Her grandfather's orchard was a family treasure. Now they were in danger of losing it.
by Carolyn Werly-Wilder — Posted on Feb 5, 2014
“I’ve never seen cold weather last so long!” Mom said when I arrived at the family ranch near Mariposa, California. Since Dad died she was on her own up there. Normally she was able to manage the place by herself, but this January had brought unusually frigid weather for California, and she needed my help.
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “I’ll load more wood in the stoves. Then I’ll check on the oranges.” The small orchard behind the house was our pride and joy. It had weathered many winters–but never one like this.
Any temperatures below freezing were incredibly dangerous for both the orange crop and the trees themselves, and the long-range forecast wasn’t good. When Mom called and told me the temperature had dipped as low as 30 degrees, I drove right over.
“I think it’s time to turn on the sprinklers,” I said, grabbing a flashlight. The running water caused the air temperature to rise, and even just a few degrees could make all the difference.
Outside I got the system up and running. Water droplets burst across the little field. The orchard was small, but mighty in its own way.
The ranch sat in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and citrus trees at this elevation–over one thousand feet–were rare. When my dad’s parents had homesteaded here in the early 1900s, they used all the land for cattle grazing.
Then Grandpa noticed the cows had a funny habit of bedding down behind the house in winter. Turned out, this one area was warmer than any other place for miles around. Maybe warm enough to plant some fruit, he thought.
Grandpa worked for years to make the soil more fertile. He grafted the roots of two varieties of oranges–the hardy, cold-resistant Mediterranean Sweet and the delicious Washington Navel–to create his own hybrid.
He planted his saplings in spring and, under his care, a field of 20 orange trees flourished. It seemed impossible, but there they were. Our miracle trees.
A sputtering sound from the sprinklers caught my attention. The flow of water petered out and stopped. Oh, no, I thought. The pipes must have frozen! Now what?
I rushed back to the house to tell Mom. “I don’t know what to do,” I said. “It’s so cold, we won’t just lose the fruit. The trees could die.”
“While you were out, I called my prayer chain at church,” Mom said. “Now the orchard is in God’s hands.” I wished I felt that was enough. I went back outside.
A typical California citrus harvest starts in October, but we held off until February. The cold climate and the long wait made the oranges irresistibly sweet, like candied fruit right off the branch. People came from all over to get a taste of them.
I touched the frosty bark of one of the trees. If we picked the oranges now they wouldn’t be the same. Plus, harvesting the crop wouldn’t save the trees.
Lord, what else can we do? It’s only getting colder. One of my favorite scriptures came to mind: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.” I’d relied on that promise so many times in my life. Could it possibly help me now?
I walked down the line of trees. “Please send angels to protect the orchard,” I asked. “Angels with hot breath to lift the frost.” I touched an orange on each tree as I walked past. They were hard as ice.
I felt overcome with sadness as I walked back to the house. I looked over my shoulder and realized I’d skipped two of the trees off to one side. I suppose it doesn’t really matter....
Back at the house the thermometer read 20 degrees. How many nights could the trees weather this freeze? It went without saying that the oranges themselves were ruined, but that hardly mattered to me now in the face of losing the very trees they grew on.
For five consecutive nights the temperature fell below freezing. On the morning of the sixth day, the weather report improved. The cold snap was over! Mom and I bundled up and trudged outside to survey the damage.
All the native, cold-weather plants around the house were withered and black. My heart buckled at the thought of what our orange trees would look like.
We stepped behind the house. Our miracle trees had never appeared more beautiful, all deep green leaves and bright amber oranges. Every tree in the orchard was well. All except–
“These two trees didn’t make it,” I said. Their leaves were shriveled up and their trunks frostbitten. The dead oranges had already started to drop off. They were the two trees I’d neglected to touch with my prayer.
I picked an orange off one of the trees that appeared to have made it. The fruit was so cold it made my hand sting. “Cut it open,” Mom said. I split the orange in half. The inside practically glowed. It was perfectly healthy. And as sweet as the God who holds our orchard in his hands.
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