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Orange Empire California and the Fruits of Eden

Read the Prologue

An Allegory of California

The Goddess of Fruit

In the spring of 1931, a most unlikely figure could be seen in the new Luncheon Club of the San Francisco Stock Exchange. By all accounts, he went about his business with as much alacrity and stamina as the most ardent trader. But this man did not deal in stocks. A devoted Marxist, he considered such financial speculation the work of "parasitic exploiters." In any other circumstances, this brown-skinned Mexican would not have gained access to the exclusive club. But his name was Diego Rivera, and he was considered by many to be the second-greatest living painter (and Picasso was not available). In this inner sanctum of an economic system he abhorred, Rivera was covering the walls with his Allegory of California.

In creating the mural, Rivera acted on his belief that art should relate to the conditions of life of its audience. He drew inspiration from the work of pre-Columbian artists, which "had been intensely local: related to the soil, the landscape, the forms, animals, deities, and colors of their own world." In envisioning the mural while in Mexico, Rivera knew he wanted to "represent California with the three bases of her richness—gold, petroleum, and fruits." As a stranger to this land, he would have to find some way to immerse himself in California's actual and symbolic landscape. At first, however, it looked like Rivera's entry into the Golden State would be denied. The FBI had a file on the artist, but the lobbying of San Francisco's elite convinced the State Department to open the way for him. When Rivera finally arrived, he hit San Francisco like El Niño—creating a storm of controversy, he was perceived as both a loveable and a destructive child. The painter Maynard Dixon, expressing an artistic nativism, charged that Rivera was an "inappropriate" choice to paint the mural because he had "publicly caricatured American financial institutions." The San Francisco Chronicle fueled the speculative fire with a "composite photograph": on the space Rivera was to paint, it superimposed a detail from one of his Mexican murals "showing Ford, Rockefeller and Morgan trying to lure 'Miss Mexico' from the paths of communism to the fallen ways of capitalism." "Will Art Be Touched in Pink?" the Chronicle asked.

As it turned out, Rivera tinged his mural with orange and other colors he gleaned from the California countryside. He took trips into the field to look at the landscape: down the coast to Monterey and east across the great Central Valley and into the foothills of the Gold Country. As one friend explained, these excursions were his way of "sizing up California, getting the feel of its people, the curve of its hills, the color of its air, sea, fields and sky, the nature of its activities, soaking up like a thirsty sponge the flow of unfamiliar life around him, trying to decide . . . what should go into the quintessential distillation of the land and its people."

At the center of his mural, Rivera painted what another friend called "the heroic figure of California, the mother, the giver." Wheat, the staff of life, encircles her neck. With her left hand she offers up peaches, pears, apples—and the signature fruit of California, the orange. With nature personified as fecund mother, this might seem to be a universal image rather than one created specifically to embody the California landscape. But at the time, Rivera's California struck many observers as too particular. In this generalized Madonna they saw the specific features of Helen Wills Moody, tennis champion. "Soon a cry was heard," Rivera explained. "California was an abstraction and should not be an identifiable likeness of anybody." But to Rivera, Moody represented "California better than anyone I knew—she was intelligent, young, energetic and beautiful." With her intelligence, youth, and "Grecian features," Moody embodied Rivera's understanding of California as a Mediterranean land, "a second Greece." In this, he was simply reflecting the image that boosters had been projecting of California since the nineteenth century. Greece and Italy were famous for their fruits, and California promoters had long used icons of the fruit goddess Pomona, with her horn of plenty or overflowing bowl of fruits. The colorful labels of orange crates often featured Pomonaesque women holding up a sample of the golden fruit, ripe for the consumer's taking. Female icons of fertility had long since taken on local attachments. Rivera's Allegory is thus grounded in the particular soil of California, and it allows us to see the place of fruit between heaven and earth.

The Growth Machine and the Empire of Oranges

Rivera explained that "California itself is symbolized by a large female figure—a woman of tanned skin and opulent curves modeled after the rolling hills of the landscape, with one hand offering the subsoil to the labor of the miners, and with the other offering the ripe fruits of the earth." His fruit-bearing symbol is heavily laden: she is at once rolling hills, wheat fields, fruit-bearing trees, the mother lode, the eternal maternal mother, and a new woman ("intelligent, young, energetic"). And, of course, she is nature. We might aptly put the words of Walt Whitman into the mouth of this multifarious embodiment of California: "I am large, I contain multitudes."

