12/5/22

The Cellist a "New Cold War" Thriller

 

THE CELLIST (2021)

By Daniel Silva

HarperCollins, 458 pages

★★★★

 

 

 

Daniel Silva is a skillful writer of spy thrillers who usually situates his narratives within the ongoing struggles between Israel and their Arab and Palestinian enemies. In The Cellist though, he focuses on a different foe: Russia. It begins with the London murder of dissident Viktor Orlov. The stand-in Russian leader in the novel who ordered the hit–via packaged documents treated with a nerve agent–is clearly Vladimir Putin. British law enforcement has arrested Nina Antonova for the crime and the evidence looks airtig except that there is no logical motive. Nina writes for an anti-kleptocracy newspaper and is herself a dissident émigré.

 

This arouses the suspicion of Silva's hero, Gabriel Allon, a former super spy who now heads Israeli intelligence and can't fathom Antonova as a killer. It takes one to know one. Allon's the right man to investigate: erudite, a talented art restorer, an unapologetic defender of Israel, and (when need be) an efficient assassin. What he's not is a reckless cowboy; Allon operations are planned in meticulous detail. Silva's books are written with parallel care and intelligence. Not many writers would build a plot involving financial networks and Russian oligarchs with art, a cellist, and an apolitical philanthropist.

 

Allon touches base with Sarah Bancroft, a curator and business partner at London's Julian Isherwood Gallery. A painting, the Lute, comes to light that Bancroft thinks is a previously unknown Artemisia Gentileschi, a find that would send the art world into a frenzy. (Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque painter and is now recognized as the creator of works previously attributed to male artists.) Not coincidentally, Bancroft is a former CIA agent and her lover, Christopher Keller, an intelligence analyst.

 

 Allon also works on Martin Landesmann, a Zurich banker/philanthropist who heads an NGO, Global Alliance for Democracy. He's so pure that he has been dubbed “St. Martin” by admirers and critics alike. The final puzzle piece is the book's namesake, Isabel Brenner. Allon knows that if you want to catch a big fish you need potent bait. He's after a very big fish: Arkady Akimov, Russia's second richest man and the one who bankrolls Russia's leader. He happens to love art, classical music, and beautiful women. As one of the world's most accomplished musicians and a physical stunner, Isabel ticks the last two boxes very well. She also once worked for Rhine Bank (and with Allon).

 

It would be folly to try to get an agent close enough to kill Putin-not-Putin, so Allon’s plan is to send the Russian economy into a tailspin and somehow exonerate Antonova. The particulars are complex and need to be read to be appreciated, so suffice it to say things are done in steps via unwitting intermediaries. One of them is Rhine Bank, reportedly the world's most corrupt financial institution. Landesmann sets up a dummy investment group to breach Rhine Bank and its dealings with the Russian Laundromat, a pipeline for money to undermine democracy in revenge for the West’s role in the fall of the Soviet Union.

 

The Cellist features various intelligence networks and death-defying escapes. It is, admittedly on Silva's part, something of a revenge fantasy. If you read between the lines, in addition to the monomaniacal Putin stand-in, Rhine Bank is Deutsche Bank thinly veiled (which might actually be the world's most amoral credit/investment firm), and Arkady is a composite of numerous Russian sleazebags, one of whom is Putin's right-hand man Yevgeny Prigozhin. Silva has been outspoken in assertions that Donald Trump conspired with Putin to steal the 2016 election and that Trump and flunkies such as Q Anon, Paul Manafort, Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and anti-Semite Mary Miller orchestrated the January 6, 2021 insurrection. Some of them appear in drag in the novel. Oh wait, they're already in drag! They masquerade as human.

 

The Cellist is a novel with many pieces. To be candid, Silva’s desire to expose real-world villains occasionally force-fits some of the pieces. Covid, for example, makes a guest appearance and is only tangentially relevant to the plot, though more so than the January 6 alt.narrative he introduces. Plus, if U.S. Intelligence was as good as Allon’s, Trump would be swaying from a gibbet by now. But give me a choice between a smart counterfactual approach and a cliché-riddled thriller and I'll go with the former.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12/2/22

Life Magazine Spotlighted at MFA Boston

 

LIFE MAGAZINE AND THE POWER OF PHOTOGRAPHY

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Through January 16, 2023

 

A current exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) takes a deep look at Life Magazine. (That’s a journalism pun; Life’s chief competitor was Look.) 

