulate the soil.

There is no scientific evidence that bio-dynamic farming produces any better results than organic farming, and it sure seems like it’s a lot more work than organic farming. However, I have spoken to bio-dynamic vineyard owners who swear by it and say that the flavour of the terroir so much more pronounced in bio-dynamic wines versus wines made from conventionally grown or even organic grapes.

For more information on bio-dynamic farming, check out some of these links.

Biodynamic v Organic Winemaking – Southbrook’s Ann Sperling Video

https://www.biodynamics.com/what-is-biodynamics

Here is a great website on the practicality and reality of biodynamic vineyard farming – love the website url: “http://biodynamicsisahoax.com” !

For the record, while my farm family are bio-dynamic farmers, I have to admit, that if I were a farmer, I would fall on the organic side of things. The extra work involved to make a farm bio-dynamic just doesn’t have me convinced that it’s necessary. Also, when you think about the tiny amounts of “preparations” that are mandated for field coverage (1 tsp. per hectare), you have to question how much work the preparation would really do. Sorry to those bio-dynamic farmers out there for being a skeptic.

 

 

The Real Farm Shop

Chatsworth

Chatsworth

 

In A Vintage Year, Laura Walters yearns for running her own gourmet general store filled with local produce, meats, jams, jellies, preserves and nuts. She knows exactly what it will look like and where it will be positioned on the property, what they will sell and how wonderful it would be. Alas, her dreams are dashed about a quarter of the way the book, and she is truly crushed. While not quite as obsessed as Laura, I too had a dream for running a small, pretty little farm shop that carried local produce, etc.

Over the Christmas break, 1998-99, my husband and I were invited to a wedding outside of Sheffield, England. We took advantage of the kindness of friends and family, farmed out our two kids (the third not even a glimmer in our eyes at that point), and went on a much needed holiday to mid-England. We had a travel agent extraordinaire at the time – in the days when people used travel agents — who booked us into this lovely little B&B outside of Bakewell, close to where the wedding would be.

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On the property of Chatsworth, rear view of the Farm Shop?

When not attending the festivities or visiting with the bride and groom, we hiked through the Darbyshire Dales, enjoying the walks and the weather. On one of our walks, we discovered Chatsworth. While I had seen Pride and Prejudice on A&E a few years earlier, I didn’t know that Pemberly was actually Chatsworth — that is until we saw it. I recognized it immediately. We walked the grounds as I explained to my husband exactly what had transpired in the novel at Pemberly/Chatsworth….I think he might have tuned me out.

After the grounds, we drove around the vast estate and came upon the Chatsworth Farm Shop. I fell in love. I am an architecture buff at heart and this little farm shop was the cutest place I had ever seen. I wanted to live in the area just so I could visit it and buy my food from it every day. It stayed with me. I described it in the book the way I remember it, but memories change as did the Farm Shop. Old stone walls, blue door and shutters, waist-height windows flanking the entrance. From the website, it looks like it’s expanded somewhat.

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The grounds at Chatsworth

The Chatsworth Farm Shop stayed with me in my head and heart. I thought of opening my own in a small town outside the city…but I needed capital; oh and I’d have to uproot my family when my husband was the number one bread earner; oh, and I had no experience (but I do like to cook). So that didn’t happen.  Occasionally I’d pull out the old photo album and take a look at it and dream. And then I saw a way to finally use the place — I’d put it in a novel. In a way, I knew what Laura’s yearning for it was like, since I too, had yearned for it. My yearning, however, was not realistic and better belonged on paper.

If you ever get a chance to visit the Darbyshire Dales, Chatsworth is well worth a stop if you’re a history or architecture buff. The countryside is stunning, and the farm shop is wonderful.

 

Perfection is Boring: Harris Tucker 2.0

I admit I have been living with Harris Tucker, the main character of A Vintage Year for more than twenty years. Over the years, he has morphed into a far more realistic and interesting person. When I first created Harris he was a pro-golfer, not a pro-tennis player (because I played more golf than tennis in those days) and he was in a completely different story — an eco-thriller (Laura was there with him too). He had only one flaw — no sense of direction. He was kind, thoughtful and had done a business degree while playing on the golf team at Stanford. He spoke fluent Spanish and was respectful of everyone and every thing. He came from a loving family and had one sister. His family was a bunch of academics — his sister had a Ph.D. and his parents were professors at Carnegie-Mellon University. He was considered the black sheep of the family — the hugely successful and absolutely perfect black sheep. And, he was boring. Well, I don’t mean completely boring, but from a writer’s perspective he was.

