By Wyatt Williams
Photograph by Alex Catt, alexcattphoto.co.uk
Following John McPhee to Florida
Oranges, by John McPhee. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967.
Any piece of fruit has a story inside. You could say the seed is the beginning, the plant that grows is the middle, and the fruit that falls is the happy ending. Plant another seed and you can tell it all over again. These are lies of course. Stories never turn out that way. Lives don’t neatly fit into three parts. The structure won’t ever follow a straight line. You have to ignore a world of context to pretend a story is that simple. Take an orange.
We know that the orange is in fact green. The fruit changes to its namesake color when exposed to cool air. Yet, when the temperature drops below 28 degrees for longer than four hours, ice will form within an orange. The peel will show no injury, but the frozen flesh will turn mushy and the orange will fall from the tree, inedible. When the force that makes us can also ruin us, when a lethal irony is at play, we call the story a comedy or a tragedy, depending on the ending. Even if it is just an orange.
A tree damaged by a freeze may need to be pruned. Afterward, the tree’s wounds can become infected, much the same way the body might react after an amputation. The scab pustules caused by Elsinoë fawcettii are unsightly and wartlike, though edibility is not altered. A scion infected with Phytophthora will develop rotting lesions which can extend down below the ground, turning the roots into wet, useless tendrils. The canker blisters of Xanthomonas citri are black but surrounded by vivid yellow haloes. They will eventually kill the fruit, a mottled and rotten waste on the ground.
Orange trees, like hurricanes, thrive near the wet, tropical zones. When a storm approaches with winds of less than seventy-four miles per hour, minor fruit loss can be expected, with some broken twigs, branches, and oranges tossed to the ground. Faced with hurricane-force winds, an entire crop can be ripped from the branches along with most of the leaves. If the hurricane reaches category five, the groves themselves will be uprooted, trees carried and flung to the whims of the wind.
By the time the brown fungus of Alternaria alternata is spotted on the leaves of a Minneola tangelo tree growing in a low, wet grove, it is probably too late. The tree will be helpless to do anything but drop the fruit. The eggs of the Mediterranean fruit fly are laid below the skin of a host orange. After seven days, the larvae will hatch and feed on the sweet flesh. The symptoms of citrus tristeza virus include small leaves and twig dieback. Beneath the bark, the tree’s trunk will resemble a honeycomb. A tree like that can’t support itself. That’s one way the story can end. Tristeza is the Spanish word for sadness.
In the winter of 1965, an ambitious writer met with William Shawn, the famously autocratic editor of the New Yorker, to discuss his next story. After some considerable effort, the young man had published an expansive profile of a basketball star in the January 23 issue of the magazine. While going over final proofs of that story with Shawn, he had even talked his way into a job as staff writer. But now they couldn’t agree on the writer’s next assignment. The writer would suggest subject after subject only to be told that the idea had already been reserved for another writer or that Shawn wasn’t interested in it. This is the moment, as the story goes, when John McPhee finally just said, “Oranges.”
According to the version he told in an interview with the Paris Review decades later, “That’s all I said—oranges. I didn’t mention juice, I didn’t mention trees, I didn’t mention the tropics. Just—oranges. Oh yes! Oh yes! [Shawn] says. That’s very good. The next thing I knew I was in Florida talking to orange growers.”
It is a fitting origin story for an idiosyncratic writer whose work has followed the farthest limits of his interests wherever they lead. Descriptions of McPhee’s career inevitably fumble with the broadness of it—he has written books about sports and nature and canoes and doctors and fish and nuclear physics. McPhee is a patient writer, aware of time and yet existing a little outside of it. Around the same cultural moment that, say, Joan Didion was collecting her essays for The White Album, a book that spans the upheaval of a decade, McPhee was beginning to map out a comprehensive survey of North American geology, a book that spans the upheaval of billions of years. Twenty years later, when he finally published Annals of the Former World, a seven-hundred-page monument to rocks, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction.