 

Life goes to press

 

Life published weekly from 1883-1972 and monthly from 1978-2000. There’s still one called Life, but if you ignore magazines at the supermarket checkout, you might not be aware of that. It only does “commemorative” issues of iconic events and bears little resemblance to the original, though the photography remains stellar.

 

One might argue that the demise of Life doesn’t really matter. After all, one can go to Google Images and find any image one wishes. You could, but Life once offered that the Internet does not. At one time Life entered 25% of all American homes each week, which made it an influencer of public views on human-interest stories, but also of important social issues concerning war, race, technology, protest, and other public interest topics. I know of nothing substantive that reaches that much of the public today, unless one is naïve enough to think Tik Tok, Instagram, or Facebook are “substantive.” The latter actually contribute to the noise that distracts us from focusing on important things.

 


 

 The MFA exhibit is small, but it’s more than random pictures. You will also learn about how photographers and writers collaborated and about Life’s discerning–read picky–editors and photo curators. One measure of this is a long table piled high with rejected 35mm slides–a million of them! The above 1946 photo of Natalie Kosek with a bin of rejected photos and scads more on her desk, the bulk of which will end up there after a page dumps her garbage. Another display shows strips of negatives that meticulous editors wearing jewelers’ loops pored over to select the best images, and contact sheets showing how they were cropped.

 



 Life was a pioneer in bringing women aboard. Its first photo cover was from Margaret Bourke-White, soon to be a favored Life contributor. The subject is the Fort Peck Dam in Montana, and the internal spread shoed her shots of instant shanty towns that housed and attended to the needs of the construction crews. Other than New Deal agencies, I can’t think of another outlet that meant as much to Depression era shutterbugs than Life

 


 


 

 

 

The magazine went to war in the 1940s. Robert Capa contributed an image that, at first glance, might make you wonder why it was chosen given that it’s out of focus. When you realize that it’s an American GI swimming ashore of D-Day in 1944, that blurry shot perfectly captures the frantic chaos of the invasion of France, the grim determination of the soldiers, and the dangers they faced. The magazine also excelled in subtle propaganda during the war. Carl Mydans went on assignment at the relocation camps where Japanese-American were interned as “enemy aliens” during World War II, surely one of the most shameful incidents in this nation’s history. Instead of belaboring sorrow, Mydans gave us seemingly banal shots. That was the point; Mydans normalized Japanese-Americans to underscore that they were as “American” as their jailers.

 

 




 

Numerous Life Magazine photos became so familiar that they were mythologized. A lot of history textbooks duplicated a brilliantly ironic Bourke-White image of African Americans standing in a food line. Chances are good it’s labeled a Great Depression breadline. Not so! They were victims of a 1937 Louisville flood. Alfred Eisenstaedt captured the euphoria of Victory over Japan Day in Times Square (1945). Popular opinion holds that it’s two sweethearts kissing; in truth, they were strangers and didn’t meet again until many years later. Such indeed is the power of photography! 

 


 

 


 

 

After the war, Life published another famous photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose people of Russia photos were rare glimpses behind the Iron Curtain. Frank Dandridge’s 1963 “Birmingham Bombing Victim” silently but powerfully portrayed the tragedy and pathos of racism and Neil Armstrong’s image of fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin—seen here reprinted in one of the aforementioned commemorative issues –altered the way Americans began to think of their solar system. Life seldom engaged in abstract art photography, but Fritz Goro contributed a stunning look at a red laser light fired through a pinhole in a razor blade. It’s especially stunning given that it was made in 1962.

 



 

 

Call me crazy, but maybe we need to revive Life and assign picky editors to Instagram.

