This article originally appeared on NPR
August 2, 20176:00 AM ET
“I mean, look at this. Just look at this,” said Scott Geiger, an account manager for DeLea & Sons Sod Farm. “Can't you envision yourself throwing a football right here? Or setting up a lawn chair and just sitting? It doesn’t get any better than this,” he beamed. And he was right. On a recent Friday afternoon, it was as if the world had momentarily become a Rothko painting, nothing but blue sky levitating over emerald grass for as far as the eye could see. The pixie cut of the agricultural world, sod doesn't sway like barley or grow tall like corn, yet the experience of standing amidst 500 acres of something so overwhelmingly mundane can can feel moving, if not inspiring.
It’s a feeling that was likely lost among those who emerged from Manhattan’s M35 bus onto Randall’s Island on July 28 for Panorama Festival. The 100,000-person crowd, after all, was there for Frank Ocean and Solange, Tame Impala and Nine Inch Nails. Not the sod, which is easy to overlook if you’ve never been to festivals outside of New York where unkempt fields can become either mud pit or dust bowl, depending on the weather. But the 160,000 square feet of Kentucky bluegrass that was rolled out beneath their feet on Randall’s Island, as it turns out, was one-and-a-half years in the making.
The process began 80 miles away on Long Island’s North Fork, where DeLea collectively owns 5,000 acres of land. After sourcing seeds from the Pacific Northwest, the DeLea team takes what Geiger called a “Colonel Sanders, 11 herbs and spices approach” to the planting process, mixing a variety of seeds that set them apart from competitors. Among the seven different flavors the farm offers, Kentucky bluegrass, which is dark and dense and has become even darker and denser through genetic modification, is most popular. A single acre requires 250 pounds of seed.
Like bamboo, bluegrass develops a rhizome, a highly interconnected root system that grows perpendicular to the ground and makes it more durable. “What people don’t realize is that there is something like two million miles worth of microscopic roots beneath these pieces,” Geiger explained, unfurling a fresh four-foot long piece that had been cut by a machine and rolled up like a loaf of babka. “Try to pull this thing apart,” he nodded, “I dare you. You won’t be able to.”
Though Geiger compared the bluegrass to a welcome mat, the individual pieces were dense like lead vests, and thick like memory foam. Each blade was perfectly identical and the time it took to achieve that perfection, Geiger said, is what people pay for: “The seeds alone take three weeks to germinate and that’s something homeowners don’t have the patience for. And then it’s another year-and-half to get the roots this strong. We can’t speed up mother nature.”
But the farm also raises the kind of questions that arise when anything exudes perfection: what is the downside? At whose expense has this perfect thing been harvested? How would the human condition change without it?
Sod is, at its core, little more than a luxury item, and has been for hundreds of years. When grass lawns emerged in 17th century England, for example, they were shorn either by grazing livestock, which required extra farmhands, or by scythe-wielding servants. Both methods implied that property owners could afford the extra expenses inherent with having a lawn, that they had money to spare. Sod farms in the northeast are, more or less, an extension of this tradition. When Louis DeLea, then a milk delivery man in 1928, began digging up squares of pastureland in upstate New York by hand, his primary source of income came from those who could afford to pay for grave blankets in Queens cemeteries.
Today, it’s the same operation, but on steroids. At peak season, DeLea ships 500 acres worth of sod in a day, mostly to golf courses and wealthy homeowners in Greenwich, Connecticut and the metropolitan area. “Other parts of the country they don’t care so much. But around here, if you don’t have a nice lawn, you get the stink-eye from your neighbor,” Geiger said. “When a home gets rebuilt or remodeled, which happens often, we go in an re-sod the entire property. There are massive properties in the Hamptons that we have re-sodded four times in the past eight years. Randall’s has that big giant area where the festivals happens and they want it to look nice. Thank god for that.”
It’s precisely this demand, though, that has sod farms stripping the fields over and over again, at a pace so relentless one questions how long the earth can sustain it. Two days after the farm visit, the field Geiger stood in would be nothing more than compounded dirt, an oasis stripped of its life, only to be replanted the next week.There would be no time for rotating in a crop of soy or corn or potatoes that could help with weed control measures that are instead left to pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers. And while Geiger didn’t let on even a momentary pang of sadness about the waste, there was something sad about it. “I don’t want to say it’s a commodity, but it has its purpose,” he said.