McPhee has published steadily since the late sixties, until recently never going more than a few years between books—his oeuvre currently runs to thirty-one titles—and he remains a regular presence in the New Yorker, which features excerpts from his developing projects and, in recent years, essays about his craft. Since 1975, he’s taught nonfiction writing at Princeton in a course called “The Literature of Fact.” He is sometimes accused of being a boring writer or one who writes about boring subjects—forty-five hundred words about picking up golf balls?—but the accusations miss the point. Maybe you get bored, but John McPhee does not. The unifying subject of McPhee’s work is his sometimes overwhelmed, occasionally zig-zagging, but always endless desire for knowledge of the world.
Take a random survey of nonfiction writers today—published or unpublished, successful or emerging—and you will invariably hear some opinion, if not three, about McPhee’s career and influence. Lately my inbox is full of them.
“Nothing has given me more license to try to be interesting about boring things than reading John McPhee.”
“McPhee makes me want to slow down.”
“I’ve read every single book McPhee published and yes, it’s all goddamn good, inhumanly gentle and smart, precise, painful.”
“The one book I read was mostly a snore; it was about shad. I really like the articles.”
“It’s funny that he’s become an authority on narrative structure, because you rarely encounter a prominent nonfiction writer who seems to care so little about the mechanics of reading.”
“McPhee has been something of a password to me, a secret coin.”
“Pine Barrens was the one for me. And the one about the Swiss Army. Sheesh, that one.”
“Everyone talks about writing Great Sentences, but really wouldn’t it be obnoxious, in fact, to read six-hundred-plus pages of perfectly Great Sentences? Only just in the sense that it’s devastating, that Annals of the Former World is devastating to any serious writer.”
But before all of that, half a century ago, McPhee was a young writer who’d landed an assignment: he had to go down to Florida to look into oranges.
“Why oranges?” McPhee later wrote. “There was a machine in Pennsylvania Station that cut and squeezed them. I stopped there as routinely as an animal at a salt lick.” He noticed the juice change color, “light to deep,” over the course of a winter and puzzled over an ad “that showed what appeared to be four identical oranges, although each had a different name. My intention in Florida was to find out why, and write a piece that would probably be short for New Yorker nonfiction of that day—something under ten thousand words.” He returned with forty thousand.
Shawn ran most of what McPhee brought back in the New Yorker across two issues in May 1966. Farrar, Straus and Giroux published the full version in a slim volume the following year. The book has aged well. Fifty years later, it reads as an agile survey of world history, a vivid period piece of changing American foodways, and an early classic by a master just beginning to find his form.
In the decades after World War II, the methods of industrial manufacture and production were transforming American food. New processed foods were introduced by the dozen. A product from the C. A. Swanson & Sons company called “TV Brand Frozen Dinners,” made with cryogenic flash-freezing technology, sold by the millions. Cheese spread was spraying out of Nabisco’s Snack Mate cans. (“It makes a cheeseburger an easeburger.”) A company called Sweet’N Low promised to sweeten up your drink without a grain of sugar. And when McPhee arrived in Florida, a glass of fresh orange juice was rapidly becoming a thing of the past. The groves there, which grew a quarter of the oranges in the world, were putting almost all of their fresh fruit into “small, trim cans, about two inches in diameter and four inches high,” McPhee wrote, “containing orange juice that has been boiled to high viscosity in a vacuum, separated into several component parts, reassembled, flavored, and then frozen solid.”
We gather this in the early pages of the book, where no one in Florida will hand McPhee a taste of fresh-squeezed orange juice. He gets cup after cup of concentrate from Floridians who tell him it is really so much better, the industrially balanced flavors and sweetness. In a small act of defiance, he grabs a couple of oranges off a tree near his motel and juices them on a reamer bought from a hardware store’s dusty shelf.
McPhee’s book about oranges in the age of concentrate production is not a screed against industrial food or agribusiness priorities. There’s no scolding chapter explaining which oranges to buy at the grocery store. For that matter, there’s no hand-holding “what will happen in this book” chapter or really even much in the way of plot or main character, aside from the regular presence of our reporter guide. In that way, it doesn’t much resemble the books published about food today. If you read it a couple of times, trying to ascertain some kind of narrative structure, you may get the impression that McPhee is simply peeling an orange, circling his subject and handing out segments of the beauty and contradiction contained within.