She is also surrounded by multitudes. A whirl of men and machines are remaking the landscape around her. Nature's cornucopia stands amidst icons of industrialization—oil derricks, ocean liners, refineries, a crane, a dredging machine, an airplane. Above ground, a redwood has been sawed through. An engineer—holding a primary emblem of science, the compass—is formulating a plan (no doubt for the control of nature). To Rivera's eye, the United States represented industrial, scientific, and mechanical forces, while Mexico embodied agricultural, mythic, organic ones. Although California "is more agricultural than industrial," he explained, "its agriculture is highly advanced and mechanized." He also detected the Mexican past sedimented under California's Yankee present. California thus represented a hybrid landscape, part north, part south, part pastoral, part industrial.

California appears to have what Rivera called "metallic nerves." Though the redwood stump may evoke wanton destruction, Rivera's goddess, despite her staid expression, assures us with her fruits that the earth remains fecund. A verdant orange tree grows before her. Three decades earlier, Frank Norris, in his novel The Octopus: A Story of California, had created an indelible image of the rapacious nature of the machine. Norris's version of the Southern Pacific Railroad was an "iron-hearted monster" with "tentacles" spread across the land. He described a map of California "sucked white and colorless," while the railroad as a "monster stood out, swollen with life-blood . . . a gigantic parasite fattening upon the life-blood of an entire commonwealth." In Rivera's Allegory, the land seems all the more alive and colorful because it is crisscrossed by a technological network. The Allegory is a positive view of the hybridization of the mechanical and the organic, of culture and nature.

It is no accident that California's famous plant hybridizer has a prominent place in the Allegory. The white-haired figure kneeling to the right of the orange tree is Luther Burbank, grafting two plants together. The creator of countless new fruits—giant plums, white blackberries—Burbank was seen as a horticultural wizard, the Edison of the plant world. He described himself as "a specialist in the study of Nature for the definite purpose of producing new forms of plant life, for the better nourishment, housing, and clothing of the race." This nurseryman-utopian appealed to Rivera, who used him as a symbol of the illimitable benefits of hybridizing culture with nature. Rivera also wanted his art to participate in both the "control of nature" and the harmonizing of "man with earth and man with man." In the Allegory, the pastoral is infused with the technological; Mother Nature is enveloped in an industrial whir, a "growth machine."

But California's actual growth machine worked toward ends opposed to the artist's vision of social and ecological harmony. As defined by sociologists, a growth machine is an "apparatus of interlocking progrowth associations and governmental units" that makes "great fortunes out of place." Growth machines may use tractors, derricks, railroads, telephone lines, and the like, but they are not simply technologies. They are made up of interlocking social institutions such as newspapers, chambers of commerce, and corporations. Motivated by the promise of profit, growth machines work to transform place into things that can be bought and sold. Land becomes real estate; real estate is made scarce and desirable; prices rise. In California, the growth machine turned the land into factories of fruit.

From the 1880s through World War II, the citrus industry was the primary engine of the growth machine in Southern California. The machine manifested itself in the millions of evergreen citrus trees scintillating in the sun beneath the snow-clad San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains. But it showed itself as well in the infrastructure of the built environment, in train tracks and packing houses, in worker camps and growers' mansions, and in the downtown Los Angeles office building of the California Fruit Growers Exchange (the cooperative, founded in 1893, that created the Sunkist brand). The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, a vital component of the growth machine, created an image for a promotional brochure that revealed this landscape perfectly. As William McLung observes, at the center of the scene is a flower-bearing goddess "dressed in the color of the magic fruit, the orange." The machine and the garden—intermixed landscapes in Rivera's mural—are here conveniently separated. On the left is a view of the citrus landscape, with a single orange tree peeking around the edge of the archway ruin. To the right is the bustling metropolis of Los Angeles. This bifurcated scene should be seen as a unity, for the horticultural landscape was intimately shaped by the machine, while the organic fruits of nature made the rise of the cityscape possible.

