Wednesday, October 8, 2014

the last book I ever read (Oranges by John McPhee, excerpt seven)

from Oranges by John McPhee:

Paradoxically, many societies have believed that the worst thing that could happen to an orange tree was the touch of a woman. If a woman were even to go near one, some thought, the foliage would wilt and fall away, the fruit would drop, and the tree would die. A Spanish Moor of the twelfth century, whose name was Abu Zakariya Yahya Ibn el-Awwam, wrote a basic text called The Book of Agriculture, which contained material on citriculture that was remarkably accurate and complete, until he brought up the matter of women. “Women should not be allowed to come near citrus trees,” he wrote, “unless they are in a state of absolute purity and unimpaired health.” According to the same writer, however, the woman stood to gain much from the very tree she was capable of destroying. “If a woman eats an orange,” he added, “it will banish all evil thoughts from her mind.” Superstition about oranges were remarkably persistent in Germany. As late as 1671, Italian orange salesmen found that Frankfurt was a poor territory. The Frankfurt City Council proclaimed that the salesmen were going around spreading “poisonous yellow ointments” on the doors of houses. If a person passed through or even near these doors within five hours, the council informed the populace, that person would die. German feelings about women and oranges were even deeper. In the early eighteenth century, when nearly all German princes were growing oranges in their palaces, Johannes Volckamer, of Nuremberg, in his Neurenbergische Hesperiden, described how women could cause whole trees to die. “Many will deride this as something foolish,” said Volckamer, “and I myself should not have believed in it had it not caused the undoing of some of my most valuable trees. Once, in winter, I noticed a woman of my gardener’s household seated upon a beautiful orange tree in full bloom. The next day, the tree started drying up from the top downwards, and so rapid was the progress of the disease that in the course of a few days it had infected every single branch, causing all the leaves to wilt and die.”

Later writers have guessed that Volckamer was ignorant of the effects of frost. My own belief is that science erases what was previously true. The earth was the center of the universe until Copernicus rearranged it. Life did begin in Eden before Darwin restyled it. In the early eighteenth century in Nuremberg, a woman did sit in the branches of an orange tree and kill it to the ground.

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