Long before the news stations announced that the apples might be ready early this year, I saw the over achievers spring up in the makeshift landscapes of the Farmers Market stalls, bold and firm in their pristine sacks swaggeringly red and white amongst the splintering brown crates of club sized wizened carrots and rot speckled tomatoes too long off the vine. The contrast is as striking as that between local and tourist at these affairs. The locals trudge away with a handful of yellow beans or some cukes in the paper sacks they brought with them. The tourists linger between the stalls, their arms full of plastic bagged breads and veggies and herbs, chatting with local artisans in the ambience of hand-made soap scents.
There’s more time to be green when you don’t have to punch in for your twice-a-week, 6pm to 6am shift at the fish packing plant.
This Saturday the residents of orchard country will shut their windows against the dust and noise as hoards of SUVs full of suburban bargain hunters rumble by on their way to yet another organic event: apple picking. Feet accustomed to smooth concrete will stumble over roots and grass clumps while foraging instincts numbed by years of supermarket bins full of glossy Macs will seize the ready to hand, spur and all if need be. Some of the pick will be tossed aside immediately for slight imperfections, while much of the rest, untouched after a week, will end its days in a trash can buried under layer after layer of microwave entrée packaging while the postings about the event slide further down the Facebook pages.
The toll is higher than just a few Cortlands. Vending green isn’t exactly idyllic, either.
At the end of the day, the orchard owners will tally the day’s take and ready the peck and bushel sacks for the morrow, all the while bemoaning the carelessness and callousness of their patrons. This love-hate relationship is played out every day in every shop and tavern and inn across the region, against a backdrop of LL Bean ads and Kinkade prints on the one hand and dilapidated mobile homes flanked by rust-pitted cars on the other. The locals in the lakes region complain vociferously, often rightly so, about “Summer Complaints” – intestinal distress caused not by pathogens in the water but by the people from “away” with their condescending attitudes and callous, sometimes even overtly hostile behavior. But they are also quick to sell the tourists damaged furniture as antiques, charge them extra for gas and groceries, and rent them their moldy houses as lake view cottages at exorbitant prices.
It is a sad, precarious situation even in good times. But as the national economy has worsened, to get by more and more of them have had to take on two part-time jobs or resort to stealing scrap metal from abandoned farms or woodlots to sell off at the local recycling center, filling the hours between mowing lawns and grading driveways for celebrities and Fortune 500 executives who now stop in to visit their million dollar summer homes only once or twice a year. The residents call this – the grounds work, that is – honest pay for an honest day’s work. The slogan ennobles the struggle to get by in a crushingly limited and fragile economy just long enough to see your children join the Guard or go into debt at community colleges in order to compete for a mere handful of minwage retiree- or tourism-dependent service jobs.
If those who disparage the Summer Complaints sometimes appear to be no better behaved than those on the other side of the cash register, it is to be expected. People treat as they are treated and this seasonal tourist economy is inherently opportunistic, a delicately balanced, cyclic ecosystem of disposable income, disposable natural and transient human resources, and (on both sides of the register) the desire for novelty and escape.
But once stressed, an ecosystem either adapts or fails.
In better times, probably the little things would go unnoticed. Yet now I cannot help but wonder, as the sun sets and the patrons abandon the Market stalls for the inn or for the warehouse floor, trampling as they go the shadow darkened grass, whether the look of disappointment on everybody’s face is just part of the cycle, or the beginning of its end.