First fig: ‘every fruit has its secret’
Somewhere in the Bible there’s talk of ‘a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills; land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of oil olive, and honey; a land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness’. Was there ever a more mouth-watering list of things delectable?
When we took over our allotment four years ago I was surprised to discover that one of the items from that biblical catalogue – the fig – could be cultivated in these northern climes. So, a year later, on land cleared of brambles and bindweed (surely some other biblical passage there?), I planted a Brown Turkey fig – and we settled down for a long wait.
Because you must wait at least three years before you can hope to get fruit from a freshly-planted fig. This week we have harvested our first two figs. Two figs! you might exclaim. So what? But these were figs that tasted as if they might have grown in the land of milk and honey: sun-warmed in this Indian summer, soft, succulent and sweet. Best of all, we had grown them in Dingle earth, and eaten them fresh from the branch.
Our first fig droops: ready to pick
Our Brown Turkey is regarded as the best variety of fig tree to go for. The fruit ripens in late August, and has the combination of reddish-brown skin, red flesh and sweet flavour that makes me swoon. The figs are ready to pick when the fruit droops on its stalk and the skin is well coloured. When the skin cracks open it is fully ripe – there may even be a drop of nectar.
Second fig: almost ready to pluck
Googling for figgy words with which to pad out this post, I discovered that the Old Testament verse about beating swords into ploughshares also dwells on figs – as a symbol of peace and security:
And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid
– Micah 4:4
It’s a vision of peace that is a reminder that the words were written in a time when most people lived by cultivating the land, and all they wanted after toiling all day was to be able to sit under their own fig tree without harassment from men waving spears and swords. It’s a vision, too, that all those with an allotment will recognise.
The Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple
There must be something about figs. According to legend, it was while seated beneath a fig, or a close relative, the Bodhi tree, Gautama Siddhartha (aka the Buddha) received the enlightenment which gave birth to a new religion. The Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India is believed to be a direct descendant of the sacred fig tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.
A Dingle Vale allotment yields up its riches: from plot to plate
The fig varieties grown in Britain (like our Brown Turkey) develop fruit develop without flowers or the need for pollination. That’s helpful, since we don’t have any fig wasps here to do the pollinating. Because the remarkable thing about figs is that the flowers are inside the fruitlets that develop like little buds on the stems. Elsewhere in the world, the flowers inside the fruitlets must be pollinated by a female fig wasp (a creature that lives for only two days) which must enter the fruitlet via a tiny opening at its apex. The female wasp then proceeds to pollinate the stigmas of the fig before exiting the fig in search of other young receptive figs to complete the cycle. Once the fig wasp has left the fig, it ripens.
I mention all this botanical detail because there’s a lubricious poem about figs by DH Lawrence, from his collection Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, published in 1924, that has at its heart a couplet that reveals Lawrence’s knowledge of the fig tree’s strange botany: ‘There was a flower that flowered inward, womb-ward/Now there is a fruit like a ripe womb’.
In terms of today’s gender politics, Lawrence’s poem might raise eyebrows. He represents the fig as a bearer of female mystery. But in the current age, as women assert themselves, he appears to say, the mystery of females is being destroyed: ‘the bursten fig’ is a ripe fig, and ‘ripe figs won’t keep’. Nonsense, of course, but this was a man who raged in verse and in prose against censorship and prurient attitudes toward sexuality, who was steadfastly anti-pornographic and who wrote passionately about nature and human experience. WH Auden once commented on Lawrence’s poetry: ‘Whenever he…describes the anonymous life of stones, waters, forests, animals, flowers, chance travelling companions or passers-by, his bad temper and his dogmatism immediately vanish and he becomes the most enchanting companion imaginable, tender, intelligent, funny, and above all, happy.’