Frank Rossi, an associate professor and turf grass specialist at Cornell University who has dedicated 35 years to studying grass, has discovered a lot of good in the process. “What you have to understand about sod is that you remove so little of the soil each time you harvest it,” he said by phone. “Much of the energy the plant put into its growth stays in the soil, which then as studies have shown, actually builds the soil. So if you have a lousy soil underneath the sod farm, grass, being a pioneer species, is generally in the business of building soil.”
He, like Geiger, weren't at Randall’s Island this past weekend -- but they both share a hope that one of the thousands who were took a moment to look down and appreciate the exceptionally green earth that was beneath them.
This article originally appeared on VanityFair.com
As swimsuit season nears and MGM’s Million Dollar Mermaid celebrates its 65th anniversary, Vanity Fair caught up with one of the film’s last surviving cast members
May 26, 2017 12:00 pm
Million Dollar Mermaid was the 1952 blockbuster that cemented swimmer and aqua-musical star Esther Williams as a Hollywood luminary. In a particularly captivating scene, one of the most mesmerizing of her career, the brunette beauty slides into a turquoise pool amid billowing plumes of yellow and red smoke before being hoisted above a kaleidoscopic formation of synchronized swimmers.
But it’s not the high dives or choreographed underwater sequences that Donna Corcoran, one of the films’ last surviving cast members, most eagerly remembers. “MGM had to teach me how to swim for the movie,” Corcoran says with a laugh over the phone from her home in California’s San Fernando Valley. “The studio brought me to the Hollywood Athletic Club for lessons. It was a whole thing!”
Williams starred in the film as Annette Kellerman, the real-life Australian swimmer who overcame a childhood bout of polio to achieve fame as a champion swimmer, Hollywood film sensation, and pioneer of the modern one-piece swimsuit in the early 1900s. Corcoran, eight years old at the time, played the younger version of Kellerman in the first 20 minutes of the film. “There’s the moment in the movie when I take the braces off [my legs], and go swimming in a lake before Walter Pidgeon starts yelling for me,” recalls Corcoran, who declined to reveal her current age. “But that whole thing actually happened on Lot 3 at MGM—they owned a space that had a lake in it.”
Though she and Williams shared no scenes for Million Dollar Mermaid, they did spend time together in the water. “Esther and her double, who was like her best friend in the whole world, would play around with me and do some stunts. They’d dive under and show me how to come up in the water with your feet . . . little synchronized stuff,” remembers Corcoran, who also starred alongside Williams in Dangerous When Wet. “Regardless of what the rest of her life was like, Esther was good to me. Even after the films ended, she would send me birthday cards.”
While Corcoran would go on to log screen time in nine films before the age of 13, including a loan-out to Fox for Don’t Bother to Knock with Marilyn Monroe and Anne Bancroft, she chalks up her work during Hollywood’s golden era to little more than luck. Born in Quincy, Massachusetts, Corcoran moved to Los Angeles with her family after a doctor suggested the warm weather might alleviate her mother’s arthritic pain. While visiting her father, who landed a job with the security department at MGM studios, Corcoran caught the eye of a casting director. “I remember going into Clarence Brown’s office and having an interview. He was was directing Angels in the Outfield—the original. He had interviewed something like 635 kids, but for some reason he picked me.”
For years, she says, she was the only kid on contract at MGM (“It was me. Period”). And like the child stars who pre-dated her (Shirley Temple, Lana Turner), if Corcoran wasn't at work on a film, she was either at the studio’s school bungalow with teacher Mary MacDonald—or in performance classes with celebrities like Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor. (“They were all in their 20s, and we all had a routine together.”)
Corcoran hasn't really looked back on tinsel town since leaving the industry at 18, moving on to a career in real estate and then gemology. “The times changed, a lot of nepotism started—someone’s son or nephew would come into a position and they really were not that professional. So I just said, ‘the heck with it.’” Yet unlike so many children who came before and after her, Corcoran never became a cautionary tale.
“There were eight of us in the family, and even though I was a princess on the lot—when you got home it was ‘feed your brother.’ My dad always said, ‘Never believe your own publicity.’” Her advice for kids today? “If you’re a movie star, do your job—do it well—and then go home and have a sandwich.”