A Fading Scent

She still stops to smell the oranges. But does anybody else even remember they were here? 

My-OC Published August 2010

One of my first sexual experiences was in an Irvine orange grove. I can still remember the intoxicating scent of orange blossoms mixing with the pungent aroma of rotting fruit. The late summertime night breezes caressed my skin and the absence of city lights made the Big Dipper brighter than usual.

Not an experience one easily forgets, and yet not one I readily can summon by visiting this familiar haunt at Culver and Bryan avenues. Because my orange grove now is the soccer field for Beckman High School.

Still, citrus and romance run parallel tracks in my family. Mom had a similar citrus experience with Dad, but I’ll never hear the details, and frankly she’ll kill me if ever she reads these lines. (If you don’t tell her, I certainly won’t.)

My grandparents met while packing lemons at the Villa Park Orchards Association shortly after Grandpa returned from piloting a B-52 bomber in World War II. They fell in love even though they came from different worlds. His family, poor and humble, had migrated from Guadalajara to California to escape the chaos and violence of the Mexican Revolution. Her family had an aristocratic streak borne from 70 years as hacienda and large-ranch owners during Orange County’s lavish, bucolic early 1800s.

So you can imagine how nostalgic I get around orange groves. When I look at packing crate labels of rural scenes, it’s as if I can still see the hills of Anaheim, Orange, Laguna, and Tustin covered with live oak, aromatic California sagebrush, delicate red flowers of Indian paintbrush, buzzing bees, and the kittenlike mewing of the tiny, now-endangered California gnatcatcher. The landscape definitely was wilder and freer than what Orange County has become in the last 30 years.

I get angry and sad that the pastoral countryside enjoyed and cultivated by my family and others for centuries has all but disappeared. Now, I’m left only with snatches of stories to reconstruct the simple beauty of a life woven into the land and deeply connected to neighbors and families.

Even though my grandparents’ meeting had always been legendary in our family, it was inaccessible to me. I never heard my grandmother’s version. She died before I was born. And Grandpa didn’t tell me anything about those days because he was ashamed of having been a picker. He didn’t want to be a Mexican day worker—just a red, white, and blue loyal American citizen, thank you very much. So last winter, while working at Chapman University in Orange, I heard about plans to tear down the packinghouse to build a state-of-the-art science school. I called the owner of Prime Produce, the company which then packed avocados at the site, and arranged for a visit. I wanted to see evidence of my grandparents’ story and Orange County’s agricultural history. I agreed to write about the company in the university newsletter.

The sun was bright the day I walked up to the faded-yellow packinghouse. My eyes adjusted slowly as I walked into the cavernous maw, taking in the antique machinery and wooden sorting bins.

A lone woman wearing a green hairnet inspected avocados on a long, wide conveyor belt. I nodded to her. She smiled and quickly returned to her work.

Hardwood floors bore tread marks from decades of foot traffic. Back in its heyday, the company would stop the packaging of lemons, oranges, and almonds once every year, so the floors could be polished. It threw open the barnlike doors and celebrated with a huge company picnic.

As I poked around, I tried to guess where or if my grandparents might have scuttled off for clandestine kisses. I imagined their sweet whispers echoing from secret corners.

I wondered if my grandparents and their fellow packers really lived the uncomplicated life often seen on packing-crate labels. The locals themselves had built the packinghouse. Workers walked to the plant in the predawn light, and home at twilight. A school was built near the north end of the property for the workers’ children. The grounds-keeper lived across the street.

Of course my romantic view overlooks the long hours, low wages, and realities such as racial segregation in Orange County’s school system. My grandparents persevered against the prejudice and difficulties of their era to create a solid foundation their children and grandchildren could build on. Still, I can’t help but look back and, with a deep longing, envision some of the beauty we’ve lost to progress.

I live in a world of crowded freeways, where huge SUVs take up two parking spaces, purses slung over the shoulders of the überchic cost more than an average American’s weekly salary, a polished veneer has replaced authenticity, and the grocers I visit on a weekly basis rarely recognize me. But I hold on with feral tenacity to a simple, pastoral time in Orange County.

I visit the back roads and pockets of untouched land where developers haven’t yet degraded the California coastal sage scrub, one of the most endangered ecosystems in the United States. When I attended Orange Coast College, I used to drive around Santiago and Silverado canyons hoping to get lost in the wilderness—to tap into the unpredictable, uncontained part of me that was ebbing away as strip malls replaced orange groves.

I realize I’m an idealist, and that we’re living on prime real estate. But there really was a time when the spirit of camaraderie drew the community together, and the perfection of Orange County wasn’t just its perpetual sunshine and master-planned developments, but its verdant hills dotted with sweet-smelling groves.

During August and into the fall, I can walk by the few groves left, close my eyes, breathe in the alluring scent of orange blossoms, and remember. Few people in Orange County care, much less remember, what this place used to be like, or how liberating it can be to walk beneath a shower of those delicate flowers as they swirl on a Santa Ana breeze. I worry that we’re losing our agricultural roots, erasing our history, fragmenting the wild beauty of our stunning home.

And I wonder if anybody else has noticed.

Jamie Martinez Wood is an Orange Coast contributing writer. 

Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell

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