The mountains stretching across the horizon are the San Gabriels and San Bernardinos, and we are looking into Los Angeles from the south. But the artist would have been more accurate to place the groves to the east of the city. By 1929, the city had grown up over many citrus acres, but groves still stretched beneath the mountain ranges eastward all the way to Redlands and Riverside. In any event, the picture opens a vista on the heart of the citrus industry. Though oranges were grown as far north as Corning (115 miles north of Sacramento and 500 miles from the Mexican border), most of the state's oranges were grown in the Los Angeles basin. Composed of the valleys and foothills south of the San Gabriels and San Bernardinos, the basin stretches 110 miles inland and 50 miles from its northern to its southern reach. With the protective mountain wall to the north, three watersheds, the moderating effects of the Pacific ocean, and its Mediterranean climate, the region enjoys natural advantages that made it ideally suited to citrus growing. By the 1930s, some 170,000 acres were growing citrus; over seven million trees yielded almost 80 percent of California's oranges. As one geographer observed, "No other horticultural industry . . . is so compactly situated and no fruit district is more intensively cultivated or more productive of wealth." This was the place that was called the Orange Empire.

One might wish to write off this Orange Empire as merely a hyperbolic title invented by boosters such as the Southern Pacific Railroad's Sunset magazine. Real empires exercise effective social and political control over far-flung territorial expanses and the people who inhabit them; they hold the kind of pervasive power political theorists call hegemony. Southern California, like the American West at large, was colonized by the United States to join the political domain Jefferson called the Empire of Liberty. But just how does this Orange Empire, an apparent imperium in imperio, fit in? Though it was something less than a "supreme and extensive political dominion" (the Oxford English Dictionary definition of an empire), the Orange Empire was more than just an industry. It established hegemony over peoples and places. It recruited and managed thousands of laborers from across the globe. It also created millions of consumers, colonizing public and private spaces across the country to convey its alluring advertisements. The Orange Empire's spheres of influence stretched over nature as well as culture. As we will see in part 1 of this book, earth, water, trees, and fruits all were transformed under its governing hands. Lacking the right to demand tribute, the Orange Empire filled its coffers by selling the fruits of the earth. Images and words worked to legitimize the regime, as if the order it created had been anointed by God or nature itself. But like all empires, it found its power contested on a number of fronts.

Nature's Labor

Beginning in the 1870s, the Orange Empire took control of a landscape boosters had described as Edenic and made improvements. The Orange Empire, its proponents claimed, augmented and democratized the fruits of Eden to create a landscape of abundance that could be enjoyed by all. Utilizing science, technology, and marketing acumen, growers covered the hills and valleys with productive trees and created a lucrative industry. Though the empire marketed oranges like a mass-produced commodity, it advertised them as pure products of nature. They were the fruits of Eden, unmediated by culture. Having been kissed by the sun, the orange was often presented to the consumer in the hands of a country maiden or earth goddess. Such iconography masked the hand of the worker. But the industry relied on a workforce—a workforce whose position at the bottom of California's social scale was reinforced by images placing its members in the kingdom of nature, like the plants and animals under Adam's command.

Such ideological sleights of hand made a public appreciation of farmworkers unlikely, but Rivera wanted to restore workers to the consciousness of the public. "I painted the fruits of the earth which enrich and nourish because of the productive labor of workers and farmers," Rivera explained. In the Stock Exchange, an Oz of economic growth, Rivera wished to draw back the curtain to reveal that all value ultimately comes from labor and the earth. He wanted to show the financiers "that what they eat and what enriches them are the products of the toil of workers and not of financial speculation—the natural beauty of California, fertilized by the vigor of workers, farmers, and scientists." But we might question how effective his mural is in conveying a "labor theory of value." Even though Rivera remembers painting "representative working men and women," we might wonder where they are. Where are the workers in the fields? Where are the women in the factories, who largely did the jobs of sorting and packing fruits? On the left there is the image of the eggheaded engineer instructing—perhaps scientifically managing—the tool caster, with his enormous hands. Down below, there are two hardrock miners. But on the right, where Rivera intended to paint "the lush agriculture, its workers and heroes," we see only a placer miner and John Marshall, the man who saw something glint in the American River and set off the Gold Rush. And there is Burbank.

Perhaps Rivera felt that the wizard of horticulture—an indefatigable worker, a man of science, and a cultivator of crops—embodied in his one person the grower, the scientist, and the worker. But some people saw him more as a plantation master, employing, as legend had it, gangs of Chinese laborers to blow pollen, by the bucketful, into the flowers with bellows. Burbank employed no such gangs, although he did have Chinese gardeners work for him, one of whom he considered excellent, for "he, too, had learned to explain to the plants what was desired."13 Nevertheless, Burbank was a supporter of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. On the authority of his work with plants, Burbank became a leading light in the eugenics movement. Others would graft onto this new science the ideas that helped create and maintain California's racialized division of agricultural labor. Such thinking was key to the transmogrification of workers into racial others biologically suited to stoop labor, manual labor, labor in the heat, any labor that white workers could not or would not stand for. Under this ideology, their brown or yellow hands had been provided by nature to serve its crops and be guided by the white man's brains. So what is gained by this economy of representation—having Burbank stand in for agriculture—comes at the expense of revealing the important divisions within California agriculture, as well as the ways in which those divisions were fostered by racial ideas rooting the contingencies of a cultural and economic construct in the solid ground of nature.

