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.
 As found at www.californiahistoricallandmarks.com, CHL # 1043, “Mother Orange Tree of Butte County.”
18 thoughts on “Mother Orange”
Powerful and hopeful, thank you. I have a daughter, two sisters, and many friends in the Bay Area. Cousins in Portland, friends in LA. I used to worry about their earthquake vulnerability, but somehow that’s taken a back seat lately.
On a day on which I am struggling to maintain some positive approach to our situation, your post is a great joy. We will be buoyed by “one small candle” being lit by people like you. Thank you.
Today’s post is beyond heart wrenching especially to those of us who can claim 5 generations of California ancestors and “likely, probable, no doubt” Mayflower Ancestry. So many connections here.
Born and raised in California I call myself a Californian misplaced in the midwest. My 3x great grandfather was Costmor Harris Clark. He was counted twice in the 1850 census, once in Wisconsin by his wife in July when he was already at South Pass Wyoming and then in October in “Placerville and vicinity”. He named his first child born in California in1853 Laura California Clark and a few years later he named his Napa ranch the Green Mountain Ranch. How’s that for a transcontinental naming convention! I’m deep into writing my proof statement. And my stomach is just churning for all of my family, friends and people like you looking for hope and relief in that golden state. God bless you.
Wonderful insightful article!
Living in Huntington Beach has allowed us to escape the fires in the San Gabriel Mountains but not the poor Air Quality.
I note you live in gold country and wonder if you have an resources on Goodyears Bar? It was home to my ancestor Henry R Perry who left Vermont and mined there after the Civil War to 1882 which coincided with the Chinese exclusion act. Interestingly, his wife, mother in law and brother in law were in camp. I understand the area used high power water jets to wash away soil.
At age 50 he ‘removed’ to Santa Rosa where he raised a family, ran a hotel and bar then escaped some family feuding to farm in nearby Freestone.
Hi Dan – Thanks for this. We seem to be following similar ‘migration trajectories’ as I grew up in Huntington Beach many moons ago. 🙂 No information on Goodyears Bar, but I’m curious as to why it was once called Slaughters’ Bar?? We live about 75 miles south of there. We still see so much evidence of the high powered water jet mining even in our area. ~ Always great to hear from you Dan!
An absolutely beautiful essay. I have lived in both Northern and Southern California and seen fires and experienced earthquakes. Although I moved away years ago, my heart aches for the horror that this great state is going through. Every picture I see reminds me of someplace I have lived or visited. Mother Orange is a beacon of hope for us all, not only for surviving the fires, but the stubborn survival of our own family trees.
This reminds me of an old oak tree in Topanga State Park just outside Los Angeles. That tree has been through a number of fires and has a tunnel burned through the little tree so children can crawl from one side to the other. I saw that tree when I first moved to California from NH and have never forgotten the lesson it taught. We are stronger than we think. Thank you for this lesson in Hope.
Great post! Immediately I thought of the claim made about a tree on my family’s ranch in Thermalito, on Nelson Ave. My great-grandfather from Berkeley bought the ranch in the ‘teens and raised oranges there. There was talk of a certain connection to Mother Orange in Oroville. It was probably just talk, but was entirely possible. No matter, because half the orange trees died in the Freeze of ’32, that hit Oroville hard. He replanted with olives, and some of the orange trees survived. The old farm house burned down in 1936, and he turned the old packing house the new ranch house. Next to the old house stood a huge camphor tree, and the word was it was the largest camphor tree in California, another (unprovable) claim for Oroville and its trees. When the old house burned it injured the camphor tree, and it looked old and haggard thereafter. But very big. My Dad and his siblings and cousins visiting from Berkeley played under its branches, as did I and my siblings decades later. Alas, the ranch is gone, along with its persimmon trees, quinces, oranges, olives and the old camphor tree. We saved some shoots and suckers of the rose plants and geraniums, but I think those have perished, too. No one thought to save an orange tree, notwithstanding the (unproven) illustrious genealogy of those oranges.
Tom, so awesome that you have a connection to Mother Orange too.Yes, I think outside of Mother Orange, Northern California’s experiment in growing citrus never really panned out. It sounds like your great grandfather chose a much better direction! I would love to have seen that old camphor tree – sad to know that it didn’t survive, but it sounds like you have some amazing memories. I appreciate that you took the time to share them with us here.
My heart goes out to you and all those folks up and down the West Coast of the US. It’s truly frightening. On the subject of survivors (e.g. Mother Orange), however, I was recently thinking about the fact that we are ALL descendants of people who survived terrible things – bubonic plague, famines, earthquakes, wars, etc.
Because I have a gateway ancestor (Olive Welby), I can trace some lines of my family tree very far back. I’ve sometimes wonder how, for example, Margaret de Audley and her husband Ralph Stafford, (later) 1st Earl of Stafford, survived the Black Death, as did most their children. (Mind you, he also went to war a lot, so it’s also a bit of sheer luck that he also survived that!)
I pray that things hold out for you, your family and neighbours. We all seriously need to take action on climate change 🙁
I recently discovered one of my ancestor planted peach trees in El Dorado County from pits he brought with him from upstate New York. I believe he planted them around 1860.
Holly that’s so cool – and exactly what we need to hear right now. Local growth from the seeds of hope.Thank you for this.
Great article! My husband’s family and my family have roots back to Sacramento area from 1840’s. We still have many CA relatives in Northern and Southern California. My sister-in-law’s cabin and art studio just burned down a couple of days ago in the San Gabriel fire. She couldn’t get there to get her things out. I just want to say, WE DID NOT HAVE ALL THESE FOREST FIRES in the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s, etc.when I was growing up in Sacramento. This is partly due to Climate Change, pure and simple. This is not a political statement. This is from a gal born in 1953, with parents born in the 1920’s, and grandparents born in CA in the 1890’s. If this is the new normal……think carefully about what you believe and who you will vote for. Our grandkids will thank you for it. Our window for acting now to change the course of this devastation is a short one. Let’s work together to problem solve this for the future of California, Oregon, Washington, and for the entire nation and world. The future generations of family historians will thank us for it.
Jeff, Your writing was touching and uplifting. Beautiful!! Thank you. The fires on the west coast are frightening and deadly. One of our daughters and other relatives live in Oregon and our granddaughter is on the front-line as a fire fighter, so it’s personal to us too. Hope is the thing that gives us the courage to keep going forward…just one step at a time, but forward nonetheless. Be safe.
Great post! You and the family are in my prayers. Don says hi and I hope (and pray) the fires end soon.
Thanks Pat! Best wishes to you and Don.
Jeff, you learn something every day – as a Native Californian and resident of Mother Lode country I had never heard of the “Mother Orange” tree. So glad I read your post! Am also a descendant of Howland.
Thank you Linda!