Ripening

Last spring while stuck in a slowdown on Route 28 in East Falmouth, I decided to stop idling the car and to pull into Mahoney's to get a little greenery for our yard. Since our place was built, a sloping escarpment of bare clay has taunted me through the kitchen window. Vegetables didn't quite work there. Sunflowers looked nice, and the passing birds loved them. But I grew up on Oyster Pond, surrounded by wild berries of all kinds, so it was not surprising I walked out with a small thornless blackberry bush.

Two weeks later, I swung into Crocker's in Brewster and picked up a mate, just in case it needed a pollinator. Later in the season, we harvested a grand total of four blackberries. I hadn't planned on any the first year, so this was a real treat.

All this summer, Sofie and I have watched our bounty grow. From the kitchen counter, while nursing bowls of cereal, we have seen these two sprouting hydras blossom and produce clusters of red berries. Waiting for them to ripen into sweet black fruit seems to have taken forever. But two weeks ago we were finally able to find a few that came off the stem with the slightest tug. Terrific taste -- and no thorns -- and perfectly formed fruit. We end up with a couple handfuls every other day.

I made a bet with Sofie that all our blackberries would be done by the time she started kindergarten. It is a good thing for me that we didn't actually wager anything. They just continue to come, apparently feeding on nothing more than sunlight and dew. As the wild blackberries we find along our bike rides pass away, our own domesticated bushes continue to produce dessert after dessert. One can only imagine how profuse next summer and fall will be.

If only our local economy showed such adaptability. Throughout our history, inhabitants here learned to be flexible. The soil is relatively poor, the location is off the beaten path, and the harbors are shallow and bounded by sandbars. If it hadn't been for the fish, nobody would have been here to greet the Pilgrims. And most of their descendants got out as soon as they could, too.

Farming didn't last long. Salt works lasted until mines were found in Pennsylvania. Whaling worked until the oil came along (and whales didn't anymore). We had a naval air base until peacetime precluded the need for it. The railroad brought tourists here until the automobile killed that. And now our tourist-based economy is in its throes.

Note that I do not say "death throes." Just massive changes. These changes are completely beyond the control of the local or state tourism entities, and the forces that drive them are as sympathetic to the plights of an innkeeper or restaurateurs as a hurricane.

Gas costs at least twice as much as it did just a few years ago. People do not have disposable income, so they cut back on trips to the Cape, or on the extras once they get there, like eating out and shopping. On the other hand, Europeans have flooded in with a healthy euro-to-dollar exchange rate. Establishing a business model on a favorable international exchange rate is as wise as it would be to base it upon a finite supply of imported labor whose entry is controlled completely by a federal security bureaucracy. From a gardening perspective, that's like replanting your entire yard with annuals every year -- it is going to look like hell if your garden shop runs out of inventory.

Meanwhile, consider this investment. If Sofie goes to Chatham public schools until she graduates, that will be an investment of at least $100,000 of the taxpayer's money. Driving over the Sagamore Bridge on Labor Day (a very light traffic count), I saw a few cars loaded with bags destined for one college or another.

The kids in those cars are almost certainly never going to return to live here permanently, and that is an entirely rational decision. Why go deep into debt for college just to come back to a place where breaking your back is required to just get by? We're losing millions and millions of dollars of long-term capital investment every year. Meanwhile every year our wholesale dependence on a seasonal economy that can be disrupted by something as simple as a few rainy weeks grows more precarious.

Our supposed affluence, measured in what someone from California or Washington, D.C. is willing to spend to buy your modest ranch or Cape, has brought very little lasting benefit to our middle-class families.

We need to diversify our economy to recapture the investment we've made in human capital. We need to see that the way to empower people is not impose limits on their income so they can qualify for health insurance and housing. We need to find new avenues that allow people to remain in Chatham year-round, to make the same paycheck they do in January as they do in July, to afford a home without public subsidy, to go out to restaurants and otherwise spend their money here, at home.

Consider that just across the Canal, a huge film complex, Plymouth Rock Studios, is being built that will transform the economy of Southeastern New England. Now at current gas prices, that's too much of a hike from Chatham. But what local venues will be used for movies and television shows filmed there? There's a short list: Provincetown, Woods Hole, the National Seashore, Route 6A. Oh, and Chatham. Not for one film. Not for just one time in a few years. More than likely on a regular basis.

Moreover, this is an industry that spawns numerous cottage businesses through subcontracts. With the advance of film technology, there's no reason why some of what is shot here couldn't be further developed right here. A non-polluting, non-disruptive, well-paid knowledge and creative economy. Year-round.

That is not at odds with the tourism sector of our economy. It supports it. This is but one example.

Too often when discussing economic development, the public (and sadly, our leaders) thinks in terms of heavy industry. But that's not where we are going, locally or nationally. Not everything works well forever. Not even blackberries.

This week's featured op-ed at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

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