Money may not grow on trees, but fruit does. And fruit is food.
There's an artists collective in Los Angeles that has built their practice around these facts. Called Fallen Fruit, the group began by mapping fruit trees in Silver Lake and has since expanded its activities to include a range of public programs from communal jam-making events using foraged fruit to an ongoing collaboration with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which is emphatically named EATLAMCA. EATLACMA kicked off last weekend with a two-day fruit tree give-away at the Watts Towers and on LACMA's campus. I was there and came home with the tree you see ABOVE.
I'll tell you all about the experience in a minute. But first let me set the scene by briefly sketching the socio-geography of citrus trees in Southern California.
Driving around Los Angeles at this time of year, everywhere you see glossy trees hanging heavy with golden orbs: a treasury of citrus fruit. Many LA neighborhoods, especially in the San Fernando Valley, were literally built upon former citrus groves (cf: the movie Chinatown and Mike Davis's City of Quartz). Although orchards have today given way to suburban sprawl, homeowners have perhaps unwittingly paid tribute to the city's agricultural substratum by landscaping with orange, lemon and grapefruit trees. Rooted in the same soil as yesterday's commercial citrus orchards, these domestic citrus trees are nonetheless dramatically different. Yesterday's groves produced commercially valuable crops that supported the state's economy. Today's domestic citrus trees are ornamental: you might call then the yard art of Southern California.
Oddly, the fruit itself is often left to rot where it falls, a visual nuisance in the otherwise tidy yardscape. Near my house are several bountiful orange trees: I mentally weigh the neglected harvest and convert it to jars of marmalade at the rate of roughly one pint per pound of fruit. I calculate cases of unmade marmalade. The trees seem to thrive on their neglect and enjoy flaunting their own productive genius. The wasted bounty galls, however, especially in a city where poorer residents face hunger and malnutrition. Making such yardfruit accessible to the public was the original inspiration for Fallen Fruit's neighborhood maps. (I've used them and they're reliable.)
What I want to know is why people plant citrus trees if they won't use the fruit. There's no single answer to that question of course, and I'm sure that every backyard orange tree has its own particular tale to tell. But I suspect that all those tales collectively belong to a grand narrative known as California Dreamin', an enormously popular way to describe Southern California as a new Eden of sunshine, leisure, optimism and personal freedom, a place where the restraints of history, tradition and social convention can be bent or broken entirely. When I was growing up in the South, we sneeringly called California "The Land of Fruits and Nuts," since there's a fine line between personal freedom and counter-cultural exuberance. But we also imagined California as a dreamscape where a man could step outside his backdoor and pick an fresh orange to squeeze for his morning juice.
"California" and "citrus" have never since parted company in my imagination. As I was flying from Paris to Los Angeles in June 2000 to start my new life here, I pulled out a notebook and jotted a few lines to describe the house I wanted to live in. It should be a small cottage with a big kitchen, a fireplace and a spacious deck where lemon trees grew in terra cotta pots. My first morning after arrival, I got in my car and went driving to explore a city I barely knew. Turning out of my hotel and into the Hills, I followed a series of progressively smaller roads up a eucalyptus-scented canyon. The twisting streets reminded me of the hills above the French Riviera, and I decided this was were I wanted to live.
I saw a lady walking her dog and called out the window to her.
"Good morning! I just moved here from Paris and I'm looking for a house," I said. "I like this area. What's it called?"
"Laurel Canyon," she answered.
"I love it," I said.
"Welcome home," she said.
Her name was Abby and she was a real estate broker. Three days later she showed me a 1931 Spanish style cottage on Greenvalley Road. I took one step inside and saw a big kitchen to the right and a fireplace to the left.
"This is my house," I said to Abby.
"Don't you want to see the rest of it?," she asked.
I said the rest didn't matter, but in fact there was one further asset to note: a pair of terra cotta pots on the deck. When I moved to Greenvalley a few weeks later, my first purchase for the house was a pair of Meyer lemon trees.
Planting a tree is always an optimistic act, and planting a fruit tree is doubly so: you assume that you'll be around to enjoy the literal fruits of your effort. Planting my two Meyer lemon trees in California was something more, though, and more specific. It was a kind of declaration: about starting over, about setting down roots for a new future—about staking my claim on the California Dream.
I think that Fallen Fruit's citrus-tree giveaway is also a part of that grand narrative of California, although admittedly their version of the Dream is, in keeping with this present cultural moment, community-oriented, socially-conscious and ecologically sustainable. In any case, I was tickled when I heard about the event and planned to go to LACMA to get me a tree.
The giveaway was announced for noon, and I arrived 20 minutes early to find a huge line. Fallen Fruit had promised only 150 trees, so I doubted my chances of getting one but joined the line nonetheless. The previous day had been rainy, and now gorgeous sun created a mood of festival and fun—of Event. I talked to Laura behind me. She had gone to the Watts Tower giveaway the day before but had been too late. She thought she'd give it another go.
A Fallen Fruit volunteer came along, doing a rough count of the people on line.
"How does it look for us back here?," I asked.
"You're on the cusp," he said.
A few minutes later, another volunteer—this one more official with her clipboard—made her way slowly down the line, counting heads. She stopped a few people ahead of me and announced the cutoff was there, but then a large group ahead of the cutoff said that only 4 our of their 10 planned to claim a tree. Perhaps there would be other such groups who had similarly subverted the official count. My fate remained undecided.
The line moved quickly and soon the first people could be seen leaving with trees in hand.
It turned out that I would receive the 138th tree and was duly ushered to a table to sign a "contract" with Fallen Fruit promising to plant and care for the sapling they were providing.
Then I was pointed towards a small holding pen where a handful of spindly trees remained.
"Does it matter which one I take?" I asked a volunteer.
"Take the one that speaks to you," he said.
I considered and chose, but apparently my tree had already spoken to someone else, and she snatched it up. I picked up another one and looked around in a state of dizzy happiness to see Fallen Fruit founder Matias Viegener helping hand out the last two trees. He said the trees were mandarins (also known as tangerines, Citrus reticulata) and that any spouts that emerged from below the grafted budstock would express the rootstock variety and so should be pinched back.
"Can I talk to you about your tree," asked a Fallen Fruit volunteer with a video camera. "Where are you going to plant it?"
"At Greenvalley, where I live," I said. "On the hill, back of the house."
"Why not plant it on the periphery," asked the volunteer, reminding me that the contract I'd signed obliged me to plant the tree where it would be publicly accessible.
"I don't have enough sun in the frontyard," I said. "But I'll make you a promise. I'm a jammer and I promise to make marmalade from this tree and give it away for free."
The volunteer seemed satisfied and turned her attention elsewhere.
I looked at where the 150 trees had been and all that remained were damp spots on the plaza: certain evidence of the 150 people who were now heading to 150 homes to plant 150 tangerine trees.
It was a sight that gave me wonder, that made me aware of a moment suspended between present reality—a fragile sapling with 12 leaves in my hands—and some far-off future when that sapling might be a tree hanging heavy with fruit. It was a moment of endless possibility, as yet unchecked by the setbacks of fate and the limits of time. It was a glimpse of the California Dream.