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Five Quarters of the Orange: A Sense of Place in the Inland Empire

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Detail of the 'Parent Navel Orange Tree,' planted in 1873 | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

The best way is to begin with the orange. The Washington navel. Put your thumb into the bellybutton and slide. The dimpled peel, the velvet white veins soft and webby when you lift them off the fruit, and then the segments in your palm. Burst of juice, the slivers shiny as jewels.

The Inland Empire -- far-flung land of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties -- begins with the orange. Riverside, Colton, Rialto, Fontana, San Manuel, Rancho Cucamonga, Corona and Hemet and San Jacinto, all the way to Temecula, Murrieta, Pala and Pechanga. I can't name them all here -- not yet. But I want to begin these dispatches from my native land with the orange, because it's good to remember how we began here and how we can survive another hard time.

Not just in the Inland Empire, but in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, in the San Fernando Valley and the High Desert, people planted trees in their yards when they got here back in the 1880s and the 1920s and the 1950s. Tangerine and lemon and avocado, loquat and persimmon and nectarine. That was part of the promise -- a bounty of fruit in every yard, and leaning over the fence to share it with whoever had just bought the house next to you, wherever they had just come from.

When people made fun of Southern California, I always defended our forests primeval. Not Europe's wolf-haunted fairy tale woods, or the great forests of America -- Appalachia and Adirondack. We had tumbleweeds and chaparral, pine forests in the mountains, cottonwoods along the rivers, and then the surreal trees of the true desert -- Joshua trees like frightened clowns and smoke trees like ghostly exhalations.

In Marcel Pagnol's novel, "Jean de Florette," an old farmer tells his son that when they acquire the acreage he wants, they will plant a magnificent orchard of fig, plum, peach, almond -- "a thousand trees in twenty lines ten meters apart ... it will be as beautiful as a church, and a peasant won't enter it without making the sign of the cross."

Our non-native woods were paradise. In spring, white blossoms like millions of stars fall in perfumed drifts. In summer, we dangled our feet in the canals where water grass waved at the bottom of the silent currents. Water cascaded from the cement irrigation pumps into the furrows between trees, like silver ribbons in the heat.

Eliza Tibbets started the first two seedling navel orange trees. A statue of her was recently unveiled in downtown Riverside, and it seems a fitting time to remind ourselves of the woman who transformed California's landscape, not just with daring but with generosity. (I still drive past the Parent Navel Orange Trees, at the corner of Arlington and Magnolia Avenues, every week.) 

eliza-tibbetts-statue.jpg, by hcram

She was married three times, an abolitionist (her third husband, Mr. Tibbets, campaigned as a "Radical Republican" who tried integration in Virginia), a suffragist who tried to vote in 1871, a spiritualist who led séances in Riverside when she got here. But in 1873, she sent to Washington's new Bureau of Agriculture for the first two seedling trees of a new variety of seedless oranges from Bahia, Brazil, and planted them in her yard in Riverside. She kept them alive with dishwater, shared the fruit and more cuttings, and changed the economy and the very look of Southern California. (Neither she, born in Cincinnati, or the seedlings, were natives.)

By 1886, entire towns like Rialto, Bloomington, Corona and Redlands were laid out around groves of Washington navel orange trees. Packing houses for Sunkist Growers and other cooperatives were built, the Santa Fe Railroad took boxcars full of fruit all over the nation, and oranges were shipped around the world. By 1895, Riverside had the highest per capita income in America, thanks to the citrus industry.

The faces of Southern California changed with citrus, too.  Chinese laborers, Italians and Mexicans and Japanese and African-American southerners, Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma and Texas and Colorado -- all picked and packed and trucked oranges.  I grew up with their kids.

