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Big Donna and the Medjools

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Big Donna stands in her date garden | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Part two in a series. Read part one and three here.

The true Sex Life of the Date is aromatic, dangerous and as intimate as can be, but in Thermal, California, way deep in the desert near the Salton Sea, Brown Date Garden exists because of the Romance and Vitality of Big Donna.

As in so many other California stories, this one is about love, and the inextricable intertwining of two families - the Browns and the Barbosas.

Past Palm Spring, past Indio, past Coachella, you'll come to Thermal. The valley stretches out before you, flat sandy earth lined on both sides by hills, and the date palms rise high above everything else. Stand inside that shade which is like being in a cathedral. The trunks are golden brown, etched with decades of trimming in beautiful patterns. The fronds are silvery gray-green, feathery and arching above you, and you stand in the hallways of palms, where the Salton Sea is glimpsed blue at the portal of the end of the rows.

Now imagine it is late August, and 120 degrees, and you have to climb the hundred feet of ladder to cut each heavy bunch of dates with a knife fashioned out of steel, one you've just sharpened, and lower the bunch on a hook to a man waiting at the bottom. Now imagine that you have to climb the ladder a hundred times.

Standing in the light coming through her own palms, Big Donna Fish corrects me: "It's a garden - not a grove, not an orchard," she says firmly. She looks toward the packing house and adds, "The palmeros just brought pollen from the male palms a few minutes ago. Next the palmeros have to go up to pollinate them. That's what we're doing this month." Then, looking up at the sections of ladder permanently attached to the tops of the trunks, she says honestly, "I've never seen a gringo go up a palm tree. Never."

Big Donna went on, yes, a blind date. That's how she got here, to Thermal. Raised in Portland, Oregon, she went on that date with Ted Fish, who was from Thermal, when they were students at Oregon State. They married six months later. Ted went into the Navy, and then they raised clover seed and potatoes in Madras, Oregon. But in 1958, Ted's uncle, Tom Brown, came up to Madras and asked them to come down to Oasis and Thermal to help.

His is a love story as well. Tom and Florence Brown had come from Missouri to Glendale, California, where they were high school teachers. But they bought 143.8 acres in Thermal, back in 1930, when the date industry was just beginning to flourish. Every weekend, they made the drive to the desert, and as Big Donna says, "There weren't highways back then!" Imagine them driving along the old two-lane highways for hours, to the palm seedlings they'd planted.

Brown's House | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Then, in 1941, World War II meant gas shortages, and the Browns literally had to choose one life or another, because they couldn't make that drive. They chose the palms. They built a little house of redwood siding, one bedroom, a kitchen, and one other room. It's still there, and Big Donna, their nephew's wife, stood there with us last week. The ancient furniture is still on the screened-in porch, and the enamel sink is covered with dirt. It's a testament to the beginning, but now huge male flowers from the date palms are lying on shelves in the front room, drying and filling the air with a scent like I've never smelled.

"I told you," she grinned. "It's hard to describe."

It was like sweet bread and gentle sugar on a strange wind. Yes, I know. That sounds crazy. But hundreds of bees covered the flowers outside, drawn for miles, and they felt the same way.

Big Donna was 28 when she came to this tiny house; now she's 81, and works every day in the packing house a few feet away. Little Donna, in case you were wondering, is her daughter-in-law. Seriously. Ted and Donna had a son, Ted, who married Donna. Little Donna greeted us, working on the mail orders and the phones in the packing house. It's a family operation in the best tradition.

The whole foods movement and the rise of farmer's markets have replaced the tourists and visitors who came to visit roadside stands. Brown went organic last year, and a large part of sales are now online - boxes and boxes of Medjools and Barhees are packed each day, picked up by UPS, and sent to farmer's markets in Los Osos, Santa Monica, San Luis Obispo, and to Pikes Place in Seattle.

Medjools are dark and very moist, the largest of the dates. Deglet Noor are amber colored, drier in texture, and more delicate. Barhees are yellow and round, semi-sweet, and, like Medjools, excellent for diabetics because their sugars are different.

Big Donna laughs and says, "One Medjool date is only 25 calories - that's like inhaling." She's very good at what she does, I say, and then we go back to the date garden.

Across the road, a truck was parked at the base of a very young palm, radio playing banda music, and a ladder propped against the trunk. But the palmero was somewhere else in the garden.

If not for the palmeros, none of this would happen. Decades ago, when the Browns began planting, the Barbosa patriarch immigrated from Mexico, and the Barbosas have worked at Brown's since. "The father worked here until he retired," Big Donna says, "and now his son is getting ready to retire -- he's 62. That should tell you how long it's been. Now his sons work here." Donna and her family live ¼ mile away, and the Barbosas live in Coachella, about nine miles north. The date gardens, and the citrus groves on the rest of the land, are the center of this universe.

Male flower | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

The heavy fan of yellow flowers weighs about twenty pounds, when we lift one. Each flower must be harvested at exactly the right time. Donna said, "On Friday, if the male flowerpod is beginning to open, the palmeros tie it shut, or by Monday the bees will have extracted all the pollen." The palmeros wait for the male flowers to dry, then shake the pollen into a barrel in the yard. The female palms flower in March and April, and then the men have to climb the ladders and pollinate each flower stem by hand. (One male flower pollinates 49 female palms.) Then, the strands of female flowers are tied to last year's fronds, because when the fruit develops it will be heavy. Nothing about this is easy. In the off-season, the palmeros have to trim huge sharp thorns from those fronds, so the men are safe when tying the date bunches and putting paper bags over them when the fruit is ripening, to protect from the rain.

Yes, the rain. Not much, but palms need 120 inches of rain in a desert where only a few inches fall every year. So the gardens, which used to be flooded with irrigation water, now have drip systems for the most part.

And the harvest is the hardest part. Big Donna says, "We start the second week of August, and the temperature averages 115. It's humid! We have shade cloths and misters and fans. But we didn't have those back in the old days."

She looks up at the feathery canopy over us. Her daughter retired two years ago, at 59, but Big Donna says, "Every year I say I'll retire, and then I get excited at the harvest to see the fruit."

I plan to go back in summer, in the early morning when the heat spangles through the fronds, to bring both Donnas cherry tomatoes from my garden, since we spent time talking about them. And I plan to bring some for the Barbosa family, who I want to meet during the harvest.

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

The wind brings the smell of the male flowers toward us again. In the distance, I heard that radio playing banda music, and knew a man was climbing one of those ladders a hundred feet to the top of a palm.

Our next post takes us to the fields and gardens further down the road, where men and women move through the rows during the day and through the angular spaces of rural agricultural life after those long days at work.

Read part one and three:
- Many Queens at the Indio Date Festival
- Geometry of the Winter Desert: Field and Home

Susan Straight's novel "Take One Candle Light a Room" will be released in paperback in March. Her novel "Highwire Moon" is about a California-born daughter searching for her Mexican-born mother. Doug McCulloh's photographs have been exhibited across the U.S. and in Mexico, Europe, and China. His fourth book "Dream Street" chronicles the builders, workers, and homebuyers of a subdivision in Southern California. Read more of their stories here.

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