In January, I drove to Florida to look for the oranges McPhee wrote about. For research, he had traveled to a place called the Ridge in central Florida. The area is a geological phenomenon, not unlike the sort that would consume a large part of McPhee’s later career, of unusual dimensions:
The Ridge is the Florida Divide, the peninsular watershed, and, to hear Floridians describe it, the world’s most stupendous mountain range after the Himalayas and the Andes. Soaring two hundred and forty feet into the sub-tropical sky, the Ridge is difficult to distinguish from the surrounding lowlands, but it differs more in soil condition than in altitude, and citrus trees cover it like a long streamer, sometimes as little as a mile and never more than twenty-five miles wide, running south, from Leesburg to Sebring, for roughly a hundred miles. It is the most intense concentration of citrus in the world.
I crossed the Florida-Georgia line on 301, a highway that bridges St. Marys River, looking for the Florida Welcome Center that served McPhee a glass of concentrate to begin his trip. It’s gone now, of course. Shortly after you cross the bridge, a large blue sign reads WELCOME TO FLORIDA with an orange instead of an “O” in the state’s name. To the right of the sign is the empty, abandoned parking lot, the asphalt cracked through with weeds and scrubby pines. To the left is a drive-through discount liquor store that also sells lottery tickets.
A couple hours down the road, I pulled off I-75 to visit a place that very unofficial-looking billboards promised was an OFFICIAL FLORIDA WELCOME CENTER. This seemed odd, that the center would be welcoming drivers into the state long after they’d arrived, but maybe it made sense for the people who believe they aren’t in Florida until they’ve arrived at Disney World or the beach. This Lake City welcome center is attached to an outlet store for boots and a restaurant called Country Skillit. Inside, there is a fourteen-foot-long stuffed alligator in a glass case, several long racks of brochures, and a few women behind the counter who would be more than happy to sell you a timeshare at a Westgate brand resort. There aren’t any oranges.
“I thought you’d have oranges,” I said to the woman behind the counter.
“Next exit,” she replied.
“I mean, it’s just kind of funny, a Florida welcome without orange juice, you know?”
She smiled silently, saying nothing until she realized I was waiting for her to reply.
The next exit was a rest area with vending machines, but the exit after that had oranges. It was a gas station with towering, faded signs; cheap coffee; and a rather diverse selection of Florida citrus. A woman handed out slices from hand-labeled Tupperware. I bought a sack of red navels, a winter delicacy, thick-skinned and juicy and sweet, with flesh as red and bright as a grapefruit. Inside the station, a few baby alligators floated in an aquarium next to a dead, stuffed adult, thirteen feet long. Outside, in between the gas pumps, a box had gone moldy and the bright orange peels were growing with blue-gray fuzz.
The orange is, of course, synonymous with color. If you say you’re having a yellow for breakfast, no one will have any clue what you’re talking about. An orange? Well, of course. It seems so simple, that an orange is orange, but it is much more complicated than that. McPhee leads us down a rabbit hole:
The color of an orange has no absolute correlation with the maturity of the flesh and juice inside. An orange can be as sweet and ripe as it will ever be and still glisten like an emerald in the tree. Cold—coolness, rather—is what makes an orange orange. In some parts of the world, the weather never gets cold enough to change the color; in Thailand, for example, an orange is a green fruit, and traveling Thais often blink with wonder at the sight of oranges the color of flame. The ideal nighttime temperature in an orange grove is forty degrees. Some of the most beautiful oranges in the world are grown in Bermuda, where the temperature, night after night, falls consistently to that level. Andrew Marvell’s poem wherein “the Bermudas ride in the ocean’s bosom unespied” was written in the sixteen-fifties, and contains a description, from hearsay, of Bermuda’s remarkable oranges, set against their dark foliage like “golden lamps in a green night.” Cool air comes down every night into the San Joaquin Valley in California, which is formed by the Coast Range to the west and the Sierra Nevadas to the east. The tops of the Sierras are usually covered with snow, and before dawn the temperature in the valley edges down to the frost point. In such cosmetic surroundings it is no wonder that growers here have heavily implanted the San Joaquin Valley with the Washington Navel Orange, which is the most beautiful orange grown in any quantity in the United States, and is certainly as attractive to the eye as any orange grown in the world. Its color will go to a deep, flaring cadmium orange, and its surface has a suggestion of coarseness, which complements its perfect ellipsoid shape.