'orange groves laid out like geometric treasure under snow-capped lavender mountains...' | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
'orange groves laid out like geometric treasure under snow-capped lavender mountains...' | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

My own mother came here from Switzerland.  Her father had left the Alps for Canada, which didn't work, and then Florida, which was worse. He'd seen iconic postcards of orange groves laid out like geometric treasure under snow-capped lavender mountains.  He settled his family in Fontana. I grew up at the edges of a neighborhood called Highgrove, where citrus had been planted early in the century.  My mother, for whom a single orange had been a Christmas gift during World War II in Switzerland, never lost her reverence for the navel. Every morning she laid segments of peeled orange beside our oatmeal.  They were truly part of a golden dream. 

The Inland Empire has made recent headlines not for highest per capita income, but for the fastest-growing population, for high unemployment and home foreclosures, and child hunger. But our legacy of fruit, and Eliza Tibbets, could be how we'll survive what might be called years from now The Great Recession. 

We could go into the yard, where someone years ago planted a tree:  Washington navel or Valencia orange, Meyer lemon with its sweet mellow flavor, seedless tangerine that falls into segments like small dimples in the palm of your hand, dark Brown Turkey or green Mission fig, golden loquat or Blenheim apricot, like the eighty-year-old tree in my own backyard.  It's the earliest tree anywhere around here, the deep-hued fruit ripening the first week of June, and for twenty-three years I've delivered bags of apricots to my friends and neighbors and family.  My friend Kari brings me tangerines in December, my neighbors Kim and Rafael climb to pick hundreds of long, green thin-skinned Fuerte avocados and hand them over the fence (four crops a year!), and Sherril brings lemons from across the street.

The source of California's entire orange industry lives at the northwest corner of Arlington and Magnolia Avenues in Riverside. A chance mutation on solitary tree near Bahia, Brazil produced a marvel -- the lusciously sweet, magically seedless Washington navel orange. The 'Parent Navel Orange Tree,' planted by Eliza Tibbetts in 1873, is the surviving member of a imported pair that produced millions of trees across California via grafted buds. Reach far enough over the green wrought iron fence and you can sample the sweet taste of history. | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

And every winter, Faye and Gurdon Merchant leave five or six brown grocery bags full of the sweetest Washington navels on my front porch.  No note necessary.  I met them twenty-two years ago, when their son was in my class at Riverside City College, and they have been kind to me since.  Both born in Riverside Community Hospital, they went to the same junior high and high school as my daughters attended, and many of my neighbors.

Six bags - I'm always grateful, since they ship oranges all over the country. I divide the harvest into smaller portions and deliver them all over Riverside - subcontractor to the Merchants' generosity.  I have friends and family who've never met the Merchants, but they look forward to those oranges -- the sweetest, most juicy navels they have ever tasted. They keep us going all winter.

In old neighborhoods like mine, this has been the way forever. But in the new gated communities and just-born suburbs, let's hope everyone plants a lemon or tangerine tree. James M. Cain's "Mildred Pierce" begins with Burt Pierce trimming and watering his avocado tree at their new tract house in Glendale. And when Walter Mosley's iconic Easy Rawlins buys a house in South Los Angeles in the 1940s, the first thing he does is plant a lemon tree in the front yard.

The 'Parent Navel Orange Tree' | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
The 'Parent Navel Orange Tree' | Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Mildred Pierce survives after her husband leaves with the help of her neighbor, who brings a stewed chicken.  Mildred repays her with pie. Last month, I left a box on the dirt by the Merchants' gate.   Tomatoes, zucchini, corn, and strawberries from my yard. The Merchants came out to visit, and we stood a few feet from a shallow cement ditch that runs along their property and toward the Santa Ana River.  It's the last original private irrigation channel in the city, they told me.

The groves are nearly gone now, housing tracts named for what they've erased. Where there were hundreds of trees and one house on ten acres, there are forty houses and maybe forty trees. But there can still be oranges.

When I was a child, we sat in the groves, digging off peel with grimy thumbnails. Our parents were right. The orange was a marvel. Inside the velvet rind, the segments were a thousand shards of glisten and juice.

Send us a comment - what's growing in your yard, who do you share it with, and where are you from?

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