The Fruited Plains: Oranges for Friends and Strangers

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

"...For purple mountains majesty, above the fruited plains -- America, America, God shed his grace on thee, and crowned thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea..."

The fruited plains -- in all those years of hearing the lyrics to this iconic national song, have you ever thought about those fruited plains? Amber waves of grain -- that seems like Midwestern or prairie-grown wheat.

But here in Southern California, especially in the old citrus-growing regions, the first week of April is a picture-postcard replica of the other lyrics. An improbable sight -- the trees are still laden with oranges, so bright that they look nearly clownish, as if some mischievous minor Greek gods have shot neon Nerf balls all over the groves.

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Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
And then the blossoms opened up and creamy white stars were everywhere. The snow-capped mountains, looking quite purple behind, make the place something to sing about. People visiting here in Riverside yesterday from San Francisco kept asking me, "What's that smell? It's everywhere -- it's like..." Their voices trailed off. My students said, "It's the orange blossoms!"

To grow up with the smell of orange blossoms, while still able to pick an orange or lemon off the tree as your fingers brush the heavy white flowers, is one of those things that color life forever, I've come to realize. In New England, friends have told me about tapping maple trees in winter, how the feel of the snow underfoot, and the smell of the sap and the cooking of the syrup becomes part of their blood. In Louisiana, I've watched the sugarcane harvest, when the fields smoke with fires set to burn off the leaves before the thick stalks are cut and loaded and taken to the sugarmill, where that smoke smells sweet and sooty while someone hands me a thick stalk to chew. In the Midwest, the cornfields as maze and museum and mystical forest confounded me one summer, when I drove and walked through miles of green and tasted fresh-boiled ears of Iowa and Nebraska corn.

Here, in line at the grocery store, I put four bottles of orange blossom honey onto the checkout counter, and a young woman behind me said, "Oh! You love that honey too!" I told her I was going to mail it to my oldest daughter, who lives in Texas now, because she can't love clover honey or any other kind -- only the orange blossom honey she's had since childhood tastes good to her. And the young woman said, "I grew up in an orange grove in Arlington, and our house was surrounded by trees. We didn't have air conditioning so the windows were always open. There's nothing else like that smell. When I got married this year, I had to buy a special orange blossom wine for everyone. It's just who we are."

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

I'm going to check out that wine (she mentioned Niagara as the vintner). I packed the orange blossom honey into a box that night and remembered taking my three daughters on a walk many Aprils ago, up in the Box Springs Mountains near my childhood house. Swarms of bees came like a brown veil up over a pass and enveloped us for long minutes, and my girls hunched over in fear. But the bees didn't even notice us. They were riding the wind from the old citrus places in Highgrove to the other groves in Riverside. And I think in those moments, and those springs, my girls felt what orange blossoms and honey and rind meant. It gets into your blood, even though the trees are gone in Highgrove and replaced by long white warehouses like coffins in the distance. When I stand in that same place on the pass, alone now because my girls are gone or busy, and look down at the warehouses and asphalt, I see a few tiny white boxes in one vacant field. Bee boxes. The bees are still here, because this is where they know, and someone brings them to get the last remnants of bloom.

During the last week of January, eight brown grocery bags of navel oranges were left on my front porch one day while I was at work. I wrote about Faye and Gurdon Merchant in my first post for this series, and how their generosity as native Riversiders and orange growers and friends sustains countless people every year. The Merchants left me eight bags this year, and I have five oranges left. I was sick earlier this winter, and told to take medication with orange juice because that would heighten its efficiency. Every morning, I have three oranges with my tiny red pills, and I say a wordless prayer of thanks to the Merchants, and to my loyal neighborhood where no one needs recognition. I delivered oranges to friends and neighbors for weeks, as ever, including someone who'd had surgery, someone who would have surgery, and others who were pregnant, had a lot of little kids, and had a thirst for fruit.

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
When I heard Mitt Romney sing the lyrics above earlier this season, in Florida while he campaigned, I couldn't get the words out of my mind. Sometimes during this tumultuous and often angry season that seems pretty far removed from neighborhoods like mine, I want to send a box of oranges to Washington, and maybe one to Sacramento, too, so people could take the few minutes to sit quietly, peel an orange, and maybe sing that song. Or any song. I really wish I could box up the smell, too, so they could have some orange blossom in their blood.

I have five oranges left. But I had a bag of Merchant beauties in my car last month, to deliver some to a friend in L.A., and I ended up on Vermont in Silver Lake, outside Skylight Books, late at night. A homeless man was setting up for the evening, and into his hands I put two dollars and three oranges. "Where are these from?" he said, cradling them in his huge palms. "Riverside," I said. "From friends of mine."

"Riverside, California!" he beamed up at me. "I was there once. These are from Riverside!"

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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