In one paragraph, ostensibly about the relative orange-ness of an orange, McPhee moves from biological fact to globe-trotting observation to seventeenth-century poetry of the imagined tropics to the top of a snow-covered mountain to a present-day agricultural epicenter, before returning to his original line of inquiry with the lavish description of a single beautiful orange. There is a touch of Thoreau—who likewise could take us from the proper price for a shirt to the complications of the pronoun “they” to our relationship with authority to mummies in Egypt in the span of a paragraph—and, like Thoreau’s, this virtuosic essaying is not noise, but the signal itself. The prose, the actual structure of the paragraph, is telegraphing a message: even the most basic of things, the color of an orange, contains within it the whole world’s complications. And he still brings home the surface point, which is “Wow, yeah, oranges, they’re beautiful aren’t they?”
Yes, they are beautiful. When McPhee pulled off Interstate 75 around Leesburg, Florida, to drive the state highway that runs along the Ridge, he was moved by the sight of it to quote the eighth-century Chinese poet Tu Fu: “Two big gardens planted with thousands of orange trees. / Their thick leaves are putting the clouds to shame.”
As I traveled south on Highway 27 past the Florida Citrus Tower, the only words that came to mind were the ones on the signs, the terse poetry of corporate dining: Golden Corral, Buffalo Wild Wings, Texas Roadhouse, Red Lobster, Olive Garden. The shift he saw coming, the world of industrial food indicated by orange juice concentrate, has fully arrived here. The view has changed.
When McPhee came to Florida, Disney World had yet to begin construction. The suburbs of Orlando have since sprawled far west and for several miles around here there are now more parking lots and cul-de-sacs than orange groves. Eventually, though, Highway 27 does give way to the groves, to the endless rows of dark green trees, but even this is different than what McPhee observed.
About a decade ago, the color of the orange trees in Florida began to change. The dark green leaves began to mottle, their solid tones turning to yellow-green splotches. The men in the groves knew this was a bad sign. The fruit grew smaller or sometimes odd, misshapen, lopsided. The trees produced less fruit and then even less and then died. It started in the south of the state, spreading from tree to tree, row to row, grove to grove. No quarantine could contain it. By the time a tree showed symptoms, it was too late. The disease had already been in the roots for years, slowly crippling the tendrils until they pulled back, useless, unable to feed the leaves and changing their color.
The disease has a scientific name, Huang-longbing, given by the researchers who first identified the bacteria in China’s Chaoshan and Pearl River Delta plains. The damage it caused had been familiar in orange groves since at least the late nineteenth century. The disease was sometimes called Jitouhuang (yellow chicken head) or Genfu (root rotting). It ruined the industry there, more or less. A century later, the bacteria arrived in Florida. No one knows how.
The Asian citrus psyllid, a brown insect only a few millimeters long, carries the bacteria. Psyllids leap more than they fly, flittering among the branches of the trees and feasting on the tender young leaves. As they eat the plant, they also infect it, passing the disease to every tree in their path. The folks on the Ridge in Florida mostly just call it by the color, greening. You can see it in the leaves, the way they’ve turned from dark green to light. Greening. Today, no one is quite sure if Florida’s oranges will survive.
In 1965, the Florida Agricultural Statistics Service commissioned the first aerial survey of commercial citrus acreage in the state. Chartered planes flew in a series of three-mile-wide flight paths while cameras, loaded with black-and-white panchromatic film and calibrated to make exposures at a precise scale of one inch for every 2,500 feet, photographed 14,000 square miles of the state. Each geometric grid of orange trees was then identified, measured, and indexed by variety, age, and identifying features. The resulting report, Florida’s Commercial Citrus Inventory, has been repeated and improved upon ever since. The level of detail is meticulous; if a photograph presents some kind of discrepancy, say a large number of missing or newly planted trees, a ground crew is sent to inspect and verify the acreage.
