The Citrus Belt

The Labor Day weekend marks the traditional end of summer. When my older son Will worked as a Lifeguard for Los Angeles County, the holiday Monday was his last day of work. The beaches are crowded, the ocean warm, and then on Tuesday, quite suddenly, they are deserted until Memorial Day rolls around the following year. In the interim they are left to the surfers, the gulls and the patrolling porpoises.

Inevitably, when I lived near the beach, in Sydney or Los Angeles, winter was my favorite time of the year. Or, taking a late summer vacation in Maine, I would be exhilerated by the first chill winds of autumn. In the Southern Californian chaparral an Indian summer is the norm. Some of the warmest weather of the year arrives in September and October.

This year, according to the seasonal outlook from the US Forest Service, (A Change in the Wind) the developing La Niña will bring warm temperatures and an increased possibility of Santa Ana winds to SoCal in the next two months. La Niña, which influences the course of the Pacific jetstream, tends to bring heat, wind, and dryness to SoCal, but cooler, wetter conditions to NorCal, above I-80 that slices through the state from San Francisco to Sacramento (then continues east to Salt Lake City and beyond to New York).

But there is another dividing line that more truly reflects what we understand as Southern California. Carey McWilliams describes it in his classic, Southern California: An Island in the Land, Gibbs Smith, Utah, 1946: we are walled off from the great Central Valley by the transverse Tehachapi range that spans between the Sierra Nevadas and the coastal ranges. To the east we “are rescued from the desert” by the San Bernadinos and the San Jacintos which mark the inland extent of this coastal strip, where soft air, warm breezes and light tempered by a faint scrim of moisture define the SoCal experience.

In a week or two, we can expect the first Santa Ana winds of fall. These hot desert winds bring threat of fires, frayed tempers and the final dessication of the already dry and brittle chaparral. Below us, in Ojai, where there is a constructed landscape of citrus, olives, and avocados on the agricultural tracts of the east end and irrigated lawns and exotic plantings in the residential areas to the west, the humidity remains considerably higher. Lake Casitas, which was filled between 1958-1978 also tempers the Ojai Climate. While the marine layer pushes into Upper Ojai on many mornings just as often it reaches no further than the Ojai valley floor and on those days that it is entirely absent Ojai is often shrouded in a light morning haze of humidity.

We visited two houses deep in the Ojai citrus and avoacado belt over the weekend. Pamela Burton and Richard Hertz have owned a wonderful 1929 stone cottage for twenty five years and are surrounded by Sunkist orchards. The setting is old-world mediterranean with glorious views to the west of the valley and the coastal range. The property drifts gently down at a consistent 7% slope east to Reeves Road and looking beyond to the slopes of the Black mountain ridge as it peters out into the Topa Topa massif, I was aware of how close it is to Upper Ojai - but distinctly separated by the Grade, elevation and land use.

Almost due North, off of Thatcher Road, Joan Churchill’s family home is a part of the Pierpont designed enclave that included the old Nordhoff Hotel built in the 1890’s (and Ojai’s first hotel) until 2001, when it was lost in a fire. The Churchill house, built in 1905, shares a view of the Twin Peaks in the Nordhoff range with Pamela Burton’s house and while still in the Citrus belt it is separated by its own charming garden of mediterranean plantings from the serried rows of orange and avocado beyond.

These houses set in citrus, avocado and now olive groves are typical of the east-end where agriculture remains the dominant land-use; it is this agricultural element that makes it such an attractive place to live where orchards and sometimes vineyards create a profound old-world allure.

This layer of European agricultural tradition dominates the Ojai valley and is in marked contrast to the wildland fringes of Upper Ojai where the cultural touchstones are the Chumash and the people of the Milling Stone Horizon. The Spanish Missions forever stamped California with an Iberian impress of citrus, grapes, rice and wheat; but where the oaks were too thick, the ground too rocky or the chaparral too impenetrable for  agricultural purposes, the native spirits survive in the rocks, creeks, and shrublands of the indigenous landscape.

Father Junipero Serra planted the first citrus seeds in California in 1769, but it wasn't until William Wolfskill, a northern European frontiersman, planted oranges and lemons in what is now downtown Los Angeles in 1840 that the commercial potential of the crop was realized. The development of the naval orange from cuttings in Brazil popularized California citrus in the 1870's and the completion of the trans-continental railroad later in the decade assured its distribution throughout the country. By 1893, a cooperative of growers was formed known as Sunkist, and at about the same time Annie and William Friend planted the first acreage of oranges in Ojai.

As the town grew up around the early homesteaders, the oil industry and citrus growers it was given a Spanish colonial veneer with Edward Libbey's building of the downtown arcade and the Post Office tower along East Ojai avenue and the Ojai Valley Inn. Upper Ojai remained apart, and here the landscape bends to the Seasons rather than to the cultural atavisms of the Spanish Conquest.

In the chaparral, the bio-mass links directly back to the last ice age: its preservation ensures a continuity with the time before human culture. The land has not been broken: it has suffered drought, flood and fire but the shrubland is adapted to these cyclical hardships, it endures. The chaparral is an ecosystem unimaginably older than European agricultural traditions of citrus and olive, of grape and pomegranate. Older still than the garden tradition of Cyrus the Great and older than the oldest human footprint on the continent.

The new, re-made lands of Ojai are a delightful place to visit, they are redolent with history, but I want to live in a land before History, a land shaped before human culture and a land that is adapted to a climate un-mediated by sprinklers, smudge-pots and wind-machines.


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