The ‘Fruits’ section of Lawrence’s collection is all about eating fruit and being changed by its sensual properties. In the case of the fig, its suggestively dangling fruit holds a mystery that can’t be understood intellectually, only experienced with the senses. Whatever else you might feel about the poem, ‘Fig’ certainly does that:
The proper way to eat a fig, in society,
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.
Then you throw away the skin
Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,
After you have taken off the blossom, with your lips.
But the vulgar way
Is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.
Every fruit has its secret.
The fig is a very secretive fruit.
As you see it standing growing, you feel at once it is symbolic :
And it seems male.
But when you come to know it better, you agree with the Romans, it is female.
The Italians vulgarly say, it stands for the female part ; the fig-fruit :
The fissure, the yoni,
The wonderful moist conductivity towards the centre.
The flowering all inward and womb-fibrilled ;
And but one orifice.
The fig, the horse-shoe, the squash-blossom.
There was a flower that flowered inward, womb-ward ;
Now there is a fruit like a ripe womb.
It was always a secret.
That’s how it should be, the female should always be secret.
There never was any standing aloft and unfolded on a bough
Like other flowers, in a revelation of petals ;
Silver-pink peach, venetian green glass of medlars and sorb-apples,
Shallow wine-cups on short, bulging stems
Openly pledging heaven :
Here’s to the thorn in flower ! Here is to Utterance !
The brave, adventurous rosaceæ.
Folded upon itself, and secret unutterable,
And milky-sapped, sap that curdles milk and makes ricotta,
Sap that smells strange on your fingers, that even goats won’t taste it ;
Folded upon itself, enclosed like any Mohammedan woman,
Its nakedness all within-walls, its flowering forever unseen,
One small way of access only, and this close-curtained from the light ;
Fig, fruit of the female mystery, covert and inward,
Mediterranean fruit, with your covert nakedness,
Where everything happens invisible, flowering and fertilization, and fruiting
In the inwardness of your you, that eye will never see
Till it’s finished, and you’re over-ripe, and you burst to give up your ghost.
Till the drop of ripeness exudes,
And the year is over.
And then the fig has kept her secret long enough.
So it explodes, and you see through the fissure the scarlet.
And the fig is finished, the year is over.
That’s how the fig dies, showing her crimson through the purple slit
Like a wound, the exposure of her secret, on the open day.
Like a prostitute, the bursten fig, making a show of her secret.
That’s how women die too.
The year is fallen over-ripe,
The year of our women.
The year of our women is fallen over-ripe.
The secret is laid bare.
And rottenness soon sets in.
The year of our women is fallen over-ripe.
When Eve once knew in her mind that she was naked
She quickly sewed fig-leaves, and sewed the same for the man.
She’d been naked all her days before,
But till then, till that apple of knowledge, she hadn’t had the fact on her mind.
She got the fact on her mind, and quickly sewed fig-leaves.
And women have been sewing ever since.
But now they stitch to adorn the bursten fig, not to cover it.
They have their nakedness more than ever on their mind,
And they won’t let us forget it.
Now, the secret
Becomes an affirmation through moist, scarlet lips
That laugh at the Lord’s indignation.
What then, good Lord ! cry the women.
We have kept our secret long enough.
We are a ripe fig.
Let us burst into affirmation.
They forget, ripe figs won’t keep.
Ripe figs won’t keep.
Honey-white figs of the north, black figs with scarlet inside, of the south.
Ripe figs won’t keep, won’t keep in any clime.
What then, when women the world over have all bursten into affirmation?
And bursten figs won’t keep?
Matisse, Fig Leaves, 1948
Finally, I had to include Matisse, having written about him yesterday. In 1947 , he wrote about some fig leaves that he was drawing, saying how he was searching for the qualities that made them ‘almost unmistakably fig leaves’. He did not want to record exact copies of particular leaves. Instead, Matisse said, he worked to find the ‘common quality’ that united things despite their visible differences. He wrote of searching for an ‘inherent truth’ about the fig leaves.
Julian Merrow-Smith, ‘Still life with figs and grey bowl’