It is hard to imagine a more comprehensive form of survey than this: a photographic archive of every working orange tree in Florida. We’ve become accustomed to the story of our agriculture being told by numbers: every single head of cattle slaughtered, every pound of corn grown, every pound of honey produced, every egg laid. The results of the first Commercial Citrus Inventory, published the year before Oranges, determined there were 858,082 acres of commercial citrus groves in Florida.
McPhee’s work is similarly comprehensive, but different, of course. He is more interested in qualities than quantities, more a poet than accountant, too present to be a historian, a writer capable of recording the stories that numbers and archives cannot. By focusing his work this way, the book accomplishes a number of subtle illusions. It is a small thing—not even a hundred fifty pages—but the volume seems to contain much more than its length. My many returns to Oranges have never quite explained it. I always come up short, not sure why this book works at all and, yet, reaffirmed that it does. It is like one of those houses that looks like it should fall over but never does, as if unconcerned with gravity.
The opening pages are a prose poem, a single unbroken paragraph that vividly arranges images of orange consumption around the globe: “A Frenchman sits at the dinner table, and, as the finishing flourish of the meal, slowly and gently disrobes an orange. . . . English children make orange-peel teeth and wedge them over their gums on Halloween. Irish children take oranges to the movies, where they eat them while they watch the show, tossing the peels at each other and the people on the screen. In Reykjavik, Iceland, in greenhouses that are heated by volcanic springs, orange trees yearly bear fruit.”
At one point McPhee describes sitting down under a tree to read a stack of books recommended by the pomologists at the University of Florida’s Citrus Experiment Station. It is not unlike the story we know about the Buddha and the Bodhi Tree, the place where he is said to have attained enlightenment. There is a pleasant sense in the book that McPhee has filtered all human knowledge of oranges to this moment, that all the stories of kings and orangeries and poets and groves that he weaves through his version of the history have arrived with him at this age of oranges in Florida. There is a kind of mastery, of control, demonstrated in this kind of knowledge. It is the same kind of control that lets us take the fruit of an ancient tree and remake it into a two-by-four-inch can.
The Florida Agricultural Statistics Service report was repeated biennially, so that the past fifty years of oranges can be glimpsed within them. One can read between the numbers that in, say, 1971 or 1977, a hard freeze occurred in January. Some towns near the Ridge have hopeful, talismanic names, Frostproof and Winter Haven and Winter Garden and Winter Park, but names offer no protection from cold winds.
The numbers have other stories in them. You can guess that production peaked in the late nineties. You can sense a little of what happened in the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, when storm after storm hit the state, destroying more than a third of the acres of oranges. As the numbers continue to decline after that, you can see how those storms spread canker, a disease that can be carried on water and wind, into every grove in the state.
Not long after, the leaves started to change color.
That afternoon in Florida, I met with Ben Hill Griffin III. The final pages of Oranges are a portrait of his father, Ben Hill Griffin Jr., one of the most successful orange barons in history. Ben Hill III’s wood-paneled office in Frostproof is filled with evidence of his family’s success. There is the scale model of the University of Florida football stadium named for his father, the framed magazine and newspaper pages, the honorary degrees and plaques. He has an air of generosity. He asked his secretary to bring us cups of coffee.
I’d come in part because I noticed a passing mention on the second-to-last page of Oranges: “an empty lot where Ben Hill III was about to start building a house.” I thought that it would be nice to see the finished house where McPhee had once noted an empty lot. Ben Hill III agreed that this was a nice idea, but he explained that he had built the house, lived in it, and sold it long ago. He didn’t know who lived there today.
I asked about the processing and packing facilities, the ones that McPhee had toured with Ben Hill III’s father. Those had been sold, too, to Procter & Gamble in 1981. It was meant to be one of the biggest deals in orange juice. With those properties, P&G had assembled the components to compete with Minute Maid and Tropicana, but they never could get out of third place. In 1991, the FDA decided their use of the word “fresh” on concentrate products constituted false advertising. P&G tried to fight the ruling, but the FDA charged them in court for making false and misleading claims, and seized all of the Citrus Hill products in a nearby warehouse. The brand ran into the ground not long after that. Ben Hill III estimated that P&G lost hundreds of millions of dollars on the deal.
