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The Last of the Prune Pickers

Title: The last of the Prune Pickers: A Pre-Silicon Valley Story
Author: Tim Stanley
Publisher: 2 Timothy Publishing, Irvine CA
Copyright: 2009, 2010 Joseph Timothy Stanley

I bought The Last of the Prune Pickers while visiting Casa De Fruta in Hollister, California in 2012. I selected it because it made me recall a memory I had when I was a teenager. My gregarious brother-in-law welcomed new neighbors into the home for a visit, and I don’t remember where they were from (maybe Salinas), but they looked like gypsies to me with thick-looking skin that had been darkened by the sun. The most memorable part of the evening was listening to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, which they brought over on vinyl, and which my brother in-law cranked up on his record player and opened the windows for all the other neighbors in the small apartment complex to hear. The gypsies called me a “prune picker” after finding out that I was born and raised in the Santa Clara Valley. As a teenager I wasn’t too intrigued by what they had to say, but now that I am old, I am interested in knowing what these people meant by calling me a prune picker, and Tim Stanley has explained it amply in his book.

Another reason I purchased the book is because the cover1 is so lovely with a colorful photograph of an orchard ripe with prunes on the front and another resplendent photograph of an orchard overgrown with mustard plants on the back cover. These images are familiar to me; for nearly the last 20 years, I have lived across the street from an old apricot orchard and have delighted in its existence, although recently, and unfortunately, the trees in the old orchard were razed to make way for three-story condominiums, which have no yards and only tiny, one-man balconies on which to take in the glorious outdoors.

Getting back to the gypsies . . . even though they called me a prune picker, I am in no way a prune picker. I don’t think I have ever picked a prune from a tree or even off the ground from under a tree in all my life, and it is an insult to Mr. Stanley and others who truly are (or were) prune pickers to call me one, for a prune picker is a hard-working individual, at least that is the impression I was left with after reading The Last of the Prune Pickers, and while I can confidently say I have a strong work ethic, I am most certain a prune picker's work is far more consistently labor intensive than anything I have ever done.

Mr. Stanley's book is not only about prune pickers; he also discusses the history of the Santa Clara Valley from the Ohlone Indians "who gave way to the Spanish [who] gave way to a new Latin American nation, and the Mexican Californios [who] gave way to the Americans." While reading the initial part of the book, which is a quick tour through local history, I would often look up and around at the familiar mountain ranges in the area (i.e., the Diablo Range and the Santa Cruz Mountains) and imagine them from the eyes of the Ohlone or 1849 gold prospectors. It is an intriguing feeling to transport yourself mentally in time. How many individuals in the past stood in the sun looking up to their left or right or straight ahead to take in the beautiful view of the hills and mountains?

The very familiar names mentioned in the book also activated mental titillations. The name "Alviso" appears in the book numerous times, and each time I read it, I thought about the little area rimming the south end of the San Francisco Bay, a place I have visited countless times to walk the levees with a brown-bag lunch in hand. In an endnote, Mr. Stanley writes about the blatant thievery of the land owned by the Berryessa family and a tragic lynching of a family member. Of course, when I saw the name "Berryessa," I thought of the San Jose Flea Market, which is located on Berryessa Road, a place that has existed before I was born, and I can remember strolling through it many times throughout my life..

Not everything I read in Mr. Stanley's book was joyful. It is sad to learn that during the Spanish and Mexican occupation of California, "most of the oak trees that had covered the [Santa Clara] Valley had been cut down." Also, ultra-kindness and gentleness towards animals was not always showcased in the book. In one case, I doubt there was malicious intent, but the old farmer to whom the book is dedicated did kick a rooster, and it made me contemplate the likelihood of other harsh treatment of animals in the era of farming in the Santa Clara Valley. Mr. Stanley probably omitted some of the harsher realities for animals that he probably witnessed as a prune picker. Nevertheless, he included much respect and appreciation for animals especially in the chapter about sheep shearing. Plus, there is a most adorable photograph of a baby lamb leaping, which leads the sheep-shearing chapter.