 

Rob Weir  

11/30/22

The Lioness Over-Populated but a Heat-Pounding Thrill

 

THE LIONESS (2022)

By Chris Bohjalian 

Doubleday, 315 pages 

★★★ 1/2 

 


 
 

Chris Bohjalian isn’t the most literary novelist in the land, but he's certainly one of our finest storytellers. He does deep dives into background research, a talent he honed when he wrote for the Burlington Free Press back in the 1980s–before Gannett bled it and other dailies dry to divert their assets into Useless Today.

 

This time Bohjalian takes us back to the hair-trigger Cold War in the early 1960s as it played out in East Africa. Weddings gone wrong are so overdone as to have become cliché, but The Lioness is about a honeymoon gone so far off the rails that Hades would have seemed a relative paradise. It also sandpapers the sheen from varnished celebrity.

 

Popular actress Katie Barstow tied the knot with gallery owner David Hill and invited her peeps along on a destination honeymoon before that was a thing. Who could resist a luxury guided safari to Kenya? The guest list included her agent and her publicist, Peter Merrick and Reggie Stout respectively, but also three of her closest friends: actress Carmen Tedesco, African American actor Terrance Dutton, and screenwriter Felix Demeter. Katie's older brother Billy Stepanov, a self-help psychologist, and his pregnant wife Margie are also on the A-list. Everyone loves Katie; even though she and Billy were badly treated by their theatre parents, Katie is kind, confident, and bubbly–a mighty mite whose qualities evoke images of Veronica Lake.

 

Katie’s honeymoon is a let's-look-at-some-wild-animals adventure. Charlie Patton and his crew at Safari Adventures know where to find them, but caution everyone that the savannah is a place where the dead are eaten, not carried home. This is the setup for several jeep loads of circumstances that bump us between East Africa and Hollywood. Most of the book is set in the years1961-64, with flashbacks to childhood and a leap forward to a 2022 coda. In the 1960s, colonialism was collapsing across Africa, but borning independence was not a painless delivery. The fracturing of the Belgian Congo, threats of war between Kenya and the former German Tanganyika, untold numbers of rival tribes, and hostilities in Rwanda (!) made Africa an overripe fruit to be plucked during tit-for-tat Cold War proxy battles between the United States and the Soviet Union.

 

Patton respected lions, hyenas, leopards, crocodiles, and snakes, but he feared Americans and Russians: 

           

... they all scare me a hell of a lot more then pissed off rhinos and ornery lions. The rhinos know we are a threat and the lions have learned we can be very risky prey .... But the Russians and Americans? We are just pawns on the chess board. Harmless and expendable.

 

Consider that remark foreshadowing. Nationalist chaos, global anxiety, Yankee tourists, celebrities, and not-so-buried Western spook activity have all the markings of a hostage situation. But who are the kidnappers? They mockingly assume the noms de guerre of American astronauts Grissom, Glenn, Shepard, and Cooper and sound Russian, but who can be sure? What are the chances your abductors won't kill you once they collect their demanded ransom? When do you decide to take direct action and what should it be? What are the consequences of failure? Or, indeed, of success so far from settled civilization? 

 

Bohjalian educates his readers yet hides didacticism inside a novelistic structure that sucks us into the drama. Who is the titular lioness? I changed my mind several times before that identity was confirmed! Bohjalian also cleverly appropriates Cold War spy novel tropes such as agents, double agents, moles, and compromised loyalties. He overlays early 1960s norms of masculinity and femininity and what could be justified in the name of patriotism.

 

This is an ambitious novel, overly so in my estimation. Because Bohjalian has stuffed a lot of characters into a 315-page book, some by necessity must become sacrificial lambs. He similarly telegraphs other outcomes, another casualty of overpopulation. I am less charitable when he slips from early 60s norms and drifts into those of today.

 

To toss my critic’s hat in the closet, I doubt the above critique will matter to most readers. Bohjalian is simply a masterful spinner of yarns; tell a spell-bounding story and your audience is too invested to notice holes in the literary fabric. Call The Lioness a classic page-turner.