But these were old stories. To talk about the industry today is to talk about greening. Ben Hill III wanted to impress upon me the numbers. He had typed out a few pages of notes that contained the boiled-down facts:
“Industry produced 250 million boxes per year in 2010. 70 million boxes in 2016.”
“Millions of dollars of research have been spent to date in search of cure but to no avail.”
“Cost of production has grown from $850/acre to $2,400/acre with reduced production.”
“Through time, production declines to zero.”
“No cure in sight.”
When McPhee had come, the work was nearly around the clock. Now, Ben Hill III only runs his packing house a couple of days a week. There just aren’t enough oranges to pack. I asked him what greening could mean for Florida oranges. In my notes from the day, his response is in all capital letters. “THE END OF THE INDUSTRY.”
That evening I had a blackened redfish sandwich at the local bar in Frostproof. When the bartender asked, I told her I was in town on a story about oranges, that I’d come to see the orange capital of the world.
“Yeah, more like meth capital of the world,” a waitress said under her breath. She and the bartender laughed uneasily.
The bartender turned to me, her face serious, “No, really, it is like Breaking Bad around here.”
I looked at her, took another bite of my sandwich.
“But, yeah, oranges, I hear they’re having a hard time, too,” she said.
I moved to Florida in the nineties, when I was in grade school. My mother had remarried and we moved to a property west of the Ridge, where the curling shapes of suburban cul-de-sacs were slowly carving into strawberry fields and cattle pastures and orange groves.
During those years, I had a friend named Jeff. I don’t remember ever talking with him about oranges, though we drove past them every day—acre after acre, miles and miles of oranges—on our way to school. We talked about music and girls and skateboarding and which gas stations were the best for buying beer without an ID. I don’t remember anyone we knew ever talking about oranges, either. These farms, their long expanses along the country roads, were just an inconvenience to us, a thing in the way of the rest of our lives. We were always driving to some party an hour away. It was always either a suburban house, abandoned by parents for the weekend, or a pasture somewhere bordered by groves, a place where adults couldn’t see us. One night, we pulled his car to the side of the road and ran into a grove with a garbage bag and filled it with oranges we picked from the trees. We ran with the bag as if someone might be watching. We ran because that’s what we’d seen criminals do on television. At the party later, we sliced them in half and found the absent parents’ electric juicer. It was the sort of machine that turned on when pressed with an orange, that gave its golden juice down a little metal spout. Everyone drank it with vodka, of course. We’d told Jeff’s parents that he was staying at my house and my mother that I was staying at his house. We drove another hour and slept on some quiet beach we’d never seen before.
I don’t remember the first time I saw someone bring a different bag of oranges to one of those parties. I remember hearing about them more than I saw them, small bags filled with perfectly round little pills. This was fifteen years ago, when no one really knew OxyContin would be such a problem, when you could crush half of one of those pills on the coffee table and snort it and not worry about a thing. I didn’t think about them much at the time, though they’re everywhere in my memory now.
Florida became the place to get OxyContin. People drove across the country to get their prescriptions filled, to get their little bottles and bags of oranges. By 2010, manufacturers would sell 650 million oxycodone pills in Florida in a single year, five times the number of boxes of oranges.
I haven’t seen those pills in so long that I had to look up a picture to remind myself. They look a little more yellow than I remember, more like a sour lemon than a sweet orange. I moved away and fell out of touch with Jeff. He’s dead now and I’m the one looking up pictures of pills on my computer in a motel room and remembering the way the drip would taste coming down the back of my throat.
The morning after seeing Ben Hill III, I met with Ellis Hunt Jr., an heir to and president of the Hunt Brothers, Inc., in Lake Wales. Hunt Bros. is almost as old as any business in the Florida citrus industry today. For much of that history, many orange groves were owned in relatively small blocks, ten acres here, twenty acres there. It didn’t make much sense for those small owners to build their own packing houses, so they would pay a cooperative like Hunt Bros. to tend their groves and pick and process the oranges.
