A fruit truck I spy during my morning commute is labeled "Indian River" --- and that suddenly brings back memories of John McPhee, my all-time favorite author of nonfiction. McPhee has long been a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, where every year he conjures prose both brilliant and transparent on subjects ranging from fishing to plate tectonics to roadkill to nuclear proliferation.
McPhee's 1967 book Oranges is simply about oranges, and is simply a delight to read. In the final chapter the author tours the groves of Ben Hill Griffin (1910-1990) accompanied by the owner himself. "People told, almost reverently, and with a sound of legend in their voices, that Ben Hill Griffin, of Frostproof, Florida, has his own personal concentrate plant, and that this is like having your own turnpike, or your own air force, or, at the very least, your own country." McPhee's visit to the plant concludes with an unforgettable image:
Going back to the helicopter, we walked beside a rushing stream, which might have been a trout stream in Vermont, full of boulders, pools, eddies, and tumbling cascades. "That water is coming from the evaporator," Griffin said. "It was inside oranges a few minutes ago."
The Indian River --- " ... not actually a river but a tidal lagoon, about two miles wide in most places and one hundred and twenty miles long, running between the Florida mainland and the Atlantic barrier beaches ... " --- is a zone of legend and tradition, something like an extended mystical Stonehenge of orange cultivation. McPhee describes the sale of its produce in New York City:
Oranges that happen to be going to New York cross the Hudson River on barges and enter the city at Pier 28 at the western end of Canal Street. All fresh fruit of any kind that is shipped to New York City for auction is sold at Pier 28. The pier's interior is like the inside of an aircraft hangar, and fruits from everywhere are stacked in lots in long, close rows --- oranges and grapefruit from the Ridge, California oranges, apples, avocados, pears, plums, cherries, lemons, grapes, pomegranates, and so on. Over at one side, separated by a wide area from all the other crates and boxes, is the fruit of the Indian River. A man from the Indian River is always there to look after it, and he has no counterpart elsewhere on the pier. Buyers walk around making notes, then they go upstairs into a room that could have been built as the auditorium of a nineteenth-century high school. The walls are made of tongue-and-groove boards and the wooden seats are set on frameworks of cast iron, which are bolted to the floor. The room seems to contain about ninety men and ninety lighted cigars. In London in the eighteenth century, oranges were auctioned "by the candle". A pin was pushed through a candle not far from the top, and when the candle was lighted, the bidding began. When the pin dropped, the most recent bidder got the oranges. In New York in the present era, oranges appear to be auctioned by cigar. The air in the auction room gets so heavy with smoke that if anything as light as a pin were to drop, it would probably stop falling before it reached the floor. The auctioneer sits on a stage, usually alone. The man from Indian River sits next to him when he auctions the fruit of the Indian River.