restricted access Navel Country
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Riverside, California, circa 1979

We hurtle down the narrow road in Grandpa’s Ford ltd, whistling cleanly through the orange trees, the dark green foliage whipping past. Up ahead, the leaves all seem a jumble, but looking directly out my open window, I see the neat rows opening up, the cleaving of soil between the evenly spaced trees. For a split second, each row lines up straight in my line of sight, and then the next supersedes it, and the next, and the next, each one a clean part in the land. Zip-zip-zip-zip, the rows whip past with an even tempo, a corresponding music in the whoosh-whoosh-whooshing of the leaves.

We’re headed up to the ranch, barreling along Palmyrita Avenue in an enormous mint-green two-door with automatic windows. I’m small on the big bench seat, skittering back and forth with the turns, clawing at the vinyl seat to keep from careening into Grandpa. He’s a fast, aggressive driver. The trees keep flying past until he slows and pulls onto a dirt road running between two groves. Creeping along it, he vigilantly peers down the rows on either side, looking for anything out of the ordinary, for trouble. Suddenly he turns the steering wheel, plunging the car right down one of the narrow rows, forcing it in, and we are riding in a wedge that passes through the trees, branches scraping on both sides. I shrink away from the foliage erupting in from my open window, the trees seeming to clamber into the car with me. Their glossy leaves fall on my lap, and occasionally an orange thuds to the floorboard. The car’s antenna bounces crazily, springing off branches. Grandpa rests his left arm on the open window, never moving, not even flinching when a branch scratches his tan skin. He’s impervious to these unruly trees because he’s the lord of this vast kingdom of citrus; as far as I know, he very nearly rules the world. [End Page 67]

Looking down from the Box Springs Mountains, the orange groves are needlepoint, an elaborate embroidering upon the land. Dark green burrs set at regular intervals, the trees are globular, their full branches skirting the ground, their shiny ovate leaves present year round, unchanging but for the cycle of fruit: the saccharine blossoms, the small green fruit, and finally, the brilliant ripeness of temperate winter. January in a navel grove is a page from a storybook. The leaves seem to be a setting, a dark green satin, to display the gleaming jewels of fruit. Orange is both a color and a fruit. No other fruit can quite manage it; peach, lemon, raspberry, and watermelon are shades of colors, not colors proper, not members of the rainbow. But an orange is orange. And I feel proud that we—this country, my family—own this color, that it is ours and that it is tangible and edible and I can cup it in my hand.

Brown and dusty most of the year, the Box Springs Mountains are covered in scrub with a few sycamores growing deep in gullies, the highest peak just three thousand feet. Farther off are the real mountains, the San Bernardino and San Gabriel ranges, blue and purple, snowcapped, over eleven thousand feet at the highest peak, an ornate backdrop to our life in navel country—except that on many days, the mountains don’t seem to be there at all. They’ll be invisible for weeks behind a shroud of smog, so that when they suddenly reappear on a clear day, it’s as if they’ve been unrolled from the sky, Hollywood scenery tacked up along the horizon to make our life appear idyllic. The smog is never idyllic, brownish-orange and thick, pooling up in valleys, obstructing views and lungs. The startling splendor alternates with long strings of smog alert days, when the air quality is so poor that we’re kept in at recess and p.e., so that we won’t physically exert ourselves and breathe in even more of the toxic air. We sustain ourselves...