As I mentioned yesterday, I will be recycling old articles for at least the next month. This was one of the earliest articles on this blog.
Springtime in the Santa Clara Valley was famously spectacular decades ago, when vast orchards occupied what is now only urban sprawl. Tourists came to see it like some still go to see foliar color of autumn in New England. Most of the orchards were for stone fruits. Only a few in cooler spots were for apples and pears. Only orchards of English walnuts did not bloom colorfully.
Cherry and almond trees typically bloomed first. Prune trees bloomed immediately afterward. Apricot trees were only a few days later. Of course, the schedule of bloom was variable. Prune trees often bloomed just after apricot trees. Various cultivars of cherry started to bloom at slightly different times, even though those that needed to pollinate each other managed to do so.
After the main bloom of all the stone fruits, and after the tourists were gone, the few apple and pear orchards in cooler spots and surrounding hillsides continued the process. Mulberry trees that grew sporadically on roadsides around the orchards bloomed no more colorfully than English walnuts, but somehow produced enough fruit to distract birds from developing stone fruits.
Feral plum trees are a group that was not easy to categorize even before the demise of the orchards. They were not intentionally grown in orchards, or even in home gardens. They just sort of grew wild along creeks or from the roots of grafted stone fruit trees that had been cut down. They were originally grown as understock cultivars, but had naturalized to become truly feral.
Because their fruit was not used for much, they did not get much consideration. We tend to forget that some types bloomed before any of the other stone fruits. To those who do not expect fruit, feral plum trees are as spectacular as productive stone fruit trees.
Newer developments are often named after what was destroyed to procure space for them. Writers and historians have been making that observation for decades.
There are obviously no remnants of a ranch in the McCarthy Ranch Marketplace in Milpitas. Heck, there are no little cornfields left in Milpitas, which is what ‘Milpitas’ means. Cherry Orchard Shopping Center in Sunnyvale? Give me a break! The Pruneyard Shopping Center in Campbell is no better.
I just happen to find the Pruneyard to be less objectionable than the others because it was built about the time I was born. It has been there as long as I can remember. My parents can remember when it was a drying yard for the prunes harvested in the surrounding orchards. I remember the last remnants of prune orchards, but by my time, there were not enough of them to justify the less lucrative use of real estate for drying, which could be done elsewhere.
The Pruneyard Towers are an office complex just to the west of the shopping center. The original Pruneyard Tower might still be the tallest building between San Francisco and Los Angeles. I know it was only a few decades ago. (Downtown San Jose has a ceiling on the heights of their skyscrapers because of the flightpath of the Mineta San Jose Airport.) I can remember as a kid, seeing the big black tower standing proudly off in the distance, beyond the blooming apricot orchards. When our parents were shopping there, and we got close to the Pruneyard Tower, we felt a bit more cosmopolitan, as if we lived in a big world class city. Back then, we had no idea that nearby San Jose was well on the way to becoming exactly that!
The shorter tower was added about 1976. The third and lowest of the three bigger towers was added in the 1990s. The late 1960s architecture of the shopping center is still prominent, but several original buildings have been rebuilt with modern architecture, and a few new buildings were added.
As much as I miss the orchards and the horticultural past of the Santa Clara Valley, I can not totally dislike the Pruneyard Shopping Center and the associated big towers. To my generation, they are also part of our history. They have been here as long as we have.
The one thing that I dislike about the Pruneyard Shopping Center is the name. It is a constant reminder that something that was such an important part of our local culture and history was destroyed so that it could be built. Nothing about the site is associated with the orchards, or drying yards or prunes, or anything of the sort.
To a little kid, it really had the potential to be a scary movie. I did not understand all of it, but I got the important parts. Mars was red, so was probably near Oklahoma. Apparently, the people from Mars had big scary machines that destroyed anything and anyone that was in their way. I did not perceive much of a threat because my parents let me watch the movie. (We children could not watch really scary movies.)
Shortly after watching War of the Worlds, I went for a long walk with my older sister and some of her friends into the last remnant or orchard that was such a prominent part of our world. We went out onto a new section of roadway beyond where our street used to end, and turned east on a completely new street that was not there before. The fresh new pavement and neat curbs seemed so flat and desolate . . . and expansive compared to the orchard that it now divided. I wondered how the trees got out of the way of this thing. Obviously, some moved to the left, and others moved to the right.
We eventually arrived at a larger clearing off to the left of this new street. Within this clearing, there were huge concrete rectangles with short pieces of rebar sticking up from their perimeters. One of the concrete rectangles lacked rebar, but was outfitted with four tall poles that curved on top. They looked something like those scary weapons on top of those machines that came from Mars. My sister confirmed my suspicions by explaining that the big concrete rectangles where where the flying machines landed when they arrived. Now I was getting a bit scared.
A few days later, we started to hear strange noises coming from the orchard. I was not allowed to go that far into the orchard without my sister, and was too afraid to go investigate anyway. The noises were mechanical and metallic, mixed with the sound of what seemed to be a big diesel engine and wood breaking. I dismissed them as not ‘too’ terribly threatening at first; but by the next day, they were closer! Each day, they got closer, until I could actually see motion through the trees. Something yellow was moving around in there, and small puffs of black smoke sometimes squirted out above the trees. I was terrified! I told my mother that the mean people from Mars were out there destroying everything like in the War of the Worlds!
She explained that there were no mean people from Mars in the orchard, but that a new park was being built on the site. Well that did not help much. What is this ‘park’? My mother explained that it would be a place where kids could play and run around and climb things and play games . . . and you know. Well duh, that is what the orchard is for. She said that it would be better. I wondered what could possibly be better than the orchard. This is something that I need to see!
Well, for the next two days or so, as they tore out the last two rows or so of trees, it became apparent that they yellow machines from Mars that spurted out black smoke were bulldozers gouging the trees right out of the ground. No one even bothered to cut up the firewood to leave on the side of the road like was typically done. The trees were unceremoniously piled up and burned. I was no longer terrified. I was saddened and confused. I could not understand why anyone would want to do this to the most important part of our world.
The big concrete rectangles with rebar protrusions were not landing pads for the flaying machines from Mars. They were the foundations and floors of the Recreation Center for the new park. The concrete rectangles with the four curved poles that seemed to be an assembly site for the weaponry from Mars simply became two basketball courts. The curved poles were outfitted with backboards and hoops. The orchard, devoid of trees, was leveled in most areas and mounded in others, and mostly covered with a vast lawn. New trees were planted around the perimeter and within landscaped areas around the Recreation Center. I suppose as far as parks go, it was a nice one.
The only problem with it was that we did not know what to do with it. The new trees were too small to climb or hide behind or really to do anything with. The lawn was nice, but there was way too much of it. The Recreation Center was nice inside, but we wanted to be outside. Eventually, we learned how to enjoy our park, and it really was nice; although it will never be an adequate substitute for an orchard. Our suburban (or some might say ‘rural’) world was invaded and, unlike in the movie, conquered by a more urban culture.
I would not say that one culture is any better than the other. However, I will say that I believe that there was a certain advantage to knowing the orchard and some of the nearby undeveloped wildlands the way that we did. I really believe that it was more educational than the refined and synthetic landscape of the new park. The maintenance of the park certainly required some degree of horticulture. There are trees, lawn and all sorts of shrubbery and perennials. The orchard had only trees and mustard. We interacted with it differently somehow. This is something that I can not explain adequately. It can only be experienced.