the fig tree

fig tree with sleeping gnome

The last few months have been very difficult, and I wasn’t planning on planting a garden this year. Since I avoided the garden, I didn’t notice that the fig tree wasn’t coming back to life. It wasn’t until a neighbor said “I think your fig tree died” that I thought about it.

Every year, for almost 16 years, the fig tree had come back to life after winter. And every year, it grew bigger and stronger. It got to a point where I could no longer wrap it during the winter, and I would worry that the weather was too severe for it to survive. New York isn’t the ideal climate for fig trees, but the tree had grown, and had grown strong. I thought we lost it a few years ago, but it came back with a force that seemed to double it’s size.

The tree was a hybrid of two cuttings – one from my friend’s father’s glorious fig tree and one from a local nursery. The placenta from each of my pregnancies had nourished the root. It sat in the corner of my garden, and in truth, it had taken up most of the spot. I had to extend the garden along the fence, because there was no more room in the original garden to plant vegetables and herbs that needed full sun. But I didn’t mind. I loved the fig tree. In it’s shade, I could still plant things that would grow.

The fig tree was the pride of my garden. Every year, I anticipated it’s arrival. Every year, I loved watching it come back to life. People who visited in late summer would leave with a bounty of figs, and there was still enough for all the birds and squirrels. We had families of birds living in the backyard in nests and various birdhouses, some who hung out all day among the branches, singing, and many species who came from far and wide to feast on the fruit.

So this year, when my neighbor told me that he thought the fig tree died, I was upset at the prospect that it really died, but I was also upset that I was so wrapped up in my problems, I had neglected to notice it.

I went into the garden and surveyed the tree. There were shoots at the bottom, new growth. The fig tree had not died completely. But all of the branches, even the strongest limbs, were dead wood. I took a deep breath and went back into the house, changed my clothes, found my saw and a lopper, got a drink of water, and went back outside.

It was hot. The sun beat down as I circled the tree, cutting off each branch and limb carefully, methodically, one by one, down at the base, and then watched, sometimes guided, each one as they fell. Some of the limbs were over 10 ft tall. The air around me began to smell like over-ripe peaches, and it actually became so overwhelming, I wondered where the scent was coming from. Then I realized it was the sawdust and cut wood from the fig tree.

I was sweating, soaked in sweat; my shirt was sticking to me, and drops fell from my skin like tears, burning my eyes. I was thinking of everything. I was thinking of nothing. I wanted to stop. I did not stop. I kept sawing. For a second I wondered if I was crying and didn’t know it, and then I thought that it was as if my entire being was crying, gushing through my skin. I was kneeling on the earth, covered in dirt, taking care of the dead, preparing the way for new life.

When I was done, I stood up. All around me were felled branches and limbs, splayed out in a grotesque circle. My neighbor called out in passing, “that’s a lot of work!” and I muttered back, “it feels like a massacre.”

Then I began the work of chopping each one into a manageable length, sawing first in pieces along the trunk, then lopping each network at the top, organizing them into piles and bundles, to be disposed of and recycled later. By the time I finished completely, hours had passed, and I was numb. I stood and looked at what remained. At the base of the fig tree stood more new growth than I had thought, strong growth, reaching almost 2 ft. The garden gnome on a stake who used to be at the bottom of the tree is now almost at the top. The gnome is climbing up the stake and he has his hand to his mouth, as if he is whispering to the plants beside him, “grow, grow.” And when I saw that, I couldn’t help but smile.

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