Monday, September 05, 2005

Figs and me

cut ripe figs
cut ripe figs
green fig
cut ripe figs

Sitting outside earlier today, not far from the little fig tree laden with hard green little fruits, close enough to smell the sun-induced smell of the leaves, it seemed such a sad waste that its position, not sheltered enough to make the best of the infrequent doses of weak English sun, would never result in the dark, sensuous globes of delicious fig flesh that you find in the Mediterranean and in South Africa. Some English fig trees, given the right position, do justice to their species and produce sweet, succulent fruits but this tree is destined to continue producing hard fruits that never ripen but eventually drop off, still hard and still begging for moisture.

This tree will never produce the fruits referred to in "Figs", the poem by DH Lawrence:

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.

A week ago, thinking that there could be a way of not watching the fruit go to waste, I suggested to L that we pick some of the fruit and make green fig preserve. We looked for the biggest, those with a hint of softness, and picked them. Lots of them. But the tree is still laden with unpicked fruit.

The sticky milk spilled over our hands, the promise of moisture within. I cut one open.

Hard, creamy, white flesh, just the barest hint of the succulent fibres that Lawrence referred to as ‘The flowering all inward and womb-fibrilled’. Iknew that L wouldn't, so I bit into it - the taste was clinical, tinged with the slightest hint of sweetness. There was no point in making anything with these. We put them out on the window sill to see if a few days in the sun would improve the taste and texture.

I checked them today – they've softened but the skins are burnt, the taste is wrong and the texture odd. I’ll throw them away in a few day’s time or just hope that the birds will find some use for them.

We used to have a fig tree in Cape Town. It was huge, gnarled and, in summer, its canopy of leaves spread out like a vast umbrella. It too, produced fruits that were inedible. One night it toppled over and lay on the lawn for days, not a sign of wilting leaves, before I called in a tree surgeon to see if there was a way of saving it. A few quick cuts into its bark and he pronounced it rotten to the core, riddled with disease. There was no point in trying to save it. The disease explained why the fruit had always been inedible. ‘If you want, I can get it removed for you – it’ll not cost much.

It may not have produced edible fruit since we'd moved there but it was a beautiful specimen, its going would leave a gaping wound in the garden. It had, after all, been there for over 60 years. It would be missed, sorely so! No, I wasn’t going to let someone else chop it up. I'd do it.

I hired a chainsaw for the weekend.
Texas Chain Saw Massacre, directed by Tobe Hooper, 1974

While it was very sad to have to see the fig tree go, I looked forward to wielding a saw. I'd never used one before. If it were true that I have fantasies about men wielding loud, throbbing bits of machinery you could say that I was projecting myself into one of my fantasies. But, that would be untrue. I do, however, have fond memories of being scared shitless by "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and this would be the closest I’d ever get to running riot with a chainsaw.

Saturday was very hot and sunny. I wore shorts and a T-shirt and slapped liberal dollops of suncream all over my skin. I took to using the chainsaw with ease, its power and noise were incredible, slicing into the wood like butter, dashing the hopes of afternoon naps for the neighbours. It took several hours to cut the tree into manageable, moveable portions. By the end of the afternoon, I was very hot and sweaty and my hands and feet were caked with sawdust. Another hour or so was spent on Sunday, cutting up some of the larger branches into smaller pieces and stacking the wood up against the fence.

My skin looked very red that evening. I'd noticed some redness on Saturday but the first signs of swelling only became obvioius on Sunday evening by which time parts of my body were livid and painful to look at. On Monday morning, there was more inflammation and my hands and feet were beginning to look blistered. I went to the doctor.

‘You have a really bad case of sunburn here’” he said.

'Well, duh!' I thought, 'tell me something I don't know.'

‘I know that you say you used suncream but the sap and sawdust probably got rid of it as the day wore on.” He prescribed some cream and some painkillers and asked me to return within a few days.

By that evening, the blisters were covering the entire area of the backs of my hands and feet. Smaller blisters could be seen all over my arms and legs. The pain was excruciating. It was worse the next day and my feet, in particular, were grossly swollen, the blisters bursting with fluid. I had to keep my feet up to alleviate the pain and was completely incapable of walking. To get anywhere, I had to lower myself gingerly to the floor then ‘walk’ on all fours with my arse near the ground, my face facing upwards.

I just couldn’t believe that this was merely a case of bad sunburn. Despite being very fair and having had basal cell carcinomas removed from my face previously, this extreme reaction was just that – extreme!

So, I went on to the internet.

It didn’t take long for me to find out that I was suffering from contact phototoxic photosensitisation. Not everyone gets this from figs but it’s not that uncommon. Other plants such as parsley, carrots, dill, celery and mustard can produce similar reactions. The Egyptians even used this reaction to darken light areas of the skin since recovery can produce hyperpigmentation of the affected area.

I told the doctor about what I’d discovered when I saw him a few days later. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I never knew about that.’ So much for 'trust me, I'm a doctor!'Well, even had he known, there was nothing he could have done for me other than prescribe the same things he’d already prescribed.

Was there a point to all this or is there a moral to the story? No, of course not. I still love figs, I think they're beautiful and I think that the Romans and DH Lawrence were right when they compared a ripe fig with the sensuousness of a woman. But, at the risk of being accused of making analogies where they really don't exist, perhaps my fig-induced burns were a subconscious re-inforcement of my not really wanting to have to much to do with a woman's sensuousness.

That's just silly, right?


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