Oranges, John McPhee 1966

Having completed the acquisition of all 32 of John McPhee’s books, I’ve begun to read the series from his first volume about Bill Bradley to the final volume (so far!) The Patch.  McPhee is one of our great essayists and writers of what has been called ‘creative non-fiction’.  The creativity refers to the organization, depth, and conclusions of the writing, not to the facts.  In this volume, which began as a New Yorker article, McPhee dives into the world of citrus, specifically Citrus sinensis, the orange.  With truly extra-ordinary effort and investigation, interviews and exploration of historical sources, McPhee tells the story of this fruit from its earliest days in China to its migration across the globe, from its modest beginnings in Florida and California to its status as a major US food and export.  If I could eagerly read 149 pages about oranges, it’s because McPhee weaves a fascinating story interspersing history (the word orange comes from Sanskrit, moved to Roman Provence where the town of Aurenja became auranju, and was eventually adopted by a German prince who founded the Dutch Republic, the House of Orange in England, and the name of four towns in northern New Jersey), statistics (orange trees average 1500 pieces of fruit/tree but can bear as many as 12,000; the average picker in 1966 earned $20/day for picking 80 boxes of 90 pounds/each/day, it takes 8 million oranges a day to keep the Minute Maid plant supplied in order to make concentrate), personalities, places, and images (“each (of the orange trees planted in 1830 has the girth of a middle linebacker on a professional football team.”) In the final chapter we meet Bob Hill Griffin of Frostproof, FL (killing frosts turn out to have been major turning points in Florida’s history). Griffin was a “universal man of citrus, a grower, a supplier, and a concentrate maker”.  His extensive holdings made him a wealthy and influential man in Florida in the 1960’s.  McPhee’s time with him summarizes much of the Florida orange story and in a twist of fate, this anti-segregationist state senator’s granddaughter, Kathleen Harris was Florida’s Secretary of State in 2000 and was influential in throwing the election to George Bush—the rest is history.  Speaking of history, it’s sobering to think about all the farmers, developers, citrus lobbyists and scientists, et al who McPhee interviewed and featured in the book who were in their 50’s or beyond in 1966, all gone now.  Tempus fugit but McPhee carries on!!!!

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