The orange blossoms beckoned, from my youth, from the Central Valley, from the treasury of olfactory memories in my mind, and from the image imprinted there the last time I visited my childhood home at this time of year. I didn’t remember the scent itself, but I remembered the ecstasy of inhaling it.
In response I made a little road trip last week, and spent time in Tulare, Kern and Fresno Counties, smelling citrus blooms and visiting with family and friends. I stayed with my sister Nancy, the farmer, who lives in the middle of the groves of trees that she and her husband care for. The Sumo mandarins that directly surround them were just about to bloom, so they had recently been covered with bee netting.
What? you ask. Yes, they are protecting the trees from the bees, because if the Sumos get cross-pollinated with other citrus such as lemons they may make seeds, and that is a no-no for seedless mandarins. It’s just one of the many sorts of special treatment that the trees and the harvest get, and an example of the extra work involved to grow this fruit that was developed in Japan. If you haven’t eaten a Sumo it may be because the costs add up quickly to make them expensive in the stores.
Nancy found a few Sumos remaining from this year’s harvest to give me. They are large for a mandarin orange, seedless, very tasty, and their loose rind makes them super easy to peel.
I came home with oranges from my father’s navel orange trees, too, which I didn’t expect. That fruit would normally be all picked and gone to market long before now, but this year the trees in the Valley are loaded with fruit, and it’s very small. That is a recipe for not being able to sell it, so the oranges fall on the ground eventually and the farmers take a loss. Farming is hard in many ways, and it’s not getting easier.
The next few photos below are from years past, taken at various times of year, of these country roads and places where I spent my childhood.
The view below of the Sierras with the sun rising behind reveals the profile of a formation that looks from there like a man lying on his back. We call it Homer’s Nose (though I didn’t remember “meeting” Homer until recently, and only heard about him from afar):
Since I was “so close,” one day I drove farther south an hour and a half to visit another Farm Girl, Kim of My Field of Dreams. After reading blog posts about each other’s gardens and families for many years, we enjoyed our first face-to-face meeting. We were like old friends or long-lost sisters (well, we are sisters in Christ, after all) and talked and talked, while I ate her delicious flourless muffins and got my wish of a spell of porch-sitting with Kim, looking out at the gardens that she was anticipating planting this week.
I didn’t want to leave, but I must. I got back on the two-lane highway with crazy tailgaters, and survived the ordeal again in reverse. When I arrived safe and sound back at Nancy’s it was the most relaxing thing to be able to sit outdoors before dinner and chat. Here we get chased indoors by fog or cold breezes very early, but there we were warmed by the rays of the sun on our backs and the air was still, and laden with orange scents. 🙂
I spent three days with my family. The last night we four siblings all were together, with some spouses and a few members of the younger generations, at the house where we grew up together, where my brother now lives. There again we ate our barbecue on the patio, and never went in, and it was the sweetest thing just to be together with those persons so fundamental to our psyches. My brother helped me pick a couple of bags of oranges from the same trees that have fed us for decades — they weren’t too tiny — and I’m confident that the eating of them will help me to prolong the savor of my brother and sisters and the whole family that I love.
I remember when I first learned in a practical way about microclimates, from my friend Rhonda who had a lovely cactus garden in our county. I also tried to grow a few cacti, but they all got waterlogged from rain and then froze to death in their first winter. Rhonda lived on a small mountain, where the cold air descending would usually keep rolling right on downhill so that the plants barely noticed it going by. That was her microclimate, so different from my back yard where the damp and freezing air would settle on my cactus and turn all their juices to ice crystals.
My friend Dick lives on a smaller hill in a generally more extreme climate zone, but a similar weather pattern holds sway so that frosts are often averted. There may be other factors involved in his microclimate that we didn’t discuss, but in any case, starting about 50 years ago, but more intensely in the last decade, he has been enjoying his freedom to experiment widely.
In a previous post I mentioned how before that, he was one of the friends with whom I would ride bicycles all around the country roads and through the orchards connecting our little Central Valley communities. Many of them weren’t actually towns, and the primary one in my life was a shrinking town, even then. I think its population peaked at 100, which was the figure embossed on the town limit sign as long as I can remember.
