What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

January 9, 2017, Issue

Pick of the Issue this week is Ian Frazier’s “High-Rise Greens,” an absorbing account of how a mini-farm installed in the corner of school cafeteria led to the creation of a huge “vertical farm” inside a former steel-supply warehouse in Newark, New Jersey. Frazier visits the vertical farm and describes its technology:

Countless algorithm-driven computer commands combine to induce the greens to grow, night and day, so that a crop can go from seed to shoot to harvest in eighteen days. Every known influence on the plant’s wellbeing is measured, adjusted, remeasured. Tens of thousands of sensing devices monitor what’s going on. The ambient air is Newark’s, but filtered, ventilated, heated, and cooled. Like all air today, it has an average CO2 content of about four hundred parts per million (we exceeded the three-fifty-p.p.m. threshold a while ago), but an even higher content is better for the plants, so tanks of CO2 enrich the concentration inside the building to a thousand p.p.m.

He describes the lighting:

The L.E.D. grow lights are in plastic tubing above each level of the grow tower. Their radiance has been stripped of the heat-producing part of the spectrum, the most expensive part of it from an energy point of view. The plants don’t need it, preferring cooler reds and blues. In row after row, the L.E.D.s shining these colors call to mind strings of Christmas lights. At different growth stages, the plants require light in different intensities, and algorithms controlling the L.E.D. arrays adjust for that.

He also visits the mini-farm in the cafeteria at Newark’s Philip’s Academy. He calls the mini-farm an objet d’art. I relished his description of it, particularly this line: “The pumps hum, the water gurgles, and the whole thing makes the sound of a courtyard fountain.”

Frazier is a great nose writer. Almost every one of his pieces contains a description of some sort of smell. In “High-Rise Greens,” he mentions a corner of the vertical farm, “where the fresh, florist-shop aroma of chlorophyll is strong.”

Frazier takes time to note details that other writers usually disregard. For example, in “High-Rise Greens,” he observes that AeroFarms technicians “wear white sanitary mobcaps on their heads.” Then, in the next line, he adds, “Some of these workers are young guys who also have mobcaps on their beards.”

My favorite scene in  “High-Rise Greens” takes place at a grocery store. Frazier writes,

At the Bloomfield ShopRite, I watched a woman pick up a clamshell of AeroFarms arugula, look at it, and put it back. Then she picked up a clamshell of Fresh Attitude arugula and dropped it in her cart. I asked her if she knew that AeroFarms was grown in Newark. She said, “I thought it was only distributed from Newark.” I told her the arugula was indeed Newark-grown and explained about the vertical farm. She put the out-of-state arugula back, picked up the Newark arugula, and thanked me for telling her. I think AeroFarms does not play up Newark enough on the packaging. They should call their product Newark Greens.

That “At the Bloomfield ShopRite, I watched a woman pick up a clamshell of AeroFarms arugula, look at it, and put it back” is delightful, like a line from a James Schuyler poem, logging the slight but profound epiphanies of everyday life.

“High-Rise Greens” brims with Frazier’s sharp-eyed observations. I enjoyed it immensely.

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