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The Orchard at the End of Paradise

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools…

I had a boyhood once in Paradise.

On the cooling November mornings of the mid-1950s when all the 40 apple orchards of Paradise were clothed in deep green leaves and, with the red to gold globed fruit making the boughs of the trees bow under their weight, it was a great time to be a boy with a bicycle in Paradise. On those mornings, if freed from classes at the Paradise Elementary school, my brother and I would ride up Sawmill road past the feed store to Pentz and buy the newest comic books they sold, and then we’d ride on from there.

Soon we’d come to the southern edge of the last orchard in on the northern border of Paradise, Noble Orchards. There, in the fashion of schoolboys, we’d sneak into the orchard and climb up a tree. There in the nooks and branches, we’d pass the afternoon reading comic books from the feed store and hooking apple after apple from the orchards. The sun, even in early November, was warm as I remember it.

Then again a lot of memories from my boyhood in Paradise have warmth associated with them. Maybe it was the heater that my father turned on every morning and that I sat in front of, cross-legged and reading a book. Maybe it is just in the nature of memory to add warmth to the better moments. But for whatever reason, those long lost memories of a ten-year-old boy hold firm and at their center was the last orchard in Paradise, Noble Orchards.

When I returned to Paradise as an old man there was only one commercial apple orchard still in business in Paradise, Noble Orchards. By then it not only had many varieties of apples but peaches and plums and other stone fruit as well. It was in its 99th year owned by the same family, the Noble Family. It boasted a rustic barn in which the bins and boxes of fruit were stacked high as well as crates of apples and peaches and fruit for sale amid the old barn beams and slake shingled roof.  It offered cider too during the cidering season as well as an ambrosial apple butter until increasing regulations from the state of California made it impossible to make the apple butter in small batches.

At that time the Nobles of Noble Orchards had a Willys Jeep that they’d bought in a crate from WWII surplus and put together like kids today assemble Lego models of the space station. It would bang about in the orchards but without a muffler, so we’d hear it coming and skedaddle down the road to home on our Schwinns. Sometimes we’d hear the Noble fellow shout after us but in truth, he never tried to catch us very hard.

Mr. & Mrs. Noble

The first time I visited as a man, after 60 years, I confessed my school boy apple stealing sins to Mrs. Noble. “Those apples,” she scoffed. “We have them still. We call them ‘schoolboys’.”

The Nobles themselves are a handsome couple whose lives have been devoted to keeping the family orchard alive and bringing their fruits to the people. Mrs. Noble is a booster and a fixture at all the local farmers’ markets offering samples to all and sundry. Mr. Noble stays behind to manage and harvest the fruit from the orchards. He still would bang about the orchard looking for the invasions of bears in the same banged up old Willys Jeep his grandfather put together. They’re the kind of people you want to know when you first meet them. They’re the kind of people you’re proud to know.

And when I returned to Paradise Noble Orchards were, in all senses of the term, the last orchard in Paradise. All the others were gone, taken by relentless changes in the orchard business. But the  Nobles were still there, their green stone house still there, the Willys Jeep still there. Unchanged and unchanging.

Yesterday morning I met the Nobles again in the long line for FEMA signups at the Baptist Church and shelter. There they were. They were, to my joy, there and alive.

And they had nothing… or next to nothing.

With a self-possession I don’t think I could muster, the Nobles told me they’d lost all the buildings at the orchards and barely got out. They drove and ran and drove themselves through the tunnel of fire on the Skyway and emerged into the life-giving blue skies and your deliverance. Their family all lived. Even their two dogs, who they thought lost, were rescued by the Highway Patrol at the last moment.

And now the Nobles stood in line at the FEMA offices trying, at something near my age, to start again.

“So,” I asked, “Is it all gone? Is the green stone house gone?”

“It’s all gone,” Mr. Noble said. “All except the trees. The orchard survived.”

“What? How’s that possible?”

“My trees were still all green and full of leaves and fruit. There was a fire break I put in years ago and have been improving. When the fire got to our place there was no easy food to be had from my apple trees. They were too moist and out of reach. The fire went around them. My trees are still there. The orchard made it.”