We had a fire station with a volunteer fire department, but I can imagine that when an alarm sounded, it might have taken an hour for the firefighters to get to the station from out in the groves or fields, if they were close enough to hear it in the first place. In any case, it seemed that every year or two some old building would burn down. None was ever rebuilt. The gas station where we pumped up our bike tires and bought 8-oz. sodas didn’t burn, but when it went out of business, there it sat, to rust.
It makes me sad, all this decay of the man-made things, and the lack of prosperity that once was, in former times when people concentrated their energies and money in the local businesses and organizations instead of driving 20 miles to shop and go out to dinner. But I myself wouldn’t dream of investing there, and if I were like my brother and sister who do still live on surrounding farm property, I would be working hard just to keep my own family and property alive. Given the pervasive vandalism and theft, it would take a good deal of optimism to try to renovate anything.
But I do like to visit, and to smell the particular flavor of dusty air that was soft and mild when I was there earlier this week. October is a good month, between the scorching summer and the winter dampness that seeps into your bones, or manifests in tule fog, a driver’s torture to navigate through. But let me try again to stop describing the cons, and get back to all the things I like about my childhood home.
I’m sure I mostly appreciate it because of its nostalgic value, and because of my people living there still. One of them is my friend on the hill, who had gone away for decades and all over the world before he returned and was able to take over the ranch that had belonged to his parents. At least three generations of farmer-gardeners have been farming this particular property, cultivating citrus for commercial markets, and gardens of ornamentals and edibles for home use.
Dick is trying to grow every kind of mandarin orange that exists. These are mostly in the areas close to the house, where he does what he calls the “fun stuff.” Lower down in the flatter areas are the oranges and blood oranges he will send to the packing house. I think he is about ready to plant a section of mandarins for market, too.
He also grows at least three varieties of lemons, I know, because he sent me home with Eureka, Lisbon, and these striped Pink Lemonade varieties. If you count Meyer lemons, well, he has those, too. I just now cut into a Pink Lemonade to see if it is in fact pink inside, as its name would lead you to believe, and yes, it is:
No one in my family knows what variety of lemon my father raised, but from reading online I had guessed Eureka. Dick says that Lisbon is now the most common lemon grown commercially, but he also said with certainty that my father’s would have been Eureka. Did I tell you that both of our fathers were citrus farmers? Having Dick for a friend is like having another brother. I feel so lucky that both my real brother and my old friend-like-a-brother (not to mention my sister, who is the on-the-ground farmer in her household) are deeply planted in the world of citrus, and that through them I can grow this part of my connection to my father and to those trees that densely enveloped our house and put food on our table.
It was the movie “Ushpizin” that gave me any knowledge or appreciation for citrons. If you haven’t seen this wonderful film please consider my hearty recommendation. Apart from the ritual use of citrons, the interwoven stories of forgiveness, redemption and hospitality make it one of the few movies I wanted to buy for myself, and I did.
It is about Hasidic Jews in Israel preparing for and celebrating the Feast of Booths (in real life Jews are in the middle of this feast right now!), and every household wants to invest in the most beautiful citron they can afford. At the time of Sukkot, a truly perfect specimen – their word for citron is etrog – might cost you hundreds of dollars! This article tells about the history of that tradition, and addresses the question of what is to be done with them after the feast when they are no longer useful ceremonially.
But what is a citron, a fruit that seems to have little to recommend it as a fruit? It is believed to be “one of the four original citrus fruits (the others being pomelo, mandarin and papeda), from which all other citrus types developed through natural hybrid speciation or artificial hybridization.” It does appear to me that it might be an ancestor of the lemon….
Part of the loot that I brought home from the fertile hill in the Valley I arranged on a platter:
And there in the middle are the two strangest fruits that I was introduced to: A Buddha’s Hand Citron, holding a Finger Lime. The Buddha’s Hand has been around for a long time in the Far East, where it has symbolic value as well; it is valued primarily for its perfume, and typically doesn’t contain any pulp or juice, but can nonetheless be eaten in various ways. I guess I will leave mine out on the kitchen counter so that sometimes when I pass by I can pick it up and inhale its romantic and complicated scent. In that aspect I agree that it is more excellent than the lemon.
