Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.
I strode into the strangers’ yard and climbed one of their trees. The branches were strong, with convenient hand and foot holds, and I knew that I’d be able to perch up there for a long time. Reaching cautiously into the foliage, I started plucking ripe lemons and dropping them into a bag below my feet.
Do not worry—your columnist has not turned to thievery. I was there with the Santa Cruz Fruit Tree Project, and everyone—me, the people I’d come with, the public, the strangers themselves—stood to gain from our gleaning. The Fruit Tree Project is devoted to harvesting the sweet juicy bounty that California’s Central Coast is blessed with nearly year-round; this week, it’s citrus fruits. There are fruit trees everywhere here. My house alone has three, and I live in a dense urban neighborhood. It is routine for people to eat a little something as they walk around—California law dictates that branches over the sidewalk are in the public domain.
The challenge, nature being what it is, is that all the lemons/plums/persimmons/blackberries ripen at the same time, and it’s hard for any one house to handle all of its fruit at once. You can tell what’s ripe in Santa Cruz by the color of the sidewalk. One of my fellow pickers told me that 50,000 pounds of fruit hit the pavement and go to waste every year, and while I have not been able to confirm this number, I can absolutely believe it. While a lot of people eat their own produce, and our transient population probably relies on public fruit as well, there is still far too much goodness growing wild and raining down from the trees. If you have a fruit tree by your driveway, you are likely to spend the season slipping and kicking around your oranges—but you cannot easily pick them all yourself.
Turning waste into nourishment and community is what the Santa Cruz Fruit Tree project is all about. Steve Schnaar, the founder, knew about a similar program in Vancouver and he could see that Santa Cruz and its fruit trees were in need of attention. He and some comrades started the project in 2010, scouting trees, asking homeowners if they’d like their fruit harvested, and gathering pickers together. By 2013, they were hosting more than thirty events a year. In the spring of 2014, I decided to join up for the citrus harvest.
The meeting spot was only a mile from my house. I biked over with an empty backpack and a curious mind. I expected that I’d find a small handful of people, and that we’d cruise the sidewalks plucking surreptitious oranges from convenient limbs. But no: Twenty people of all ages gathered at Frederick Street Park, wielding lemon-pluckers that were somewhere between a lacrosse stick and a medieval halberd. There were bikes dragging homemade trailers and sturdy plastic bins. Steve and the other leaders had a target list of fruit trees with willing homeowners. These people were serious. Once we’d reached critical mass, we split up and dispersed, by pedal and on foot, out into the neighborhood.
I had never really thought about just how many lemons a tree can produce, and I was stunned to get up into the branches and be overwhelmed by lemon after lemon after lemon, shining down like sour little suns, and once I thought I’d gotten all the ones in a given sector, I’d move my head just a little and more would appear. It was like trying to kill all the mosquitoes as you hike by a lake, but far more rewarding. We moved from a little lemon tree to an orange tree, where I was disappointed to find that orange trees sometimes have thorns (I had always thought of orange trees as friendlier than that). Each group covered two houses before reconvening at the park to pile up our treasure as if we were fruit pirates. We divvied up the spoils and I biked back with my pack bursting at the seams and a pomelo in the outside pocket.
Over the last decade or so, a lot of us (including me, certainly) have embraced, or re-embraced, the concept of local food, of eating what the landscape and season offer us instead of having the same orange juice for breakfast, apples with lunch, and strawberries after dinner all year long. But to make local food systems—and local food infrastructure—truly sustainable and productive, we need to really engage with what our landscapes—heck, our own yards—are offering under our noses. This demands more than shopping with care and asking the waiter where the lamb came from; it demands that the whole community come together and take action. That tree I climbed in the first paragraph produced more lemons than one ordinary family could possibly consume, or even harvest. But twenty people shared the day’s work, and twenty people went home with lemons for the summer.
Of course, California produces more produce than most places, but you can find fruit trees in towns across America. Vancouver, as mentioned above, has its own fruit tree project, and Seattle has a full-on Food Forest on Beacon Hill. Even in the Vermont micro-town where I spent the fall, the trees lining the dirt roads were heavy with apples. This fruit is free, organic, healthy, and tasty. Keeping it off the ground just takes a little organization and someone to rally the community. And the movement is growing: Here in Santa Cruz, the Fruit Tree project also runs fermentation and jam-making workshops, and is looking to plant more fruit or berries in our town’s public spaces, expanding the edible landscape. I’ll sign off by saying that I write this sentence, I’m munching on a lemon tart from that tree (see photo, above). It’s delicious.
Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on dam removal politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and will begin an Environmental Studies professorship at Wofford College this fall. In his academic work, he researches the ways people decide to restore and remake their environments.