Tree Proud

By Randy Kennedy
New York, NY (June 1, 2008)- LIKE most good Americans, I grew up thinking that figs- or more accurately “fig,” as a non-discrete substance- was something made by man specifically to fill a soft rectangular cookie, probably manufactured in the same big Midwestern dessert mill that produced things like nougat and Twinkie filling and whatever sturdy white confection was used to make candy cigarettes.


So when my wife and I bought a house in Brooklyn eight years ago and the woman who sold it to us showed me her (soon to be our) beloved fig tree in the backyard, I had a moment of cognitive dissonance. Of course I knew fig trees existed. But I guess I assumed that they must have become largely ornamental by such a late date in human history. And that the little green bulbs on their branches – it was spring then – couldn’t possibly be edible, much less have any relationship with the inner contents of a Fig Newton.
The woman, Esther, told me that the tree was several decades old (I think she said 40 years, which in my retelling usually swelled to 60 or more, though an arborist later broke it to me that the tree was probably no older than 30).
And it seemed to me that the tree meant almost as much to her as the house, a narrow brownstone where her Italian-American family had lived more or less since the 1930s, once arrayed by generations among the four floors, one of the grandfathers stubbornly residing at the top. From up there, during his time, he undoubtedly would have been able to chart the comparative health of dozens of fig trees in the yards neighboring his, planted by people trying hard to smuggle a little dream of Neapolitan sweetness into a cold Northeastern climate.
When I inherited this dream, my fig frankly didn’t look like much of a tree, any more than the low, gnarled mesquites that passed for trees in the part of West Texas where I grew up. The tree sat on the eastern side of the yard and was then no taller than I am. It had either been judiciously pruned or whittled back by a succession of hard winters.
But it was August when we closed on the house, so the spindly branches were full of ripe brown figs. And it didn’t take long after eating a few right off the tree – honeylike and fragile, botanically not a fruit but an enclosed inflorescence, a flower wrapped up in itself – to understand why someone would try so hard to grow an essentially Mediterranean tree at such an unfriendly latitude.
When we moved to this part of Park Slope, near Fifth Avenue, you could still frequently see the battlements of the war between fig and frost erected by old tree owners in early winter. The trees were cut back and their branches were cinched up next to their trunks. Then the trunks were carefully wrapped, usually in burlap that was sheathed in black tar paper, the whole contraption crowned with a bucket so the snow couldn’t get inside. The result looked like a poor man’s scarecrow or décor for a Beckett play. My wrappings, which I executed dutifully the first two winters, looked more like a listing pile of trash left behind by a crew of roofers.
But they did the job. In spring, green shoots unfurled from the brown branch tips, extending up and out until their energy seemed to be sapped by the little figs that would start to punch out by June. (It’s never warm enough to make a spring crop; the fruit falls off before growing much bigger than marbles.)
As the tree has flourished, owning it has always felt like an outlandish urban luxury, akin to having my own motorboat or squash court. It fulfills so many of what I’ve slowly come to realize are my needs. Culinary, above all: grilled figs, fresh figs with my Cheerios, figs braised with rabbit and pork and duck, figs baked into pies and cakes, and bags of figs given away with a kingly magnanimity. This summer I’m finally going to learn how to make preserves, partly to try to quell the annual heartbreak that follows when we go away in late August and so many figs are lost, dropping to the ground, doing alarming things to the dog’s digestive tract.
For anyone with a literary or quasi-religious bent, few trees can provide the same satisfaction. Sitting in its shade in the late evening as the leaves lift slowly for the last sunshine, showing their pale underbellies, you notice – especially on a brown turkey fig, the kind I have – how perfectly the leaves are shaped for postlapsarian modesty, at least the male kind. You can imagine yourself in a line of fig lovers going back to Adam and Aesop and Siddhartha, at least until a cargo jet on approach to Kennedy rattles the windows and ruins the illusion.
Eight years after I first laid eyes on it, my tree looks much more like a tree now. A few summers ago, an evil pyracantha shrub that blocked some of its sunlight was sacrificed in its honor. Even with years of no winter wrapping, the fig has grown to more than a dozen feet, and I’ve had to cut back branches that invade the path leading to the back of the yard. Over the last few weeks, the tree has fully leafed out, almost hiding the old compact discs I’ve strung among the branches to glint and scare off the sparrows that come for the ripening figs, cruelly taking just a few bites and leaving the rest to rot.
More than anything else, the tree has become my timekeeper, the true gauge of summer. The season doesn’t really begin for me until I can see that deep, deep green from the kitchen window. It is at its height when the figs fully fit the Spanish proverb, wearing “the cloak of a beggar and the eye of a widow.” (The skin grows dark brown and wrinkled when ripe; the little red oculus on the bottom of the fig opens and starts to weep juice.)
And when I find that last lone fig and pull it from the tree sometime in late September, I know the sweet season has come to an end once again.
Related Resources:
New York Times- Tree Proud