That wrinkly green fruit on the platter is a Kaffir Lime. I had been pronouncing it “keefer,” and its etymology is not simple. It came with a separate branch of Kaffir Lime leaves, which it seems are often used whole as a flavoring or aromatic, in a pot of rice or Thai stew, or in a hot bath, one leaf at a time. I’m still reading about them.
The little thing sitting in the place where the palm of Buddha’s hand would be, and still on the plant in Dick’s hand directly above, is an Australian Finger Lime, Citrus australasica. When we were standing next to the tree Dick picked one and slit it open with his knife — there were the tiny translucent pearls of juice popping out, ready to sprinkle on one’s tongue or bowl of ice cream — I wished we had brought a scoop at least down from the house. And then I wished that I had put him on Pause so as to snap that photo, with his scuffed leather work gloves as the backdrop. The culinary possibilities of finger limes in a world of Food Art are vast, as one can see with a quick search online, where I found my photo. I’m not ready to slice into my own little lime yet.
Some things I don’t have good pictures of are a 20′ tall wisteria shaped like a Christmas Tree, 40 avocado trees of eight varieties, and Sacred Datura, a plant in the nightshade family that is certainly exotic. Datura wrightii is sometimes used as a hallucinogen, but since it is not edible, and all parts are highly poisonous, I personally do not hold it in very high esteem.
I was amazed at how many shrubs and trees were in bloom in the fall, and at all the bees buzzing on the hill. But then, the nights are still mild in that area, and the daytime high was 80° every day I was there. Delta sunflowers such as I plan to plant in my front yard next spring are blooming enthusiastically – those plants grow without a drop of water all summer long along the highways in the Central Valley, so when they get even a few tablespoons of moisture in the heat they respond beautifully, as can be seen in the second photo above. Dick threw a dead sunflower plant over the wall and next thing you know, he had them growing in the grove below as well. He says that birds planted his original ones.
This photo reveals the rock I referred to when I said that the hill is a hunk of granite. The soil around the house is therefore very shallow, but obviously it has been lovingly built up over the last century so that the plants have the benefit of living organic material above and rich minerals below, in which to sink their roots. The kind of dirt found naturally in the area is called San Joaquin Valley Loam, and it is rich in granite but low in organic material.
Soil-building is a project that can never be neglected; even if you have a richer loam naturally, it will in time wear out. Dick raises earthworms whose castings contribute to the health of the system, and he is always adding organic materials of various kinds to his groves and to the gardens. He doesn’t want to be one of the farmers who thinks that “dirt is a place you park your tractor.” I don’t personally know any farmers like that, but he says they are too common.
Gardeners like me don’t have to make a living from our land. If we fail at growing something because we were too cheap to amend the soil, or we forgot to irrigate, or were too lazy to dig weeds, it won’t affect our lives much. The farmers who make a living by horticulture and agriculture have to be sure they are giving the plants what they need, and that means caring for the soil and the whole environment, which is not a simple task; but the rewards include a connection to the land and the weather and the changing seasons that so many people never get.
I am inspired by my farming friends and family to be a better gardener, and to pay closer attention to my work and the natural world around me. Then I will be true to the impulses that were bred into me as a child, and my closeness to the earth and also to my fellow farmers will grow.
This last picture I took as I was driving back from Dick’s house. I wanted to save the image of that golden hill behind the tiny town, one that we kids used to climb so we could enjoy the view. It doesn’t look very tall, especially from this distance, but it’s to the scale of the orange trees that also aren’t very tall. You can see a lot of sky in this country – Let’s hope and pray that those skies drop some rain on all our fruit trees really soon!
For a long weekend I returned to the Central Valley (California) territory of my childhood as I had done in May. Both times were for nephews’ weddings, so I was there primarily to be with my family, but I also managed to visit with three dear friends before and after the festivities.
Back in May, I didn’t get to see much of my childhood friend Dick’s garden or groves, but this time I asked for and was given a thorough tour, and I took so many pictures of his vast collection of plants, I will have to scatter them at random around this post and the next. I hung around with my farmer sister Nancy long enough to ask more questions, and hear stories about the trials and adventures of being a farmer in these times. Heat, drought, frost, and the hot pursuit of thieves are a few of them.