We stood in the cold morning wind in the South Baptist Church out on 99. He had on a plaid shirt that he’d picked up at some local pile of clothing and a coat over the top of that. It was what he had. Mrs. Noble stood next to him wrapped in a thick and heavy sweater. It was what she had.

A  man came out of the snug and warm FEMA offices where they were beginning to accept applications for relief. He said, “They’re only taking applications from people in shelters. The rest of you will have to come back tomorrow.” Mr. and Mrs. Noble took that bit of bureaucratic blather in with the shrug and quiet thoughtful look of those who are getting used to the long nightmare their efforts to reclaim and rebuild the work of four generations of Nobles on their land.

“What will you do?” I asked Mr. Noble.

“We don’t know yet. But my trees are still there. When we can back into our orchard I’m going to start working so that, next November, the will be a fresh crop of Paradise apples. Did I tell you the old Jeep probably made it? I had it parked out in the middle of the orchard. Yes,” he said, “next year we just might be able to get a new crop in. God willing.”


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{ 32 comments… add one }
  • DrTedNelson November 15, 2018, 9:21 AM

    Excellent!

  • Sam L. November 15, 2018, 9:41 AM

    I see the Nobles have also left it on the field.

  • tim November 15, 2018, 9:42 AM

    Mr. & Mrs. Noble – indeed.

  • See-Dubya November 15, 2018, 9:46 AM

    Thank you for writing about this. Everybody’s blowing up about stupid crap like Avenatti, but this is where the real story is.

    Makes me think of a different lost Paradise, in Kentucky: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=h57a9bhb5no

  • Bill November 15, 2018, 9:49 AM

    A small ray of hope in what is a very tragic situation. Houses and barns can be rebuilt fairly quickly but replanting trees and bringing them to maturity would take years. Thankfully the Nobles at least have their orchard intact. My prayers are with everybody that have suffered loss.

  • Rick November 15, 2018, 9:59 AM

    Outstanding! People like the Nobles are the engine that keeps America humming. It sounds like they’d be better off without FEMA.

  • Julie November 15, 2018, 10:17 AM

    May God bless all their endeavors in the coming days.

  • Dr. Jay November 15, 2018, 11:00 AM

    Wonderful writing, as usual. Brought to mind two things: Bobby Russell’s, “Little Green Apples”, and a quote attributed to Augustine: “Trust the past to God’s mercy, the present to God’s love, and the future to God’s providence.”

    Godspeed.

  • Chris Willis November 15, 2018, 11:51 AM

    The good people of California deserve better government than they’ve been saddled with.

  • Casey Klahn November 15, 2018, 1:42 PM

    Trees properly cared for. hmmmmm.

    I’m staying away from politics this time. God has another plan for the orchard other than fire. So happy to read this.

  • PA Cat November 15, 2018, 2:04 PM

    “God has another plan for the orchard other than fire.” Casey’s words reminded me that the original Paradise was the Garden of Eden, as is written in Genesis 2: “Out of the ground the LORD God gave growth to every tree that is pleasing to the eye and good for food. And in the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” May the Nobles’ apple trees once again bear fruit that is good for food; and may we all walk in hope toward the tree of life promised in Revelation 22– the tree whose leaves “are for the healing of the nations.”

  • Teri Pittman November 15, 2018, 3:38 PM

    I know they probably don’t merchandize, but it would be great if there were a way for us outsiders to support them by buying something with their label. Lots of apple orchardists here in WA state that would support something like that.

  • david rieck November 15, 2018, 4:41 PM

    Beautiful!

  • Monty James November 15, 2018, 6:37 PM

    Seems a little crass to enthuse about how good these pieces are at a time like this, but you are plainly rising to some kind of challenge, it looks to me. Hail Vanderleun, from Crescent City.

    Noble Orchards Facebook page

  • BJM November 15, 2018, 9:14 PM

    I agree with Monty James… is a book revealing itself? I don’t know why, but as you post daily, I am reminded of Sippican’s “The Devil’s in the Cows”.