 

Rob Weir

 

11/28/22

That Touch of Mink Works on Several Levels

 

THAT TOUCH OF MINK (1962)

Directed by Delbert Mann

Universal Pictures, 99 minutes, Unrated

★★★★

 


 

 

That Touch of Mink is a charming romantic comedy and a slice of 1962 social values. The United States was in the thrall of post-World War II victory culture (to borrow Tom Engelhardt’s term). For those who came through the Great Depression and wartime shortages, materialism held allure. The mink in the film’s title was a marker of wealth, not a perverse desire to slaughter little brown weasels, hence a mink coat was an object of desire for millions of American women.

 

Gender roles were quite different in 1962. Patriarchy reigned, women working was perceived as temporary until marriage, the Baby Boom remained loud and prolific, and women pursuing men was commonplace. That’s the way it was; if you can’t take it, tell it to your therapist and avoid this movie. That Touch of Mink is about a society with prescribed roles. Looming on the horizon were the Port Huron Statement, Vietnam, feminism, and other things that shifted cultural perspectives.

 

You could view That Touch of Mink as the last gasp of a fading value system, or just as a fluffy romp. I recommend the second. It’s a late screwball comedy leavened by the sharp script of Stanley Shapiro and Nate Monaster; that is, lots of snarky badinage, an attract/repulse/attract romance, and improbable situations that make sense within their manufactured contexts. It’s funny!

 

Cathy Timberlake (Doris Day) is an Ohio-born woman living in New York City and sharing an apartment with Connie Emerson (Audrey Meadows). Connie slips her extra food through the window of the Horn & Hardart automat at which she works, but Cathy needs a job. She is dressed for an interview in full 1962 battle armor: a dress, hose, evening gloves, and coiffed hair. As she walks down the street, a chauffeured Rolls drenches her with dirty water. She is mortified by her condition and that the car didn’t stop. (Hey, she’s from Ohio!)

 

Actually, the car’s owner, Philip Shayne (Cary Grant) ordered the driver to circle the block but Cathy was gone. Later, he gazes out the window of his high-rise office and sees her going into the automat. He’s a busy executive and has an upcoming meeting, so he sends his assistant Roger (Gig Young) across the street to pay for cleaning her clothing. Mistaken identity occurs, Connie offers bad advice, and Cathy is outraged by Payne’s poor manners.

 

When she bursts into Shayne’s office to throw the money in his face, though, she is instantly smitten by his good looks and charm. It’s the start of an off-and-on courtship that rockets between giddiness to misunderstanding and back again. Cathy will get a mink and then some. Everything always works out in a screwball comedy, but first obstacles must be overcome, not the least of which is Cathy’s fear that Shayne is trying to bed her.

 

Screwball comedies without topnotch actors seldom work. No worries. Cary Grant was arguably the best screwball actor of all time. Who could wine, dine, beguile, and be silly better than he? Doris Day is also terrific. She walks a tightrope between naiveté and self-confidence, all the while swaying this way and that with superb comic timing. It’s the kind of role Marilyn Monroe might have taken, but Day was a superior talent.

 

The secondary roles are equally sharp. Gig Young is hysterical as the self-flagellating Roger, who left Princeton to work for the “evil” Shayne who tortures him with raises, a pension, and benefits! He’s so “miserable” that he sees a distracted therapist (Alan Hewitt) who pumps him for stock tips, mishears, and thinks Roger is gay.* Young gets some of the best lines in the film and he makes the most of them. Audrey Meadows shed her Honeymooners role as a doughty housewife, but retained her tart tongue. There is also a chewy role for John Astin–who later attained fame in The Addams Family­–as a sleazy suitor for Cathy’s affections. Even Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, and umpire Art Passarella got into the act in a cameo diversion with Cathy and Payne sitting beside them in a Yankee Stadium dugout.

 

In all, That Touch of Mink is pure gold. Gold was $35.35 an ounce in 1962, about $328 in 2021 dollars. Great deal! Buy it! Gold now sells for nearly $1,760 and you can get a really nice coat for that.