As I pulled into Nancy’s driveway I noticed that the Sumo mandarins were whiter than I remembered from May. Have you ever wondered why Sumos are so expensive? It might have something to do with the extra care they need to make it to harvest and on to market. Whitewash is used for several reasons, not least of which is as a sunscreen for the fruit. Whether it helps the leaves to withstand the withering rays, I don’t know. Citrus does like a warm summer, but the one that just ended featured 44 days over 100°, while the average would be 32 days. Some trees baked to death.Rain was hoped for last week, even though an outdoor wedding was on the schedule. You can see how the sky was grey with clouds — but storms often come as far south as Fresno, and no further, which was the case again. A few sprinkles did fall as a happy gift at the wedding reception, just enough to feel like a blessing, and to create a rainbow!
One topic of conversation as we sat around in various assortments of kinfolk over the days was the problem of thievery and vandalism in the citrus groves and around the farmers’ houses. People will steal copper irrigation valve fittings worth $2, and the damage requires the farmer to spend $200 in repairs. Next to one of Dick’s groves live some teenagers with nothing better to do than drive their cars into orange trees and stuff rags into pipes. This kind of thing adds up to a cost of $100-200 every month for just that few acres.
Sometimes thieves will spread tarps on the ground under trees in the middle of a large orchard and pick fruit into them; then after dark they come back and haul it off. A woman rides her bicycle down a driveway to see if there might be something to pilfer, and when challenged by the dogs and/or the homeowner she makes up a story about being lost and needing directions. My sister is becoming famous for the many times she has jumped in her car to chase down such interlopers (some in cars) and take their pictures, or tell them to leave the neighborhood, because they aren’t fooling her.
October is the month when the citrus growers can breathe a sigh of relief that the hottest season of the year is past, and they begin to watch the sky for signs of rain. The oranges really need some rain in October if they are going to “size up” — no amount of irrigating will accomplish what atmospheric moisture does.
And in the coldest months the lemons and oranges have to be protected from hard frosts, nowadays usually by wind machines that make a breeze to keep the frigid air from settling on the trees and their ripening fruit. If you are growing one of the ultra-early varieties that now exist, which can be picked as early as October, you might have less to worry about come December and January.
Just down the road from Nancy’s I saw this grafting project the likes of which I don’t remember seeing in all my years living in the citrus orchards and coming back to visit. I wondered what was going on that required such brutal cuts. It’s this: these are mature orange trees that are being changed into lemon trees. All but one of the major branches have been cut off, and lemon wood was grafted in under the bark. (I wish I had been able to get over the ditch to get a closeup photo.) The one branch carries on photosynthesis while the lemon parts are growing, and eventually that remaining upper part of the orange tree will be pruned off, leaving a lemon tree with an orange rootstock.
I drove past fields of something I didn’t recognize, so I took a picture and texted it to my sister, who told me it is silage for dairy cattle. When I researched it I found out that it is sorghum silage, and uses less water than corn silage. That feature is always a good thing in this thirsty land we live in.
Nearby, alfalfa covered fields with its sweet green blanket; cotton was drying and popping out of its bolls. Cotton is also a plant that can be grown in arid regions such as the Central Valley’s West Side. When I was a child my father grew cotton for a few years.
To complete the report of my fun trip, next time I’ll focus on the specific microclimate of my friend Dick’s place, and the lush gardens three generations have created on a hunk of granite. A lot is still blooming in October, but some of the harvest is just now coming in.
My travels over a long weekend were for the purpose of attending my nephew’s wedding, held very near my old high school and home in the agricultural middle of California, the Central Valley. If the event had begun any earlier than 4:00 in the afternoon, much sunburning would have occurred; as it was, the two sunhats I retrieved from my car were traded around for a few hours among several of our family group, of both sexes.