The book has some blatant format errors, one of which is the spelling of the word "disdain," which means to reject something that is inferior to one's liking. Mr. Stanley, uses a "t" instead of a "d" to spell the word in the third paragraph from the bottom on page 34. All the other errors are minor, mostly inadvertent omissions of articles. I would blame the publisher for the errors, but I discovered that Tim Stanley is the publisher as he appears to be the main contact at 2 Timothy Publishing, and only his two books are currently exhibited on the 2 Timothy Publishing website.

Second Timothy, of course, is a book from the Christian Bible, and I recall that as I was determining whether to buy The Last of the Prune Pickers, I had placed it fully back on the shelf because of the publisher's name. I suspected the content might be preachy; however, the lure of the title and cover had me pulling it off the shelf again. It turns out that the text is not preachy. There is only one sentence that is preachy, and it was so minor that I neglected to mark it in the book and, thus, am unable to point to it as I write this review. Some very fitting bible verses are well placed throughout the text, and even atheists will admit the Christian Bible is not without welcome words of wisdom.

Not only biblical wisdom is found in The Last of the Prune Pickers; at two places in the book, I especially appreciate Mr. Stanley's own insight or good decision to add the information he did. In Chapter 10, he discusses crop pests and diseases that accompanied the orcharding in Santa Clara Valley. He distinguishes between two schools of thought regarding pest and disease control, one is to directly kill and eradicate offending microorganisms with toxic chemicals, and the other approach is to maintain a "relatively stable state of equilibrium between the different but independent elements, or groups of elements, of an organism . . . ." This latter approach is called organic farming today and is based on "principles of nurturing the soil and plants to avoid the weakened condition that allows the pests to thrive in the first place." Mr. Stanley fairly points out some of the "benefits and dangers" of both approaches, and I am glad he includes the following challenge in the endnotes for Chapter 10:

Perhaps we should ask: is an occasional worm in an apple or a few aphids on our vegetables so undesirable that we would rather have our food laced with toxic substances and grown in sterilized soil that has left them deficient in nutritive value? We could also ask: how silent does spring have to become, how fostering of disease does our environment have to become, before we turn this around?

Notice the allusion to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring2, the idea that the normally birdsong-filled days of spring will fall silent because the casualties of toxic-chemical use are the songbirds, frogs, etc.  I wonder how species vibrant my childhood was compared to now. I know my memory is capable of distortion, but one creature is most definitely gone from this town, and that is the common toad. I used to play in the creeks around my home, and I would often catch toads. You could not look into a creek and not see a toad. Now, you cannot see a toad at all in one of those creeks. Indeed, "how silent does spring have to become"?

The second poignant point that I was grateful to see in Mr. Stanley's book is in Chapter 32. Mr. Stanley writes about how the "fruit orchards in the [Santa Clara] Valley were mostly in the time before the invention of the American Teenager," and he appropriately remarks about how there has been:

a vast change in the development of young people after work was eliminated from their educational experience. Kids who work grow up understanding the concept of earning a living. They make the connection between productive work and the provision of necessities, and are less likely to grow up with the idea that other people will, or should, provide for them. The elimination of work from this group has produced different results. There is an old Chinese proverb that says, "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish, and he'll feed himself for a lifetime."

From the description of his experience as a prune picker in his early teens, I feel immense respect for Mr. Stanley's work ethic, and he has succinctly summarized a seemingly seriously lacking attribute in today's American culture. I never had children, but if I had had them, they would have learned to work hard mentally and physically because benefits—more than anything else—are to be reaped from hard work, and who does not want his or her child to benefit?

I congratulate myself on a book well chosen and am grateful to Mr. Stanley for a book well composed. Anyone who has lived the whole of his or her life in Silicon Valley will cherish the moments spent reading The Last of the Prune Pickers.

1 Yes, I am aware of the old adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover, and I agree that there can be a divergence of quality between content and cover; nevertheless, much effort is put into the making of a book cover, and I appreciate that because I certainly don’t read a book all in one sitting.  It takes me well over a month to complete a book, and during that period of time when I see the book on a table, desk, etc. and cannot read it at that moment, I will gaze at its cover and feel a subtle streak of excitement run through me.

2 Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring is said to have marked (if not launched) the modern environmental movement. The book was published in 1962.