The Wild Figs of Tsfat,
by Miriam Kresh
People like to say of Tsfat that it is "the town on top of the mountain". It's true that wherever you look, there are views of hills in the distance, melting into one another in layers of soft greens and browns. Earthquakes have destroyed the town twice, the last time about 100 years ago. Ruins of dwellings can still be seen in unexpected places, sprouting wild oats and flowers which peek out from the old arched windows, on lots bordering modern houses.
My friend Leonie took me to pick wild figs in such an abandoned ruin, last week. To get there, we trod on masses of golden dry oatstraw, following winding paths made by a herd of semi-feral cows which roam the outskirts of the town. Thistles and wild artichoke tore at our clothes as we advanced; those artichokes tower at seven or eight feet, and will run their needles into your flesh if you walk unwary. At 10:00 a.m., the time we arrived, the heat was intense; we were grateful for the cool water in the insulated bottle carriers.
It must have been the villa of a wealthy family, for judging by the stone outlines, the main house was very large. Vestiges of several stone outhouses, a watchtower and storage rooms also remain. The fig trees we picked were at about the level of the ancient roof. They are descendants of an orchard that was cultivated long ago, behind the house. Their fruit will have rolled downhill and, rotting, given its seeds to make the big trees. It was strange to speculate on the lives of the family and workers whose daily setting was this ground. In their busy existence, they wouldn't have stopped to speculate who might, one hundred years later, come casually reaping the harvest of their labors.
Figs are the very devil for tenacity. I've seen a fig tree rooted and flourishing in the roof of an old house, sucking up the moisture stored in the stones. It is almost impossible to uproot a fig; they are a gardener's bane.
Myself, I love a fig tree, especially on summer nights, when the cinnamon-like odor of the big, coarse leaves is released into the warm air. Cows obviously like to munch on the fruit they can reach, for under most trees you will find a cow patty - not objectionable if it's dried out, for then it only smells a bit like the cow itself.
So Leonie and I stood under the branches of the fig trees, searching for ripe fruit to bring home and preserve. At first, I picked only big, showy figs, disdaining the ones that seemed undersized. Later, I ate a tiny fig, no bigger than my thumbnail, and was pleasantly shocked at the sensation of sweetness and tartness of it in my mouth. Leonie, perched in a branch, said, "The closer to the tree, the sweeter the fruit." I am a tall woman, and so stood pulling the branches toward me to get at the figs growing high up, while nimble Leonie (who is three times a grandmother) clambered delicately in the recesses of the trees.
Becalmed by the heat and green shade; the odor of ripe figs and the sun-warmed leaves, and the beauty of the occasional fruit so ripe on the tree that it had split open, exposing its red heart in a star, I remembered Colette's description: "... the fig tree, the underside of whose every leaf is a wild beast's tongue..." Yes, the leaves have a soft bristle which provokes an allergic reaction on my exposed forearms. I leave it alone and don't scratch the skin; the itchiness and irritation go away by themselves after a while. Looking at those leaves, I can understand how Adam and Eve would have sewn them into the first clothes; they are sturdy and flexible, and their wide, hand-shaped form is beautiful.
The fruit seems to stretch out towards my hands, some just blushing a light purple streak, some dark purple already, and some a sour light green. I pick slowly, as if in a dream. The ripe fruit leaves the tree willingly, but the underripe resists, and leaks white sap onto my fingers. Leonie's voice comes muffled from a tree nearby: we are discussing our right to eat the fruit in terms of Jewish law. We do not separate tithes from fruit eaten in the field as we pick, but do we take tithes from the mass of fruit once we've taken it home? How can one separate spirituality from nature? Who would want to?
The trees are not as laden with fruit as we expected; probably Arab children have been here before us, filling up plastic boxes to sell in the open-air market. I am grateful to those who planted and tended the original orchard, and at peace with those who came before us to take of the abundance. Time slows down as I move the branches and stretch to pick, carefully placing my harvest in its bag. Everlasting heat, physical labor and sweat, the occasional fly to brush away, thirst followed by a drink of plain water... it's good to realize a morning's work done without the comfort I usually take for granted.
My mind is freed of routine small worries and plans as I concentrate on the work, existing for once purely in the present moment. I become ashamed of my usual thought's circular nature, and resolve to put aside time for meditation again. The blue morning, slowly getting hotter, the rustle of oatstraw underfoot as we move from tree to tree, the tiny spider on a leaf at eye level, then, glimpsed in the background between two cypresses, the hills which surround Tsfat - everything breathes a mysterious promise. What do you hold in store for me, summer landscape? Will my life unfold and come to its natural end under your benevolent skies, as the lives of those long-dead people whose fig trees we now harvest? I no longer plan very far ahead, for I know that subtle Time will change everything, whether I want or not.
Leonie and I left the stone ruins and the green shade of the fig trees, hot and sweaty and tired, and peaceful. When I got home and opened my bag of purple and green figs, the morning spent gathering them was there intact, in their fragrance and colors; a message only half-understood from Nature herself.