The skies are orange here today. Words like “contained” and “perimeter,” along with phrases like “mandatory evacuation” and “defensible space,” float through the smoke-laden air. The smoke curls indolently outward, towards the Golden Gate, and flies up against the back of Yosemite’s Half Dome. It accumulates against every horizon, much like the ash that is, well, everywhere, and leaving its not-so-subtle reminder of the destruction. No pictures of that destruction are needed here to tell the fires’ tales…
Out “here,” though, we hear things. We hear phrases beyond the usual pandemic chatter. Phrases that make that old and familiar coronavirus feel like it’s playing second fiddle in some new and terrible apocalyptic road show. We hear the reality of incredible statistics, like “2.2 million acres burned” and “1,000 acres of land burning in 30 seconds;” statistics so staggering that they echo in our ears. Some of these fires are so large that they don’t even have ‘geographic’ names anymore, but now have rather strange amalgamated names that take on the prefix “complex.” This prefix is added to acronyms like SCU and CZU before they (the fires) can even be described. These new-styled names underscore the devastation to this beautiful place. They blacken us as they back us into corners of situational awareness. It’s not pretty here. Yes, indeed. Welcome to California.
After all, these things only happen to other people, right?
The fires aren’t far away. I worry about my co-workers, and about people I don’t really know who live just up the road. Surely those fires have to still be far away from “us.” After all, these things only happen to other people, right? Sometimes I think I’ll go south to my daughter’s in San Diego or north to my dad’s in Oregon to wait the fires out, but, as if the fires could read my mind, they’ve made sure to block my every exit and, yes, to endanger my loved ones there. There’s nothing to be done except to hope and wait, and to pray for the victims, and always for the first responders there on-scene trying to make it better for us all. Dry winds howl here no matter where you turn. It seems California – indeed the West Coast – is compelled only to burn. And, yes, enough said…
Looking about today, I guess I needed a sign of hope. I needed a sign that someday, beyond the pandemic and this towering inferno, things might be okay again. Yesterday, I found that sign of hope quite by chance when I stumbled upon the mention of “a tree” growing nearby. (No, not the kind on Rootsweb, you silly!) Now, being of the genealogical persuasion, it’s hard for me not to take notice of any tree – with or without any ancestral hints. (Family trees being what we ‘here’ are all about.) However, what caught my interest about this particular tree was that, in addition to its proximity, it has come within the vicinity of so many raging fires – and survived. It’s an amazing tree, a very special tree planted in the year 1856, and known here as “Mother Orange.” (Well, what can I say? If my sign of hope didn’t have me at “tree,” I was certainly a sucker for “1856.”) My curiosity piqued, the tree seeker in me had to know more.
Planted as a two-year-old seedling by a Sacramento judge, this ostensibly normal-looking fruit tree is (likely) the oldest living orange tree in Northern California. It’s said that miners in the area saved its seeds and from these “savings” other trees grew… The tree has been moved twice during the course of its life, once in 1862 to avoid a flooding river, and once in 1964 during the creation of a local dam. It was even cloned once to ensure its preservation! I know, that doesn’t seem like such a big deal, that is until you take a look at Mother Orange’s life in light of the inferno raging around her, and against the background of a damn virus that we can’t seem to escape. For me, Mother Orange is proving to be a sign of hope, and something that I can feel a local connection to. I think the following describes what this tree means to an enduring California: “From its example and largely from its offspring, a new industry was started… It was a true Pioneer.” – Dr. H. J. Webber, Director, Citrus Experiment Station, Riverside, 1927.
For me Mother Orange is proving to be a sign of hope…
Yes, “Mother Orange” is surely a true pioneer. I noticed also that the words written about her reminded me of some other words (of hope) that I’d read once before. While at first I couldn’t immediately place them, after a while they came to me. I think you’ll know just whose words I’m talking about. Words of hope written by one of my own favorite guys, Governor William Bradford: “Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and, as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many…” ― William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation
So, yes, as you might have imagined (you know me all too well), I’ve started to check it out – that is, the ancestry of the man who planted the tree, Judge Joseph Lewis, and of the various people who have been connected to it over the years. Any tree with a pioneer connection is certainly a friend of mine, and any tree described in terms echoing Bradford’s words means that I need to take a second look. Thus far, I’ve found a few connections between that tree’s grower and its “handlers” to John Winthrop and some great old New England family lines. There is even a connection from “Mother Orange” to Edward Winslow the elder, and I have high hopes that I will find an errant or undiscovered Mayflower connection or two in the branches of that old orange tree – if I just don’t give up (you guessed it) hope.
In the meantime I’m going to honor the old tree, as it reminds me of just who we as Californians are, of where we came from, and those qualities of which we are made. It’s serendipitous to me that an old orange tree just up the road should represent so much. It tells me that no matter what we in the West have thrown against us, we are indeed pioneers, and that we will survive. It reminds me that we will surely get through these infernos, and we will figure things out … eventually. I’m just glad that it looks like Mother Orange will be sticking around to help keep us in line, if indeed not show us the way.
 Yasemin Saplakoglu, LiveScience.com, and as requoted through Cal Fire.
 MSN.com, 9 September 2020.
 “SCU Lightning Complex Fire” burning in Santa Clara, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus Counties and burning as of 7 September 2020; CZU Lightning Complex Fire burning in San Mateo County as of 7 September 2020.
 Valley Fire, burning in San Diego County as of 8 September 2020.
 Archie Creek Fire, burning in Douglas County, Oregon, as of 10 September 2020.
 “Mother Orange” has so far has survived the Bear Fire, a fire within the “North Complex Fire.”
 Statement attributed to Art Peters of the Butte County Historical Society, in the Oroville Mercury Register, 31 December 2010.
 Richard Ek, “Old Mother Orange,” Chico News and Review, 1 May 2003.