Fifty years ago, McPhee explained the business like this: “If an owner has bearing trees on his property, the cooperative gives him a drawing account, advancing the costs of production against eventual profits, and sending him a check for the difference at the end of the season. Owners with new groves are sent monthly bills until their trees come into bearing.” That’s more or less how a cooperative would work today, too, except that there are no eventual profits for most small owners. To keep a grove going in the midst of greening requires intense, expensive rotations of fertilizer and pesticides. After a few years of losing money, many have walked away from their groves and stopped paying into the co-ops. By his own estimate, Hunt believes as many as 230,000 acres have been abandoned across the state. The groves that Hunt Bros. tends today are largely their own.
Hunt was born into the industry. He picked in the groves as a teenager, studied citrus in school. Aside from a brief prodigal period—long hair, VW van, the seventies—he has been here in Florida, working with oranges, his whole life. The Hunt Bros. packing house is a technological marvel, a Rube Goldberg machine of whirring, spinning, weighing, cleaning, sorting contraptions capable of marvels that McPhee would have delighted in. As we walked through, though, it was hard not to notice the way the machine was sorting out so much fruit, the small, useless harvest of greening. All the sorting technology in the world makes no difference if you don’t have the right fruit to put in it. We went for a drive in the groves after.
Only a person with Hunt’s experience can navigate a grove. To an outsider, it is like entering a hedge maze, an endless geometric trap of rows and rows of citrus trees. As we cruised the acres in his truck, there was never a spot where you couldn’t see some effect of the disease. When an owner abandons a grove, it creates problems for the neighbors. Without maintenance, a deserted grove is a breeding ground for psyllids, the bugs that carry the disease. The only way to stop them from spreading is to push and burn the infected trees. That’s what they call ripping the trees from the ground, pushing them into a pile, and lighting them on fire. Hunt pointed out evidence of this, swaths of land scarred with rows but no trees. He saw that as a good thing, evidence of owners who had taken care of their property. All around he pointed to abandoned groves, crippled-looking gnarled trees with useless fruit. These were the bad neighbors, he said, ones who cut their losses and walked away and left the problem for everybody else. One day their trees will have to burn, too.
The next day, I visited a very different grove. The man who showed it to me, Michael E. Rogers, compared it to a library. We were riding in a golf cart, moving very slowly between the trees so that I could understand the description. Most groves are planted with trees of the same variety, hundreds and thousands of Valencias or Hamlins or Midsweets. Here in the Library, every single tree was different, like books on a shelf. Some were tall, others were short, some fat, some skinny. Some contained sweet fruit, others bitter and full of seeds. Some peels were difficult, others came off easy. Some trees in here were sick and dying from greening. Others were alive and well.
Rogers is the director of University of Florida’s Citrus Research and Education Center. If the Ridge was once the greatest concentration of citrus in the world, the CREC is still the greatest concentration of citrus knowledge in the world. This is the place where McPhee came and, as he has said, his “short article turned into a book.”
Rogers showed me just about everything on the CREC campus that day—laboratories, processing facilities, experimental groves, taste tests, heavy-duty machinery, proof-of-concept videos—and everything, all of it, was in some way fighting the disease of greening. There are still other concerns in citrus, other aspects to be studied, other problems to be solved, but nothing will take priority until they solve greening.
McPhee arrived here at a time of relative peace and prosperity. He wrote, “Lightning kills as many orange trees as any disease,” which is a comical ratio today. The CREC is now a central command, a military base in an urgent war. There are many fronts and battles, many treatments and stop-gap measures to slow the spread of the disease. But, in the end, the result will be decided by a single plant, a tree that is resistant to greening. If the CREC can develop such a tree, Florida oranges will survive. If they can’t, well, no one really likes to talk about not winning.
Rogers explained that they’re now testing genetically modified trees, ones in which the genes that are affected by greening have been simply deleted from the DNA. They’re testing all sorts of varieties, like an easy-to-peel, greening-resistant variety to compete with the California-grown Cuties. They call that one Bingo! The researchers have hope, but the trees in the Library are like books in so many ways. They’re complicated and slow. They take time, years in fact, to reveal how the story ends.