At the reception, descendants of my parents, with their spouses, were seated all together at one of the long tables on the grass, and my own clan took up two-thirds of those chairs. No seat assignments had been made beyond assigning us a table, and as I was the oldest — the matriarch? — I sat at one end, what might have been the head of the table. But truly I didn’t sit there very much. The three-year-olds Liam and Ivy kept me busy, fetching drinks or wedding cake, or taking them up front to dance in a circle with me. Do the books on how introverts can survive parties ever talk about the strategy of hanging out with the preschoolers?
It was fun to introduce those two to the aunts and uncles and cousins they hadn’t met since they were old enough to be introduced. “Ivy, this is your Aunt Cairenn. She is my sister; we used to be little girls like you….” The children were all happy to shake hands and be cordial, though reserved. And my heart filled and was satisfied to see all the love shared among the younger generations and across generations, even though many of them rarely see each other.
Over the two layover days I spent time at three houses, each situated in the middle of a different citrus grove. Two belonged to my siblings and one was the home of a man I grew up with in a bygone era that seems a short while ago; we used to ride our bicycles between the rows of orange trees and slide down the golden hills on pieces of cardboard. While I wasn’t paying attention, my brother and sister and my friend Dick were learning the art of farming, so that now they can carry on in their parents’ tradition and even in some of their groves.
I had the chance to play among the trees again, this time with Liam and Ivy and Scout, who in the absence of store-bought toys were making do with old oranges that had fallen off the trees, with snails among the dead leaves, and with a trowel in the dirt. The smell of the trees and of the Bermuda grass lawn, and of the soil, and the air that stayed warm into the evening when we watched the Black Phoebes swooping and scooping up insects… All of these sensations and moments added up to create in me a dreamily contented mood.
My nephew the groom partly grew up in the same house that I mostly grew up in, that his grandfather built. I stayed three nights with my sister who is another of his aunts; she and her husband farm mandarins and oranges for his mother and for themselves, and live in a house they designed to have a view of the Sierra Nevada much like this one from her neighborhood (taken by someone else).
It was fun to be with country people who are daily involved with plants and animals different from my usual. In addition to the snails and phoebes mentioned above, I learned about or interacted with:
—A frog that I met in the bathroom. It was at midnight and I didn’t want to bother with him right then, so I went back to bed and he disappeared for two days, during which time everyone teased me about my tall tale. Then he was found in a different bathroom, and I was judged to be sane after all. Here he is in a bucket.
—A house finch who flew down the chimney into the ashes; I helped Nancy use an old towel to surround and collect the tiny bird and carry him outdoors.
—Gophers come down from the foothills in droves to feast on the roots of all the watered orange trees and vegetables, etc. that my friend Dick grows on 50 acres, and their tunnels contribute to the erosion of the sloping orchard land. His son explained all this to me and showed me the traps they put into the tunnels, trying to keep the population of pillagers at bay. It’s a constant and fairly hopeless battle that must be fought nonetheless.
—More snails: Did you know that some snails are carnivorous and eat other species of snails? Yep. The brown snail is a pest in the orange groves, but the Decollate snail ignores the trees and goes after the brown snails. My brother is in the field of citrus research and one nephew is a farm advisor on such matters. I lured them into the grove with my questions and we scratched around under the trees trying to find some Decollate snails so I could remember how they look different. Later I did find an empty shell at my sister’s. You can see one on Wikipedia’s page about them.
—Pink oranges. Have you heard of Cara Cara oranges? I hadn’t; I must not have been spending enough time with all the citrus growers, because already Sunkist is selling lots of Cara Caras — they are mainstream. Friend Dick is growing them, as well as…
—Berries: I had brought with me boxes of blueberries from Costco for a family breakfast, fruit that seems to have been grown in Salinas, California, not far from the coast. But even in the hot Central Valley they are growing blueberries now, more of them than are produced in any other area of the U.S. I learned about this from Dick as we stood on a patio overlooking his garden, and I could well imagine how the earlier spring might sweeten up the fruit. His son ran down and brought back some blackberries bigger than my thumb and mm-mm….yes. The flavor lingered on my tongue as I drove away.
Another nephew is marrying in October, so I will have a good reason to visit again and soak up the vibes of my childhood stomping grounds, and chat with farmers about their crops and the weather and the birds. I know that time will be here before I know it; I should read this post again about a week before my departure, to remind me of the joy I am likely to have once again.