 

Rob Weir

 

* Yes, humor was wrung from gayness in 1962. But that was a good thing, as movies subtly helped change perceptions. They helped in the evolution from being an illegal “perversity” to a humorous condition, and (eventually) acceptance.

11/25/22

I Swear I've Given Up Swearing


 

 

 

I don’t make New Year or Lent resolutions. My reflective period comes around Thanksgiving. It seems a better time to take stock and see if I can work on attitude adjustment. I did something last year that worked pretty darn well. The word “darn” is a hint. Give up? I vowed to quit swearing.

 

I’ve never had a serious potty mouth, but I’m guilty of invectives when angered or frustrated. Before I retired, I had occasional bad teaching days and mind-numbing stupidity has always gotten under my skin. I never cussed out a student; I waited until I was out of earshot and let loose. Stupidity was another matter, especially politics, rip-off artists, and Massachusetts motorists. I’ll be understatedly charitable and say that we deserve every dime we pony up for auto insurance. Quite a few Bay State drivers are candidates for the psych ward.  

 

I’ve done well in my quest to stop swearing–not 100% but good enough to be in the A/A- range. That’s a shocker. Those who know me can attest that I’ll never be confused with a New Age crystal hugger. My academic philosophy is rooted in conflict theory, the belief that social change comes through opposition rather than consensus. Metaphorically (and sometimes literally), I doubt those in charge ever give up anything unless they’re forced to do so. I still call out miscreants and work myself into a righteous lather, so how on earth did I manage to can foul outbursts?

 

First, I’ve never used religious swears. I know enough to know what I don’t know, so I find it pointless to get into debates over the supernatural. My gut tells me it’s weird to postulate the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient power in one breath and insist in the next that any principality can be completely contained in a book or single faith. I try to respect the best of all religions, though I’m tempted to swear at those who insist they hold a monopoly on truth, use religion to gain wealth, or employ violence and claim they are commanded to use it. But even when I feel utter contempt and express it, I try not to be profane.

 

Weariness was another motivator. I became so sick of hearing f-bombs that I opted out of adding to air pollution. F-bombs have become the domain of boorish hipsters, the poorly educated, MAGA hat-wearing clods, teenagers trying to sound tough, hip-hoppers too unimaginative to find a decent rhyme, and legions of others who reflexively let loose whenever they are unhappy. Hipster f-bombs are especially irksome; they’ve managed to make all things f-related boring. When I hear a hipster swear I think, “Stuff it in your knitted cap. Nobody but you thinks you’re cool.”

 

Another word I refuse to use starts with B and slanders women. I find it so offensive that when women use it to discuss themselves or other women, I want to e-mail them applications for the National Organization of Women. That’s not a bad idea; I often wonder if feminism ever happened. When it comes to other demeaning terms for women’s bodies (or a person’s sexual preferences)–the kind you hear from Trump and bad boy rappers–I advocate mandatory pig snout transplants.

 

I find the lesser swears the hardest to avoid, though there is a long tradition of invented substitutes. W. C. Fields is credited with coining drat and Godfrey Daniels, Robin Williams (as Mork) used shazbot, and the movie version of Room Service gave us jumping butterballs. I’ve heard people use son of a monkey, frick, frak, and the ever-popular freakin.’ I invented my own faux curse: “I don’t give a sqwanker’s farley.”

 

But the main reason I curbed my cussing is that I cope better when I refrain. Maybe it’s that short pause when my brain is processing a suitable alternative–an adult timeout that gets me centered. I often shake my head at things that used to set me off. Plus, there are a lot of unhinged people in the world, so it’s not the best idea to flip the bird or fulminate around someone nuttier than a Snicker’s.

 

This holiday season I vow to cleanse my tongue further. I figure what’s the point of learning lots of vocab and confine myself to a few 4-letter terms? Wish me luck.

 

If you’d like to pursue a similar path but can’t go cold turkey, try impolite jargon few others will understand. The English, Irish, and Scots lexicons contain gems such as bauchule, berk, bloody eejit, bollocks, filthy cow, glakit, and sodding buggeration. I’d translate for you but, you know.

