In this serialized novel set on the Vineyard in real time, a native Islander (“Call me Becca”) returns home after many years in Manhattan. Her uncle Abe requires assistance to keep their landscaping business, Pequot, afloat. Through Mott (Pequot’s general manager) she’s met Quincas (a Brazilian) and the rest of Pequot’s staff. Her Uncle Abe has an intense loathing of Richard Moby, the CEO of Broadway, an off-Island landscaping business. Abe is irrationally convinced that Moby wants to destroy Abe personally, as well as all Island-based landscaping/nursery businesses in general.
June 27, 2008
Greetings from an Island currently obsessed with things that don’t quite fly right (helicopters, plovers, rabid turkeys). Since you asked in your last letter (and since I’m eager to take a break from chronicling Abe’s nuttiness) let me try to explain: life really is different on an island. Commerce is different, too. There are two primary differences from mainland life, those being: 1, there is a finite amount of land and 2, everything has to travel over the water to get to us. The second issue affects almost everyone; the first affects many, but especially those in businesses that require physical space to expand.
It’s not just that off-Island nurseries have more affordable room to grow than Island growers; it’s the domino effect created by all that room. When you have thousands of acres — as Broadway does, and as nobody on the Vineyard can afford — you can create a very efficient, largely mechanized assembly-line that allows your per-plant cost to be much, much lower — so low that if Broadway decided to sell straight to consumers here on the Island, even with their shipping expenses, they could undercut all of us.
Well, what’s wrong with that, I hear you asking — isn’t that what a free market is all about? If they’ve got a better MO than you do, that’s your problem. Ah, but it’s not that simple. In order to maximize their efficiency, they minimize their variety. They choose what is cheapest and easiest for them to grow. There’s no consideration given to the glory of variety or the value of biodiversity. They sell what the American public has been brainwashed (by the Broadways of the world) into thinking they’re supposed to have. The same old red petunias, the same old purple pansies. So they grow fewer choices in much greater quantity, which adds to their bottom line but subtracts from the beauty of cultivated nature.
So here’s the effect it has here, on the Island, in the eyes of consumers buying plants: they see a half-dozen kind of plants at a reasonable price, and then another half dozen kind at what strikes them as an unreasonable price. The “unreasonably priced” plants are, of course, the ones grown on Island, by Islanders. They are sometimes more unusual, possibly heirloom or, on the other extreme, possibly recent cultivars intended to work specifically well in a New England coastal zone. In other words, the quality of the plants is usually higher – but so is the price. Not because the Island growers are trying to price-gouge their neighbors, and maybe not even because they feel like they have a “better product” that deserves “better income” but because there’s literally no other way to do it. (Short of snagging mature flora from your friendly neighborhood conservation area.)
So the locally-grown plants become sort of culturally marginalized: they are associated with elitism and rich summer people and even with conspicuous consumption. Ironically, Mr. Moby of Broadway — the man responsible for the “price-friendly” cookie-cutter plants — is the only one who’s made enough money to engage in conspicuous consumption; the local growers are scrambling to hold things together. I guess if all you were interested in was money, then yeah, Mr. Moby has the better business model — but everyone else has a kind of integrity, a sense of personal/civic/community responsibility about what they grow, that he lacks. They’re making a positive contribution to the planet. Mr. Moby is making money. Rumor has it the dude’s never even set foot in a greenhouse. So he makes money; consumers get cheap plants but they’re all about as close to plastic as a living plant can be; diversity gets left in the dust; and so do the folks who are trying to keep the Vineyard’s character from turning into the mainland. So here we are, damned in the midst of Paradise!
Is this really a life-and-death struggle? No. There’s plenty of natural vegetation on the Island, and if every nursery went out of business, we wouldn’t suddenly look like the suburbs, much less a parking lot. But it’s a sort of stand-in for how a lot of Island business and commerce works — and obviously it affects me, now, since I’m back here to help with the family business which happens to be landscaping with my monomaniacal Uncle Abe.
I wish Abe could let go of his hatred for Mr. Moby. Some Tibetan monks visited the Island last weekend; they “painted” an incredibly intricate design with colored sand. It took them days of concentration — and then they just swept all their effort into a pile and threw it into the water at State Beach (mystifying a couple local kids jumping off the bridge). Talk about non-attachment! Mott, Quincas and I went to watch it together. “If only Abe could release obsession the way those fellows released that sand,” sighed Mott. Amen.
Well that’s this week’s insular diatribe. Hope things are peachy in Manhattan.
All best, Becca
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Vineyard novelist Nicole Galland’s critically-acclaimed works include Crossed: A Tale of the Fourth Crusade. Visit her Web site, nicolegalland.com, for more on Moby Rich.