Elsewhere, Rivera had more visibly represented the racial divisions of California agriculture. He did so in a mural called Still Life with Blossoming Almond Trees, painted just south of San Francisco for a private patron immediately after completing the Allegory. It portrays an almond orchard in full white bloom. In the background, a tractor blazes between the trees, half hidden. In the midground, workers of different races are clearing weeds. In the foreground, three children reach for fruit overflowing from a bowl. Two are modeled after the patron's own Anglo children (one of whom would go on to become a vice president for Levi Strauss). But a mestizo child is among them, reaching for an equal share of the fruit. The mestizo child was modeled after one of the actual children's imaginary friend "Dega." By showing the mixed children reaching for the bowl, Rivera envisions a future where all will grow up together on nature's engineered abundance.

Though Rivera fantasized communal harmony at the point of consumption, the landscape of production was a place in which divisions were routinely made. To follow the journey of the orange as it makes its way from the tree to the marketplace is to see the active construction of race and gender. Field workers tended to be organized in racially homogenous groups, and men worked outside, close to nature, while women took over in the packing house, where the fruit was cleaned, sorted, and packed for presentation to the consumer. The orange was reshaped by this process; so were the laborers, as we will see in part 2. The workers' experience of California's nature can be revealed by looking at how oranges passed through their hands. And the fact that the fruits of their labor passed out of their hands and into those of consumers and growers shows that they were tributaries of the Orange Empire.

The Allegory was meant to remind the financial elite that "the productive labor of workers and farmers" went into the "fruits of the earth." The growth of the economy was based on the labor of workers, the power of technology and, ultimately, the fertility of the earth. In California, these elements had been forged into an imperium that naturalized social inequality and commodified all of nature, from sun and water to soil and seed. Bolstered by a powerful ideology legitimizing its regime, the Orange Empire's hegemony reached its height by the 1920s.

The Symbolic Uses of Fruit

But the world the growers made was nearly brought to the ground during the Great Depression. In 1934, Upton Sinclair ran for governor, fulminating against the want that flourished amidst plenty. Envisioning a new world in which workers would partake directly of the fruits of labor, Sinclair promised to "End Poverty in California" (EPIC). With its legitimacy being challenged, the Orange Empire spearheaded the campaign to defeat Sinclair. In this it was successful. But EPIC had turned the fact of poverty that existed despite continued natural abundance into an indictment of the growth machine, setting the stage for what anthropologist Victor Turner calls a social drama. In such dramas, a transgressor of social norms is put on trial before the public. Redress, reform, and even revolution become possible. This social drama, which almost turned out to be the fall of the Orange Empire, is the subject of part 3 of this book.

On the surface, Rivera's Allegory does not contain any dramatic challenge to the system that his comrade Sinclair would traumatize with EPIC. But it does contain subtle portents of revolutionary change. The smokestacks of the ocean liners are marked with dollar signs, and the needle on the safety valve (just above the redwood stump) is dangerously above the red line. However, Rivera probably did not mean to condemn the mechanization of nature with these signs. He was fond of quoting Emiliano Zapata's imperative to "exploit the land and not the man." A great admirer of America's technology, he saw the machine in the garden as a potentially liberating presence. But Rivera viewed the earth as enslaved by the oppressive force of capitalism. This would charge when workers took control, Rivera believed. But his essentially optimistic representation of the "natural interconnection of agriculture and industry" may have underestimated the power of modern science and technology, whether operating under socialism or capitalism, to rationalize nature and, in the bargain, kill all local deities, including the earth goddesses.

During the Dust Bowl years, many American artists and intellectuals would lose this kind of faith in technology. In the wake of the coincidence of the economic collapse of the Depression and the ecological collapse of the Dust Bowl, visions emerged that saw the growth machine as exploiting both people and land. Pare Lorentz's 1936 film made for the New Deal's Resettlement Administration, The Plow That Broke the Plains, juxtaposed tractors plowing the land with military tanks blowing it up. The painter Alexandre Hogue, in Erosion No. 2Mother Earth Laid Bare (1938), tried to represent the destruction of the land in a way "that will make the observer not only see the Dust Bowl, but also feel its heat, its despair, its anguished death, the tragedy of the farmers." With a phallic plow in the foreground of a landscape eroded to reveal a prostrate Mother Earth, Erosion presented a stark vision of exhaustion, barrenness, even rape by the machine.