 

Rob Weir

11/23/22

The Runaways is Dull and Off-Target

 

THE RUNAWAYS (2010)

Directed by Floria Sigismondi

Apparition, 106 minutes, R (sexual situations involving teens)

★★

 

 

 

Is it possible to make Joan Jett seem boring? Watch the 2010 film The Runaways and you’ve got your answer. It’s an oblique glance at the band that not-yet-17Jett envisioned in 1975 that’s now considered a pioneering all-female rock ensemble. The movie, though, focuses more on 15-year-old lead singer Cherie Currie–to the degree that it stays focused on anything.

 

1975 was a weird cultural moment; 1960s rock gave way to soft rock and the sonic emptiness of disco. Into the void stepped punk, a DIY alternative to corporate rock. It allegedly embraced an ethos of violence, rebellion, and rejection of disco’s glittery-but- vacuous materialism. In truth, many punk bands were every bit as fabricated as made-for-TV Monkees (1966), a list includes The Sex Pistols and, to a great degree, The Runaways. Joan Marie Larkin transformed herself into Joan Jett, but the band was largely assembled by record producer Kim Fowley to get the right “look.” The right sound was of secondary concern.

 

Sparkling fidelity was seldom the point of punk, but Fowley never quite decided what his creation was supposed to be: punk, hard rock, glam, or something else. (Their glam persona looked a bit like the Bee Gees undergoing hormone treatment.) The film leaves the impression that Fowley (Michael Shannon) wanted the Runaways to be a masturbatory jailbait fantasy for young men. Jett (Kristen Stewart) recedes into the background as we watch Currie (Dakota Fanning) mutate into a 15-year-old Lolita crossed with a Victoria’s Secret street walker. The other Runaways–Lita Ford, Sandy West, and Robin Robins–are little more than extras that occasionally moan about how Currie’s come-hither soft porn, drug usage, and raging ego is ruining the band. In less than four years The Runaways went from international sensation–the Japanese went nuts over them–to Jett solo projects.

 

This bit of music history has been dissected like high school biology frogs, but this isn’t the movie’s biggest problem. Currie’s story held potential for a potent drama–an alcoholic father, a broken home, manipulation by Fowley, drug addiction, a breakdown, reconciliation with her twin sister–but director Floria Sigismondi presents everything without taking into account that The Runaways was Jett’s band and she its enduring legacy.

 

Casting was a major problem. Stewart and Fanning were roughly the right age for their respective parts back then–20 and 16–but this doesn’t mean either was cut out for them. Some may take issue with this, but I simply don’t get the Kristen Stewart phenomenon then or now; at her best she’s merely adequate and in The Runaways she’s as flat as a Heartland highway. Fanning was/is much more talented, but Currie wasn’t a good role. I suspect she was cast because Sigismondi wanted audiences to infer a physical as well as emotional loss of innocence, but at 16 Fanning exuded a sweetness that makeup, foul language, and lingerie could not hide. She was, as she appeared, a skinny kid whose attempts at playing a sex kitten invokes the feeling she hadn’t yet been weaned.

 

Michael Shannon was given leeway to portray Fowley as a greedy and abusive sexist pig. What we see on the screen is classic overkill with Shannon hurling invectives, threats, screams, and garbage. Fowley’s questionable character aside, Shannon’s overwrought performance comes off as caricature, not a slice of musical history.

 

The Runaways has a few redeeming qualities. It’s another reminder of why Joni Mitchell chose the phrase “star maker machinery” in her 1974 song “Free Man in Paris.” (Mitchell is proof not all mid-70s music sucked!) Celebrity can be a deadly game if you try to live the hype. Despite Sigismondi’s clunky direction, it’s hard not to sympathize with how a kid like Currie could get ground up by the machine (and that it still happens). It was also interesting to see a mature Taum O’Neal cameo as Currie’s mother, given that some felt she too was stained by early fame.

 

Mostly, though, The Runaways was more dud than a “Cherry Bomb.”