McPhee returned to the subject of oranges years later, when he wrote about what he calls California’s second gold rush. After the arrival of train tracks in Los Angeles, the “people rushing in were farmers, and the gold was oranges,” he wrote. He described the evolution of a giant grove assembled from a collection of small, single-farmer-owned orchards on the north side of the city. Though nowhere near as big as the Ridge, the grove grew large enough to serve as a kind of moat between Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Mountains, which irrigated the groves with their mountain watersheds. For a time, the grove became an accidental buffer, a protective distance put between the citizens of Los Angeles and the mountain’s violent cycles of wildfire and landslides. But it didn’t last. Floods of debris eventually came raging down through the groves and killed dozens of people. During the Second World War, a new rush of people moved to Los Angeles to work for the war industry, and orchards were clear-cut to make room for new housing. A virus broke out. The new neighbors didn’t care for the oranges. They stole them or dumped junk and trash behind the trees; they passed laws against farmers’ smudge pots but drove their cars until the toxic smog choked the fruit. In a matter of just a few pages, the grove comes and goes.
The story is a passing anecdote, a digression contained within “Los Angeles Against the Mountain,” the closing section of The Control of Nature. Published about twenty years after Oranges, the book tells three stories, unconnected aside from the spirit of McPhee’s interest, the echoing allure of “any struggle against natural forces—heroic or venal, rash or well advised—when human beings conscript themselves to fight against the earth, to take what is not given, to rout the destroying enemy, to surround the base of Mt. Olympus demanding and expecting the surrender of the gods.”
Humans don’t win in the end. We take a battle on occasion—dam an undamable river, halt a volcanic eruption in its tracks. We’re even sometimes foolish enough to believe we’ve wrested control, that we can learn and adapt to defy any force and that we’re too powerful to be stopped. But there’s no winning. However much we know, there is always more. Whenever we think we’ve seen the big picture, we are only glancing at the smallest of scenes.
In the broad strokes of McPhee’s career, you can see a little of that. When looked at with fifty years’ hindsight, his books appear less about mastering his subjects and more about the patient, hard work of continuing to try to understand. It is perhaps the highest compliment I can think of to say that his work resembles an old, slow-growing, wide-branched tree.
Before I went to Florida to look for McPhee’s fruit, I had been returning to Oranges for years. I read to figure out how to do it, looking again, looking closer, as if it were only a matter of learning each move, imitating each flourish, then the whole mysterious thing could be known and repeated and controlled. I’ve heard this story again and again from friends, writers who have done the same but with Didion or Wallace or McCarthy or Baldwin or whoever. Young writers—those of us still looking for a subject to open the world the way oranges did for McPhee—need books to aspire to, guides off in the distance, green fruit glowing on the high branches of a tree. Ask anyone who’s been in that affair, though, and they’ll tell you the relationship is dangerous. Eventually admiration and imitation lead you down a wrong path. You’ll go looking for things that aren’t there anymore. Most writers I know hate the books they love. I didn’t understand it until later, but I went to Florida in January so I could stop reading Oranges, so that I could see the trees for myself and move on. We all have to learn to grab for the fruit we can reach.
At the CREC that afternoon, I casually mentioned to several people the scene where McPhee sits down under a tree and reads everything about oranges. I had the foolish idea that the tree might still be around, that it would be standing right outside the research library like a hallowed spot. Nobody else quite remembered that part.
I headed to my car in the visitors’ lot, but I wasn’t ready to leave. The story that Ellis Hunt Jr. had told me, about the people who had abandoned their groves without burning them down, was turning over in my head. Those trees contained two stories, two endings—not one. The owners who had abandoned them believed the story of their trees was over, that it was done because they had walked away. For everyone else, the story kept on going, unfinished as of yet.
I decided to walk for a few minutes in the afternoon sun, and think about which tree might be nice to sit under, to try not to think about anything else. There are trees all over the campus, not just orange trees. This is Florida, so there were palm trees, tall and skinny, and there was a little clump of regular pines with a blanket of brown needles below it. There were live oaks tall and thick with Spanish moss that spread their shade all around. They were all books—just ones that hadn’t been written yet.
In other words, there were plenty of fine places to sit.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.