09 October 2007

Of Islands and Oranges

My job took me to this island, the island of the City Like No Other, many times over the last 6 months:

As much as I love New York, I was more than ready to spend some time on a different type of island:

When I logged into Blogger this morning, I was surprised to realize just how long it had been since I posted to this blog. I composed dozens of vignettes this summer, mentally thought of writing about different scenes, sights, sounds and smells in NYC, but few have made it to paper and none have been posted here. Perhaps they will be posted in the future.

For now, I'm enjoying my time at the beach, listening to the surf pound, the birds squawk, and the occasional squeal with delight as the waves break around a child's ankles; feeling the warmth of the sun absorbed by the sand as I walk at the shoreline, watching the coral and pink skies at sunset, eating fresh seafood, drinking fresh squeezed orange juice, and -- what else? -- reading!

On impulse the other day, I picked up a copy of John McPhee's Oranges. How many books can you think of that are categorized as both 'Food' and 'Literature', as this one is?

Oranges is a thoroughly delightful work of non-fiction that seemingly describes all there is to know about the luscious orange (at least at the time it was published in 1967): where they came from and how the introduction around the globe of this succulent, sweet fruit has followed the courses of history; how oranges have inspired poetry and wars and been used as religious symbols in art and influenced architecture (think orangeries); how they have have been coveted as objects of beauty; how crop failures due to insects and freezing weather have wrecked havoc on the economy of towns; how the engineering inventions to make concentrated orange juice almost destroyed the market for the fresh fruit, and how an adequate mechanical means for harvesting had yet to be invented. After finishing the book this afternoon, I read a bit on the web on oranges. Consumption of oranges has decreased in the last few years. The acreage of orange groves has decreased since McPhee wrote his book 40 years ago although the number of trees and yields per acre have increased. Brazil -- the originating place of the navel orange -- is now the leader in orange exports, exporting almost twice as many as the US. But, apparently, oranges are still hand-picked in the field, a difficult task described by McPhee when he profiled the 'Orange Men' of the Florida groves.

One curiosity spawned by this book is the origin of the word orange. McPhee writes about the origin of the English word, evolving from the Sanskrit, then likely, after many linguistic transformations, being confused with the Provencal place name for the town that eventually became known as 'Orange'. In many parts of the world, there are two words for oranges, differentiating between sour oranges (like the blood oranges of Seville that are so delicious in marmalade) and sweet oranges. Sweet oranges in many languages are known as "portugals" because they were developed in that country. But -- and this is my curiosity -- what about the derivations of the word for the color orange? The fruit can be a range of colors. The word orange to represent the color wasn't used until the mid-1500's. In Thailand, oranges are as green as limes. Yet, the Thai word sohm is used for both the fruit and the color.

Did Western Europeans have a word for the color orange before oranges were brought to Spain by the Arabs in the 12th century? Or did they need to invent a word for the color of the fruit that grew in the luxurious gardens of the Alhambra? Apricot, bittersweet, coral, peach, red-yellow, salmon, tangerine, titian are all listed as synonyms for the color orange. Three of them, interestingly, are names for other types of fruit. In some languages (e.g., Dutch, German, Russian) the word for orange has a similar origin to the word for apple, as oranges were once called 'Chinese apples' by the Romans. As different as apples and oranges: whether fruit or hue, they are very different things on my mental map.

I started to read McPhee's In Suspect Terrain about 15 or 20 years ago. I never finished the book, although sometimes, when I travel through northern Indiana and southern Michigan, I think about the theoretical existence of undiscovered deposits of diamond pipes under the Great Lakes that I learned about from McPhee's book. After reading Oranges I think that I will read other books by McPhee. Looking to read "Literary" nonfiction? McPhee would be a good choice.


Emily Barton said...

Oranges have always been one of my favorite fruits, and I've never read any McPhee. This definitely sounds like a good starting point for me with him. And I love your question about which came first to Western Europe: the color or the fruit?

Kate S. said...

Your island idyll sounds glorious. I know what you mean about composing a multitude of blog post in one's head and then not posting them. I've come to see those attempts to translate my thoughts or observations into words as a valuable exercise though, even when no one else ultimately gets the benefit of them!

Dorothy W. said...

Oranges seem like such a odd topic to write a book on, but in the hands of a great writer, I think it could be fun to read. I haven't read McPhee, but I know he has a great reputation. I kind of like the "history of some random thing" type book.

Cam said...

Emily-Oranges are my favorite fruit too. Maybe that's why this book caught my attention on the shelf.

Kate-thanks for the reminder that "mentally writing" things is valuable too!

Dorothy - It is an odd topic. One can't help but think "an entire book? About oranges?!" but it was very entertaining. My favorite book about an 'odd' thing, was a book I read about 6 years ago that was a history of the screw and screwdriver. One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screw and Screwdriver by Witold Rybczynski. It answered a question I had posed to every engineer I met for years: what is the difference between regular and Phillips screws (and I didn't mean that one had one slot and the other had a double or crossed slot, which was usually the answer I got!).