When I moved into my apartment five years ago, I didn’t go into the yard much. It was overgrown and unkempt, as the previous tenants didn’t care for it except to create a space for two plastic chairs where they would sit during the summer to drink their PBRs. They had allowed the space to become an uninhabitable, weed-filled, creature-haven. I still remember the day we cut down all the growth along the fence, the tens of tiny field mice scurrying about, and I, in my panic, trying to block the door to the house so none would enter.
So when I took it upon myself to reclaim the territory, it was with much tenacity that I began—there was no other choice. I pulled hundreds, perhaps thousands of weeds. I bagged heaps of garbage. My hands were calloused and sore, back achey, and body covered in insect bites. I tilled soil and planted seeds. Bought shrubs and perennial flowers and planted them in the freshly turned earth.
I discovered the remnants of a fig tree fighting to survive.
I had never had any experience with fig trees—or figs—before. I wasn’t particularly interested in them. But when I saw the once stocky trunk, now gnarled with the teeth marks of a dog, the shoots emerging from it, fighting for their lives, I found myself inspired.
I learned that the tree had once been large and bountiful—my neighbor to the West, a 90-year-old man we call Doc, told me. It had been like his, but for the color figs (Doc’s white, ours purple). Doc’s tree is enormous; its broad leaves create delicious shade, shelter for mama cats nursing their babes, and, until Doc fell ill last year, hugely plump white figs. Last summer, his daughter told me that though the tree produced hundreds upon hundreds of figs, not one had turned ripe that year. I was not shocked by the news, as she was. I had seen Doc, for three years of springs, summers, and falls, out in the yard every day, pruning and tending and watering and caring. Then, suddenly, he was house-ridden. The figs would not ripen without him, and I understood their reasoning.
When I came upon that trunk, I was resolved to tend to it; to bring it back to health. By late in the spring, the tree had already perked up; with the additional space, lack of weeds fighting it for the same water, it had sent out growth several more feet into the air. I was encouraged.
That fall I had no figs. Figs were forming, though not early enough to reach maturity before the frost. “No matter,” I thought. “Next year.”
The next year, P. eagerly helped me tend to my fig tree. We started in early spring, with the same routine—extra weeding, giving it space, monitoring it. I continued to work on the yard; my shrubs grew, flowers bloomed, I hung the prayer flags I had bought on my trip to Nepal, P. and I bought a kiddie-pool to cool us off on the particularly hot summer days. That was the year it became our fig tree. And by the end of September, we ate our first figs off the tree. Just a handful, but they were cherished.
The following year, our fig obsession grew. In April, during P. and my trip to the Balkans, we spotted hundreds of fig trees—both cultivated in city and countryside alike—but also growing wildly, as weeds. We found them growing in the hills of Macedonia, in the cracks of war-demolished rubble heaps in Bosnia, in the backyards of houses everywhere. P. knew enough about fig trees to know how hearty they are; how they can grow simply by having one of their branches placed in dirt. So we took some cuttings. We have fig trees from Mostar and Ohrid growing in our yard now, too, thanks to that trip. That year, we had figs at the beginning of September, and more of them. We shared what we had with my mother, who loves figs, and it felt good. Our garden was growing too, as P. and I cleared more of the yard for planting. We grew tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, strawberries, spring peas, runner beans—P. is a prolific gardener, and helped transform our yard.
In 2009, our yard was worlds away from what it had been just three summers prior. P. and I decided that we wanted to make more of the yard planting space, so we demolished a 12’ x 12’ concrete portion of the backyard to plant grass. We did this, with the help of our friend/roommate Judy, with just one sledgehammer, one crowbar, and our six hands. We carried out the debris ourselves, to a dumpster we had rented and parked in front of the house. In the process, we discovered 5 giant conch shells, a cast iron bathtub, numerous coffee cans and mussel shells, a toy soldier, several rooms’ worth of tin ceiling, lamp bases, piping, chicken wire, and a rusted revolver. Yes, you heard me correctly.
The fig tree grew (and grew and grew), and in, what seems a matter of moments, came to expand over the grass we had just planted. That August, we harvested enough figs to fill us, enough to share with our families and our friends, and celebrated it as victory in figginess. P. made a batch of rustic fig preserves, I made a fig crostata, and we ate and were merry.
This year, the harvest has been earlier, and far more plentiful than ever before. For the last week, every day, I have been going out to the yard with a bowl (or pail!) and collecting figs from the ever-widening branches, some of which I can no longer even reach.
I crawl into the middle of the tree, stepping lightly over lower branches, moving stealthily towards the ripest figs. P. has been gone for most of this year’s harvest, and it’s become a bit of a meditative ritual for me over the last seven days. I think of others who have come before me.
I think of the old Italian man who planted my fig tree in the 1930s, how he must have labored with the same care P. and I do, with the same care Doc used to; imagine him testing the dusty puce figs for ripeness, checking them for nectar, gingerly plucking them from the tree, tasting one, two, three, bringing them in to his wife, the two of them eating them together, she later cooking with them some recipe that would remind them of their home across the world.
Because figs are special. They can survive the journey.
I imagine my grandparents, my great-grandparents eating figs—generations ago in Sicily and Calabria and Naples—as children from the tree, or in the same kind of preserves P. made that time, or baked in dough made by their mothers, or later, in homemade fig wine. I don’t know if they really ate figs like this, but whenever I’m at my fig tree, I feel closer to them in the imagining of it.
I am building memories out of figs.
And I am also building thankfulness out of them. For everyday, as I stand, enclosed by the prolific branches and leaves and fruit, I thank God from the center of my being for creating the fig tree’s plenty; for creating fruit, for creating figs. Thank God for my bowls filled, brimming with fruit, and the fact that it was grown, in my soil, loved by mine and P.’s hands.
I think of the water washing away the farms in Pakistan, washing away families’ livelihoods with it. I think of how they may miss the planting for next year, how they will not have plenty, they will not know fullness, they will only know scarcity, need. I think of all this, my heart heavy, and protect each fig as if it were my last. I bake furiously as to not allow even one fig to perish, and when I find that several forgotten ones have grown a layer of fur approximating that of a young mouse, I am disappointed in myself.
I am learning to be less of a consumer, and more of a creator, conserver. I have made a promise to myself that I will not buy a penny’s worth of anything I do not need, at least for the 30 days of Ramadan, and if I can extend this fast from buying further, I will. Short of food, I do not need anything, really.
I have begun taking cold showers, and have been relishing them. I feel the coolness running down my extremely mosquito-bitten legs and feel relief. I think about the fact that I have running water every day, more plenty that I enjoy without having done anything to achieve it. I see the power of our fig tree—we created whatever we consume there, or, at least, revived it. (I fancy us just one generation in its long, long life.) I see the power in not just taking in this world—I don’t want to be a taker, and my fig tree reminds me of that each and every day. There are ways to give.
At my aunt’s house, having just broken fast, I watch my family eating the fig cake I made. I am thankful for that moment, too.