I’ve been reading John McPhee’s Giving Good Weight, the title essay of his book by the same name. That last link (to McPhee’s own site) calls it “a story of farmers selling their produce in the Greenmarkets of New York City as told by a journalist who went to work for an upstate farmer, and — in Harlem, in Brooklyn — turned into a salesman of peppers. greenmarketplace in New York.” It was written in the mid-seventies, now more than thirty years ago, but half a dozen years after I worked for a fresh and frozen produce wholesaler at Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, and more still since I drove an ice cream truck in the summers out to the anomalous and amazing Pine Island, out beyond the New York exurbs. Two generations later, McPhee’s prose is still so strong I can smell the setting as if I were there this afternoon:
|West of the suburbs, thirty and more miles from Manhattan, the New Jersey-New York border terrain is precipitous and glaciated and — across a considerable area — innocent of high-speed roads. Minor roads run north and south, flanking the walls of hogback ridges — Pochuck Mountain, Bearfort Mountain, Wawahanda Mountain — but the only route that travels westward with any suggestion of efficiency is the Appalachian Trail. The landscape is remarkably similar to Vermont’s: small clearings, striated outcropings, bouldery fields; rail fences under hard maples; angular roads, not well marked, with wooden signs; wild junipers signaling, as they do, penurious soil; unfenced cemeteries on treeless hillsides; conflagrationary colors in the autumn woods. Moving along such scenes, climbing, descending, losing the way and turning back — remarking how similar to rural New England all this is — one sooner or later tops a rise where the comparison in an instant blinks out. Some distance below, and reaching as far as the eye can conveniently see, is a surface perfectly flat, and not merely flat but also level, and not only level but black as carbon. There are half a dozen such phenomena in this region, each as startling to come upon as the last. Across their smooth expanses, distant hills look like shorelines, the edges of obsidian lakes. The black surfaces were, indeed, once fluid and blue –lakes that stood for many centuries where north-flowing streams were blocked by this or that digital terminus of the retreating Laurentide glacier. Streamborne silt and black organic muck gradually replaced the water… The surface of the mucklands (as they are called) is not altogether firm. It will support a five-inch globe onion. For that matter, it will support a tractor — but it is not nearly dense enough to hold up a house. There are only a few sheds on the wide flats. People live on “islands,” once and present islands, knobs that break through the black surface just as they did when it was blue. Pine island, New York, is a town in a black-dirt sea — the largest and most productive muckland of them all. Maple Island, Merritts Island, Big Island, Black Walnut Island are spaced across it as well, and their clustered houses resemble small European farming communities. The fields surrounding them seem European too, for the acreages of black dirt are ruled off in small, familial segments, like vineyards in Valencia or the Cote d’Or. NO fences, no hedgerows interrupt the vista or separate one farmer form another. Plots abut. The vegetables that come out of this rich organic soil are in their way as special as wines: tall celeries, moist beets, iceberg lettuce as crip as new money, soft Boston salad lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots — and, above all, onions. What the beluga is to caviar the muckland is to onions.”|
Such sweet insult to both my own style — all short paragraphs, like advertising copy — and worthies such as Kurt Vonegut, whose central piece of writing advice was to avoid semicolons.
Anyway, I got to McPhee after reading Transportation, SUV’s, Jingoism … and Chickens, Stephen Lewis‘ latest. Steve, a native of the Lower East Side and more recently of the People’s Republic of Brooklyn, is my New Yawk docent, both on site and on blog.
So, sez Steve, “I came across this article which links the rise and fall of America’s petrol-guzzling, pollution-spewing “Sport Utility Vehicles” not to fluctuations in the prices of motor fuel but to Detroit auto makers’ decades-long successful but ultimately backfiring exploitation of a US backlash against European tariffs on … American chickens!”
Sez the article,
|It started in 1961 with chicken. Trying to stop a surge of chicken imports into Germany, the European Common Market bowed to the European poultry lobby and almost tripled the tariff on frozen chicken from the United States. Washington, of course, struck back. In 1963, it raised tariffs on a range of European products: brandy to hit the French; dextrine, a food and glue component, to hit the Dutch.|
|To target Germany, the Johnson administration imposed a 25 percent tariff on light-truck imports, a barrier that fell on Volkswagen, which exported vans to the United States. “Why should we be the scapegoats in the chicken war?” lamented Heinz Nordoff, Volkswagen’s chief executive at the time.|
|The chicken war ended, but the tariff survived. It explains a lot about why Detroit chose to stake its future on S.U.V.’s...|
|Years of cheap gas (unleaded didn’t breach $2 a gallon until 2004) helped a lot — as did government tax breaks and looser rules on fuel efficiency and tailpipe emissions. Perhaps most important, Washington used the chicken tariff to wall off the light-truck market, giving American automakers a protected and profitable niche to exploit...|
|The downside of this is evident today. Light trucks account for 57 percent of sales at General Motors; 62 percent of Ford’s; 72 percent of Chrysler’s. It’s not a good place to be with gas at $3.50 a gallon.|
Reminds me of the textile industry a couple decades ago, when import quotas were imposed on other countries to protect businesses at home that were long gone. The other countries’ governments then sold those quotas to highest bidders, with these artificial costs passed on by foreign manufactuers to American intermediaries and customers. Maybe that’s still going on. Probably is. Dunno.
Maybe one or more of the rest of ya’ll can tell me.
Of course we’ll see more unintended consequences of forgotten policies in the next administration as well. Stay tuned for those.