On the Train Again

East of Erie, PA, grapevines replace cornfields. In this season they’re golden brown tinged with bronze-green, 4 feet high, neat rows well-staked & mostly full of old, vigorous plants. The “fields” flow along beside the train, basking in the mild climate at the east end of Lake Erie.

But there are some subtle differences between these plots of grape vines & fields of corn. What I notice first is that many of the plots are small & tucked into odd nooks. Corn fields tend to be large and square.

There are collections of huge wooden boxes, perhaps 4 feet on a side, stacked near pickup trucks at edges of these “fields.” After seeing a few of these I’m certain that they are packing boxes. Corn fields are usually spare and empty.

The third big difference, I finally realize, is that these plots of grapevines don’t have wide wheel tracks around the edges. That’s why they can fit in small spaces, and why they seem like they’re cozier, somehow, more intimate with the landscape around them.

Because grapes mean hand tending. There’s no need to bring in heavy machinery: The vines are planted once, pruned & trained by hand. The grapes are picked by hand.

And in this country, that means migrant labor, most likely Spanish-speaking families whose bilingual kids bear the brunt of interpreting for their parents.

I did a funeral for a woman from the Nassau shul who devoted a lot of time & energy & care to tutoring kids of migrant workers in Columbia County. In addition to the standard English, Hebrew, & Aramaic of a Jewish funeral, a congregant helped me translate some parts of the eulogy into Spanish, along with explanations of the funeral itself. I found Psalm 23 in Spanish on-line, and 2 years of middle school Spanish meant my pronounciation was good even if I didn’t know all the words.

That was how I first learned about the large Spanish-speaking community of migrant agricultural workers this far north. Think Woody Guthrie, “Pastures of Plenty.”