    Soon the media will move on and we won’t know what happened to the Nobles and others who have touched our hearts.

  • John Condon November 16, 2018, 11:12 AM

    Since the Orchard is intact, they can rebuild.

  • bgarrett November 16, 2018, 11:25 AM

    I love the jeep!

  • rok53 November 16, 2018, 12:34 PM

    Isan,t a fire break illegal in Cal ?

  • Suburbanbanshee November 16, 2018, 6:36 PM

    I bet you remember this grace before meals from Boy Scouts —

    Oh, the Lord is good to me,
    And so I thank the Lord
    For giving me
    The things I need:
    The sun and the moon and the apple trees.
    The Lord is good to me!

  • Rob November 17, 2018, 7:31 AM

    I spent my summers in Paradise growing up. My grandparents had a little farm next to the Nobels. Used to go down Dean road to the Feather River before they built the dam. And Nelson’s Bar (which was a swimming hole, not a bar). Great place, sorry about the fires.

  • Vanderleun November 17, 2018, 8:12 AM

    Just for the record Rob I too would swim at Nelson’s Bar, baking on the big rocks and jumping from them into the frigid river below.

    And Dean road still runs down to the Flumes.

  • Karen Ryan November 18, 2018, 12:24 AM

    What an inspiration the Nobels are. A beautiful family history with am amazing couple to write the new chapter. With such foresight to protect the orchards that the Lord provided and entrusted them with and such a positive outlook on the future, I know from reading this, this couple will once again bring forth fruit and food to their community. May the will of God continue to bless their family and provide richly for their future. Our prayers are with you. God speed Mr. and Mrs. Nobel~

  • AesopFan November 18, 2018, 12:28 PM

    Thanks for letting us share in this wonderful story of survival and heroic fortitude.

    Suburbanbanshee November 16, 2018, 6:36 PM
    “I bet you remember this grace before meals from Boy Scouts —”
    I didn’t know the Scouts used it, but I’ve certainly heard it and sung along many times with the Disney animated story of Johnny Appleseed.

  • thud November 20, 2018, 11:54 AM

    Just what to say? plenty of helping hands I hope.

  • James ONeil November 15, 2019, 9:46 AM

    I’d written myself a reminder to check, at the beginning of this month, if they were up and back in operation & if so, to see if I could buy some of their apples.

    It appears much of the orchard survived as, in October, they were advertising for folks to come and pick their own apples, but apparently the shipping business isn’t up and running yet.

  • Rick November 15, 2019, 10:06 AM

    We used to have a lot of fruit stands like that here in south Florida only the fruit was oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, and lemons. Nice places to buy good oranges and even fresh juice. They’re all gone now, replaced by new houses for Yankees who couldn’t with the laws they created back home.

  • DAN November 15, 2019, 10:09 AM

    yes the apple orchards of paradise, the pillsburys were close to us on neal rd, always wondered if they got swallowed up in a development, my favorite was a winesap damn near impossible to find in this day & age.

  • Auntie Analogue November 15, 2019, 11:48 AM

    Their family name, Nobles, is indeed fitting. ‘Tis a pity that when spelled with a lower case “n” it doesn’t apply to the overlords of today’s ruling class. May the Nobles’ crops sweeten their own and their patrons’ futures.

  • brinster November 15, 2019, 12:04 PM

    Fine people, the Nobles, as is the man who wrote about them. The Gates of Heaven will be open to you and them, Gerard. Thank you for this, and for your numerous other gems.

  • R Daneel November 15, 2019, 9:09 PM

    Q: Did they get in the crop this year?

  • The Old Salt November 16, 2019, 4:34 AM

    You have the gift, Gerard. Thank you for story, which I missed the first time around. Noble indeed – yes, they are, as are you.

  • ghostsniper November 16, 2019, 12:35 PM

    Hey Rick, is that fruit stand still there on Pine Island Rd, close to Burnt Store Rd?
    Coming back from the islands on my weekly haunts I’d hit the fish joint on Matlacha and grab some grouper and big shrimps, then the fruit stand for some mango’s and limes, then to the house. Nothing like grouper slathered with mango slices on the grill.

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