Flawed characters are so much more fun to write. They get into all kinds of trouble. They create interesting circumstances on their own, and they show that they are human — just like the rest of us. When I first began writing Harris, I wanted him to be perfect because I thought that if he wasn’t, we couldn’t like him as a character. As I grew older (and more mature) I realized that the people I liked to read about, whether biographies or fiction, were flawed in various ways. And then I realized that I still liked them — or hated them or found them interesting. Once you accept that really flawed characters give you, the author, the broadest range of choice, you begin to see that the perfect “Knight in Shining Armour” character is like cardboard. They are predictable, there is no challenge they can’t overcome and they don’t reflect reality. Sometimes that’s okay, but I’m at a stage in my life where I don’t read or enjoy fairy tales anymore.  I need real (ish).

In my mind, Harris Tucker becomes a reluctant Mr. Darcy — perhaps the most perfect (slightly flawed) character of all time. It isn’t by choice that Harris does what he does. He has grown up and learned what it is like to accept responsibility and see it through. He is still relatively selfish and still has an ego, but along with it, he has drive and direction and loves others while being loved and accepted despite his flaws, and that is so much more satisfying than perfection.

What happens to professional athletes after they retire?

A few years ago friends of our went to a University of Notre Dame football game. They told us what they saw was a group of very young men, the football players, being treated like kings by their fans. We wondered what life for most of these kids would be like after they’d graduated, since most of them wouldn’t be playing professional football after university. We wondered if they’d miss that time in their lives, if they’d constantly revisit it in their minds, or if they’d be able to move on and be content with what they’d had.

Then I started wondering about how professional athletes handle retirement since so many of them retire in the 30s for physical reasons. We see that some adjust really well and go on to rewarding second careers in commentating, but not all of them can or want to do that.

John McEnroe is a great example. He was never one of my favourite tennis players, but as a commentator (which he’s now been doing longer than he was a professional tennis player), he is fantastic. He knows how to relate his own experience to those of the players and brings us along with him as he describes how they are probably feeling in the middle of a match.

To transition from being in the lime light, competing for trophies, receiving cheers (and boos) from the crowd, to being a commentator, the person who reports about the person on centre court, must have been difficult at first. Your ego must take a real beating. You realize that time has passed and you are no longer the centre of the universe, that your time is over. If however, you get past that and accept it, then you can transition on to other rewarding careers or activities…assuming you know what you want to do.

In Harris’ case, he had basically been in denial that his time in the lime light was over. He had never thought about what to do after tennis because his entire existence right up until the day he retired was about making it to the next round. His decision to retire was abrupt, even he didn’t know it was coming, but his body gave out on him. So he never really accepted that it was over.

Because he was only 32 when he retired he was still young, vibrant with tons of energy but nowhere near the centre of the universe. Harris feeds off crowds so when they aren’t focused on him he isn’t sure how to behave or what to do. He ended up doing pretty much nothing until he’d successfully whittled his bank account down to almost nothing. At least, not enough to live in the style to which he has become accustomed for the rest of his life.

The reason I started the story eight years after retirement was because I wanted to see what he would do when he was financially forced into a corner. Until that time, there isn’t a story to tell since he wandered aimlessly from party to party because he knew how to win tennis games and celebrate and that was about it.

Having no money left forces him to evaluate his life and what he wants to do with it. That’s also when the unpleasant side of his personality comes out. It’s also the most fun to write about!

 

 

Jesse the blind dog

 

As Harris passed Jesse, she faced the wall across from the goat and sheep pens, her nose about six inches away from it, wagging her tail. Harris just looked down at her, then followed Tom. “What’s with your dog?”
Tom looked at Jesse, wagging her tail, staring at the wall.
“Come on Jess! Over here!” Jesse looked in Tom’s direction and the bounded towards him, tongue flopping about. “Slow down girl!” He put his hands out to stop her, but she crashed into his legs anyway. He patted her and she whimpered, while he grunted, since she’d crashed straight into Tom’s shin. “She was born with congenital cataracts. She’s been blind since she was two.”

So then you would be her seeing-eye…family?”

“Pretty much. Generally she copes well on her own, it’s just she’s still not very good at judging distances, so she tends to crash into things. Like my legs.” Now Jesse was staying close to Tom’s side. “There’s not a lot of gray matter in there either.”

Excerpt from A Vintage Year

Why bother making things up when life can bring you interesting ideas? One of the minor characters in my book is a blind black labrador named Jesse. We humans don’t often come across handicapped animals, especially dogs all that often. In fact, normally it’s the other way around and they look after us.

One of my friends had a dog that was born with congenital cataracts and gradually lost her sight starting at the age of 2. The vet told the family that he could operate but that they would just grow back. The dog was happy and managed pretty darn well without sight for the rest of her life. It was funny watching her sometimes, wagging her tail, staring at a wall. If you didn’t know she was blind, you kind of looked at her like she maybe didn’t have all her marbles. She adjusted to her lack of sight very well, comfortable going for walks even in the city. You had to tell her where the sidewalk curbs were, but other than that, she coped just fine.

She was a great dog with a gentle temper who led a long and happy life. She died not too long ago of old age.