 

Rob Weir

11/21/22

Cranberries: Bogs to Bags to Bellies

 

I recently wrote about common crackers. Millions of Americans are about to shovel in an equally unpretentious food and I don’t mean the fan-tailed meleagris, aka/ the turkey. I’m talking about its bright red plated sidekick: cranberries.

 

 

 

 

This fall I knocked off a bucket list item by venturing to Chatham on Cape Cod to see and hear all about the cranberry harvest. Suffice it to say I had little idea about the process or the challenges facing growers. My defense is that I grew up in dairy and mixed farming country; cows and wheat I know, cranberries not so much. I’m not sure I ever saw fresh cranberries as a kid; for all I knew, they grew inside cans or muffins.

 

 

 

Like farmers of all kinds, cranberry producers work hard and are at the mercy of the weather and the market. Cranberries have to be tended constantly despite the fact they grow in “bogs.” Too much or too little rain wreaks havoc and the picking season is maddeningly short–pretty much October to the week before Thanksgiving. Then it’s pray for a good price. The bulk of Massachusetts cranberries are sold to two large firms: Ocean Spray or Quebec processor Fruit d’Or. Don’t want to accept what they offer? Good luck with all those berries.

 

 

 

Sixty-one-year-old Dave Ross of Little Scoop Cranberry Farm hires help for the harvest, but he’s essentially a one-man operation. In the company of Emily and friends Dominique and Tess we toured Dave’s property and got the lowdown. You’ve probably seen pictures of berries floating on ponds. I foolishly thought cranberries grew in water like some mutant form of red rice. I knew they ripened on bushes, but I was thinking something along the lines of tall, watery domesticated blueberries. I should have been thinking about wild blueberries–the sort that grow on the surface and are seldom higher than a foot or so high. 

 


 

 

The water is the nearly last step, not the first. Before that happens, a cranberry bog isn’t very picturesque; it’s a big messy shrubland with weeds and other vegetation poking out. Any standing water comes from Mother Nature, not human hands. The berries ripen and look a bit like rounded vermilion coffee beans. When they blush red, it’s time to turn on the taps.

 


 

Here's where I was really clueless. All those aerial shots of cranberries suggest they float in a deep lake, so I assumed boats were somehow involved in knocking the berries off their stems. What was I thinking!? Some kind of weed whacker for fruit? Actually, cranberry ponds are shallow enough that in ye olden days farmers donned waders, carried snapping scoops through the water, and plucked the berries from the vines. A few hobby farmers still do that if there are growing only for personal use.

 

Today, most cranberries are harvested by something that looks like a Rube Goldberg lawn mower crossed with an egg beater. They are driven through the water and rotating blunt blades knock the berries into the water. Because cranberries have four air pockets in which the seeds are held, the berries rise to the surface. Cranberry dogs then round up the berries and put them in a corral. Oh wait! I’m wrong about that. Actually, booms are used to contain them and it depends on how meticulous the farmer gets in collecting them. Those that are not gathered help reseed the area. Those wicked cool crimson seas pictured on the Internet are the contained berries that get vacuumed into the back of trucks through wide hoses; no aquatic Roombas need apply. 

 


 


 

 

Then berries are cleaned, sorted, and sent to the distributor while farmers spend the holiday season hoping for a nice check that covers growing costs, hired labor, and leaves a bit of profit behind. Soon, it’s first-and-ten/do it again as they prep for the next year’s crop. Let’s be frank:  New England cranberry growers are at a metaphorical crossroad. Hybrid berries increase their yield, but can old-style bogs compete with the enormous square plantation-style production of Wisconsin, which is now the largest producer in the nation?

 I hope so. Dave’s farm is a throwback, but it’s colorful in ways no industrial farm can be. I gained appreciation for how something as unpresuming as a cranberry is a labor of love. I shall ponder this each time I bite into a muffin or see a red berried puddle on my Thanksgiving plate.

 

Rob Weir

 [Note: All photos are mine except the two harvester machines and old-fashioned scoop.]