Confronting the Dust Bowl, some artists and intellectuals became convinced that capitalism must be challenged on ecological as well as social grounds. Picking up on Sinclair's political vision but pushing it further was a group of so-called agrarian partisans (including Paul Taylor, Dorothea Lange, Carey McWilliams, and John Steinbeck) who saw capitalism as a system that manhandled land as it uprooted dwellers on it. Dorothea Lange's 1936 photograph of a migrant mother—America's white Madonna thrust onto the road and exposed to the elements—drew attention to the plight of those who had been driven off the land and opened up the larger issue of the social relationship to the land. From the perspective of the agrarian partisans, the Orange Empire was representative of the larger problem of modern agriculture. It was an economic and moral failure, for it partitioned nature into private property and then withheld its bounty from deserving citizens. In order to keep prices up, the agrarian partisans charged, the fruits of Eden were going to waste. In their hands, as we will see in this book's final chapters, the orange became an incandescent political symbol.

In Isabel Allende's novel The Infinite Plan ("based on a true story"), an itinerant preacher and occasional mural painter wanders the fruit-growing regions of Depression California, using an orange as a central prop. "We must know our place in the cosmos," Reeves says, and then he points to an orange dangling on a string and invites "people from the crowd to study the orange and describe its appearance." "Invariably," Allende writes, "they would describe a yellow sphere, that is, a common orange, whereas Reeves saw the Soul." In The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac put an orange to similar use, employing it to explain the Buddhist doctrine that "all things are empty." But what about this orange in my hand? a skeptic asks. "Your mind makes out the orange by seeing it, hearing it, touching it, smelling it, tasting it and thinking about it but without this mind . . . the orange would not be seen or heard or smelled or tasted or even mentally noticed."

Reeves and Kerouac act not unlike the leaders of Los Angeles's Utopian Society, who in the 1930s made technological artifacts into religious symbols for their initiation rituals. What Allende's preacher fails to recognize is that he has suspended from the ceiling not nature's unmediated soul, but a reconstructed object already full of meanings. Reeves ties the orange to a string, but the orange is suspended in other "webs of signification." Scientists have prodded it for its secrets and attempted to reinvent its nature; advertisers have inscribed its skin with messages; workers have handled it, leaving behind remnants of themselves. Neither pure products of nature nor pure mental creations, the fruits of Eden can be seen as artifacts, what Karl Marx called "social hieroglyphics." A multitude of minds and bodies, as Kerouac would put it, have made the orange what it is. But unlike Kerouac, I will maintain that these minds and these bodies were working with "real" nature to transform oranges into objects of their liking.

To unpack the orange is to restore the social, cultural, and environmental strata of the citrus landscape, a landscape well masked by orange crate labels of Edenic California. If only historians could set up cameras equipped for time-lapse photography at select sites—say, an orange grove being picked in Pasadena, a citrus laboratory in Riverside, a grocery store window being filled with oranges in Chicago, a family at home in Rochester reading Life or The Grapes of Wrath—the growth of the Orange Empire could be revealed in action. But we will have to rely on more conventional methods to look at how these oranges were grown: at what knowledge was brought to bear on the natural world to make them grow more perfect and abundant; at the labor power that brought them from tree to consumer; at what meanings and values were attached to them and how these accumulated within California's economy and flowed through the culture at large; and at how, amidst the want of the Depression, the spectacle of the fruits of Eden in flames seemed almost apocalyptic, prodding many Americans to look with new eyes upon their culture's relationship to nature.

People mean many things when they use the terms nature and culture. They are notoriously difficult words to define, and my use of the terms will shift in different contexts to reflect the meanings attached to them by different actors. But I generally take culture to mean the web of stories that shape members of our species into human beings. It is the human-made stuff of being and identity. Nature is everything else, including plants, animals, soils, and air, as well as our own bodies. But the boundary between nature and culture, as a close look at oranges reveals, is constantly being crossed. Orange Empire explores the symbiosis of nature and culture by following the Sunkist orange on its journeys across that boundary. Its history is an allegory of California, a way of recovering lands and peoples not quite lost to us—like paradise itself.