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by John McPhee

149 pages, paperback, Noonday, 1995

Oranges is about oranges. The work was first conceived as a magazine article, but McPhee encountered so much irresistible information that he wrote a book.

Praise for Oranges

"It is a delicious book, in a word, and more absorbing than many a novel."--Roderick Cook, Harper's

"Fascinating. A sterling example of what a fresh point of view, a clear style, a sense of humor and diligent investigation can do to reveal the inherent interest in something as taken-for- granted as your morning orange juice."--Edmund Fuller, The Wall Street Journal

"By examining things as they are, [McPhee] converts familiar objects into synecdoches, mere particles of experience that represent its totality. Oranges seem less ordinary when McPhee has recited their botany and history."--William L. Howarth, editor of The John McPhee Reader

Quotes from Oranges

"On the Ridge, as in the Indian River section of eastern Florida, citrus plantations are called groves; in California, they are generally called orchards. Citrus trees are evergreen, and in the ancient world they were coveted for their beauty long before anyone ever thought to eat their fruit. Of all the descriptions of them that I have ever run across, the one I prefer is contained in these three lines by an eighth-century Chinese poet:

In the full of spring on the banks of a river--
Two big gardens planted with thousands of orange trees.
Their thick leaves are putting the clouds to shame.

"The poet's name was Tu Fu, and he had so much confidence in his writing that he prescribed it as a cure for malaria. Beyond those three lines, I am unfamiliar with Tu Fu's canon. But I believe in him. Or at least I did that morning at the beginning of the Ridge, where the orange trees were shaming the clouds, and the air was sedative with the aroma of blossoms. Valencia trees, unlike all other orange trees, are in bloom and in fruit at the same time. So most of the trees in every direction were white and green and orange all at once."

. . .

"It is difficult, though, to walk in the groves, because you sink to your shins in sand. All of Florida was under water fifty million years ago, and the Ridge is the remains of a string of submarine hills. Clay and limestone are under the sand, but the sand is about twenty feet deep. There are traces of phosphate in it and occasional suggestions of organic material, but it would be a scandalous exaggeration to call it sandy soil. It has the texture and porosity of a beach, and feels exactly the same underfoot.

" 'It's a kind of hydroponic deal,' Mathias explained to me during the course of a day that I spend riding around with him from grove to grove. 'The sand holds up the trees, and we do the rest.'

"His car pitched and rolled in the soft sand, and once in a while was stopped altogether. When this happened, he deftly rocked it back into action. Only occasionally, he said, does he have to radio for a tractor to pull him free. In varying amounts, he feeds the trees nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, manganese, zinc, boron, and molybdenum. The trees, in turn, are fed upon, or otherwise attached, by many kinds of mites, insects, and fungus diseases, against which Mathias' crews use a liquid arsenal ranging from a fine mist of petroleum to parathion, a deadly nerve gas developed by German scientists during the Second World War. Workers have to wear gas masks when they are applying it, but parathion is very volatile; it does its work and vanishes.

" 'Citrus is sprayed very little, compared with other fruits,' he said. 'A few sprays are toxic, and we have to be careful. Most are non-toxic.' "

. . .

"With aerospace and realty interests preempting the northern shores of the Indian River, new plantings have been made in the south. Until 1959, all groves were within two or three miles of the ocean. They had to be, since most of the length of the river is paralleled, a couple of miles inland, by vast savannas, which are largely under water nine months of the year.

"Much of the west bank of the river is a kind of loaf of ground, described by Floridians as a 'bluff' even when it rises only thirteen feet above sea level. But it is high ground indeed compared to what lies beyond it. The savannas reach out to the western horizon, low and flat, filled with saw grass and cat-o'-nine-tails, small cypress trees, and occasional hammocks covered with cabbage palms. Otter live in the savannas, and alligators, wildcat, quail, deer, rabbit, wild turkey, water moccasins, and rattlesnakes.

"In 1959, the Minute Maid Company went into the savannas with earth-moving machines and heaved up a great ten-foot wall of earth surrounding seven thousand acres of marsh. Then they pumped out the water, graded the sandy soil, and planted six hundred thousand orange trees. It was an impressive feat, and it emboldened many other companies and syndicates to do the same."

Table of Contents of Oranges

  1. Oranges
  2. Orange Men
  3. Citrus sinensis
  4. Orangeries
  5. Indian River
  6. Degrees Brix
  7. Orange Baron

About John McPhee

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