Blood Oranges

My family grew oranges in a grove next to a little wild lake in Polk County for four generations. The grove yielded its sweet crop and stood next to the lake for over 75 years. It was home to turkey, bobcat, hogs, and deer. It shielded the lake and kept it, at least in my young mind, a wild and sacred place, and those rows of green trees covered in golden globes witnessed many good memories and moments of solitude. It was a place I loved.

In 1989, the grove was lost to a hard freeze, as were many others that winter. My uncle, generation number three, replanted the grove the following year. By a fortunate accident, blood oranges found their way into the rows of the grove. Through a nurseryman’s error, 10 blood orange trees were included with hundreds of Hamlins to be replanted. I was 5 when those trees were put in the ground.

My memories of the grove began after time revealed the surprise, and the grove had become a mature stand of trees next to the little wild lake. Each year, I always made sure to flag a couple of the blood orange trees ensuring that they held tight to their golden treasure and didn’t end up in the harvest crew’s trailer. While they lasted, they were a sweet treat on days afield and while working in the grove.

The elevation and the deep sandy soils told me that Tall Pines once grew next to the lake. Except for a small patch of long overgrown woods showing the groves ancestry, the grove is all I’ve known. As far back as I can remember groves surrounded my family’s grove and the lake. They seemed a vast, wild landscape in their rolling expanse over the sandhills. As wild as the groves seemed I could only imagine the native flat woods and scrub of the not-so-distant past. 

Many mornings found me among the tree rows stalking feral hogs and whispering to Osceola Turkeys. Many mornings found me on the little wild lake fishing for speckled perch or hunting ducks and alligator. Those mornings spent in pursuit of game are memories as sweet as the oranges that grew on the trees. One of my favorite memories includes bluebills, which every year would migrate from the far north and navigate to our lake next to the grove. Each year flocks of bluebills would announce their final approach as primary feathers sounded descent. Small jets landing and sounding very much like the large ones on final descent into Orlando!

With regularity, I would find myself on one of these outings contemplating time and place, as a short walk through the grove would yield evidence that man had occupied this land for thousands of years prior. Arrowheads and pottery shards sent my mind wandering. How long ago was this projectile used in the same pursuits I was on? How tall were the pines that towered overhead? How loud were the bluebills landing on the lake back then? What was he hunting, and did he find the same satisfaction in this place that I did?

I often thought while hunting, working, camping, and finding arrowheads, that one day I’d bring my yet-to-be-conceived family here. We would sit and call at turkeys, listen to bluebills cruise through the skies, and treat ourselves with blood oranges as summer held onto fall. We would camp and fish and make memories. We would find arrowheads, and the concept of time and my relationship to this special place would transfer generations.

It had been a couple of years since I walked the grove. I knelt to pick up a broken coral arrowhead, one like many I’d found before. I faced the lake and saw the raft of bluebills which had concluded their migration south, to this spot, for as far back as I could remember. This would be my last walk here. The last time I would hear the bluebills on the little wild lake, the last time I would pick up an arrowhead. The blood oranges have been gone for several years, as have most of the groves around here. They got hammered by a disease and gobbled up by development. All that remains is the small patch of woods and an empty field. My family hasn’t owned the grove for a few years (technically I was trespassing), but it would be my last time doing so.

I returned to say goodbye. The lake was still beautiful and wild but not for long. A wall of gray, beige, and off-white boxes across the street foretold what was to come. “The last crop” would soon be planted. Rows of houses would soon line this field. The developer pulled up and asked why I was there. I talked with him. “Can’t stop progress” he mentioned. I feigned a smile. “We break ground in two weeks.” I wondered if anyone would wander and wonder about tall pines, ancient peoples, and sweet blood oranges while walking a cul-de-sac. When all that covers this land and surrounds this lake is humdrum rooftops, will anyone be inspired by this once sacred place? Anyways, I do miss those Blood Oranges.

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