Originally published Aug. 1, 1990, this piece is a favourite of the first Facts & Arguments editor Philip Jackman: "To me, this was the first classic Facts & Arguments essay as we have come to know it. It was a moving personal portrait of the author's immigrant Italian father and his cherished fig tree, which had been brought to Canada as a sapling from the Calabrian hills. It is a poignant reflection on new beginnings, nurturing your old roots, the passages of life and the inevitable passage of time."
In my father's backyard, in the heart of what used to be Little Italy but is fast becoming yet another enclave of Toronto yuppydom, there is a fig tree. As fig trees go, it is a scraggly little thing with a kind of forlorn theatricality that would make it a suitable stage piece for Beckett's Waiting for Godot. But when you consider that the species was not meant by its creator to live north of, say, the 35th parallel, its paltry appearance is a sign of its endurance, and like Beckett's tramps, the little tree seems go on with a kind of hope-against-hope response to its absurd position in a climate that is, to put it mildly, hardly conducive to its health.
I like to think of it as a conscious display of the desire to survive against overwhelming odds, if only to reward my father's obsessive care, sustained by his soul's need to surround itself with a vestige from the Garden of Eden of his youth in the Calabrian hills.
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Brought here from Southern Italy as a young sapling, the fig tree, like its immigrant caretaker, survived the violent uprooting and thrives in its new home, a large wooden half-barrel, of the kind that is used by wine makers. To prevent its freezing to death, it has spent the past three winters buried under four inches of soil.
Shortly after Victoria day my father unearthes it and within days, like the Phoenix of the storytellers, it is magically reborn, its leaves luxuriating in the northern sun; the Mediterranean homeland but a distant memory, an indelible genetic imprint. It's as though my father and the little tree have agreed upon an ecological covenant and both struggle to live up to its terms, practical concerns being merely secondary to the tree's great symbolic value as messenger across time and geography.
It's a tough bargain for the little tree to live up to, but it seems to have managed bravely for the past four years. This summer it bore an appropriately abundant crop of figs, about a baker's dozen. My father was thrilled and understands this to be nothing short of a renewable miraculous event; for him clear evidence of the providential bursting forth of the Great Chain of Being (my words, his reality).
For his part, he tends to the tree's needs, checking the soil moisture, the lustre on its large three-pronged drooping leaves, turning each one over to check for parasites in a daily ritual that never fails to light up his whole face. In their silent dialogue, my father and his tree speak of a distant homeland, a world disrupted by large-scale emigration, a pre- industrial, agricultural time in which the movement of the sun and moon in the sky and the ebb and flow of the seasons set clear parameters for the life of the senses and the soul.
At a recent Sunday brunch my father wanted to share the crop with his grandchildren. And so, consummate storyteller that he is, he told a tale about the joy of Calabrian children in the early summer when they are abundantly rewarded by the first crop of delicious figs. A joy that cannot ever be matched, he says, by a sort hop to the local Miracle mart just beyond Euclid Ave. My children loved the story but didn't care much for the figs. After all, they did not come wrapped in glitzy foil with surprise stickers of Dick Tracy stuffed in them. My father smiled his sad smile and made his usual comment about the modern world having lost the sense of the miraculous.
In downtown Toronto figs are becoming available almost year-round, as are other exotic fruits, in markets that bear little relationship to the cycle of the seasons. In the consumer utopia of post-agricultural Toronto, seasonal restraint on cravings of any sort is seen as a limitation on personal freedom. Yuppie children, mine among them, do not have to wait for the arrival of summer to titillate their palates with the exotic sensuality of figs.
But if a delicacy is available year-round and within easy reach of the local supermarket (now, even on Sundays), is it still a delicacy? My father, citing such ancient wisdom as life's blessings being more enjoyable when they are "the fruit of thy labor" doesn't think so. But then, unlike his Canadian grandchildren, he does not crave instant gratification, and is happy to live within the cycle of nature. And although his figs are as scrawny as the tree that bears them, to him they definitely do taste better than the ones from the local supermarket. They are a true delicacy, and the fruit of his labor. In any case, they speak in a silent language of a time in which soul and landscape, man and tree lived together in the same mythical dwelling with no consumer utopia to act as mediator between them.
As a child growing up in the Calabrian hills I too remember the miraculous taste of figs ripened on my favorite tree. The scraggly relative making its home in my father's backyard pales in comparison, but its symbolic value is far greater. My father's ecological covenant with the fig tree conceals in its core the kernel of a social contract with my children. And although they do not now realize it, the memory of their grandfather's little tree will one day be central to their own dialogue with a part of themselves that yearns to live in harmony with the movement of the sun and the moon, and the eternal recurrence of the seasons.
As the northern winds will portend the onset of winter my father will once again bury the fig tree. Then he will wait. Spring will return, as it must, and his silent dialogue with a distant homeland, a place and time that are no more, will start again.
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