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R.I.P., tree!

July 24, 2002

 

A chainsaw's bloodthirsty, horror-film roar takes over the pleasant quiet of a sunny Sunday morning.

 

It could be the sound of a hedge trimmer or a leaf blower; they all have a similar menacing scream, don't they? But since the new owners of the house next door came to live outside my office window, I know it can only be a chainsaw. And I know they're continuing, with greater muscle and gumption than ever, to massacre the fig tree I once loved. I assure you I'm no hippie nature-girl defender of trees. It's just this one tree I loved, a three-armed sentinel of summer and bringer of delicious, sweet goodies which it delivered with grace directly into my open arms.

 

Only a year after I fell in love with it, it was taken from this world by people who have no relationship with it at all, except to be the ones who clean up after it. It inconveniences them, and so as we humans often do with such things, it is given the heave-ho.

 

The previous owners of that house, whose back yard abuts most of the east side of my second-story flat, stretched a hammock the color of an August sky from one strong limb of the fig tree to the avocado tree next to it. There someone would sway on summer afternoons while the resident dog, Wave, stood patiently wagging his tail. The fig tree leant elegantly along the plum-colored clapboards of my building, while the avocado tree, which never has produced a single avocado, stands nearer the house of its owner, providing shade to their back porch.
 

For four years that fig tree was a massive presence outside the windows of two entire rooms of my flat, the office and the bathroom, tapping on the glass during rainstorms and filtering the morning sunlight in slow-motion, sparkling flashes.

 

The presence of this tree came to my awareness slowly over several years. At first, it was just the thing with the leaves outside the office and bathroom windows. My first grateful acknowledgment came while sitting on the toilet. Looking straight ahead from that position to the largish window high on the facing wall, I was relieved (so to speak) to see that a number of other windows facing into our bathroom had the broad, dark, leathery leaves of the fig tree between us. At night, those same leaves scraping the glass could be a little scary; but it was worth the creepy taps and skreeks on a windy night now and again for the daily privacy I had while doing my business.

 

In the parlour adjacent to the bathroom, Ash and I set up our computers on desks to form an office where we could both work, before either of us found real jobs. Many mornings turned to afternoon and then evening as we sat at our respective desks together in that room, working on our projects. Ashley's desk is positioned with the six-foot-high window to his side, while mine faces it. Each morning the sun shines right through the window into the office, and during different times of the year the dappled sun dances on his desk or mine. Computers, of course, should not sit in direct sunlight; so the fig tree's second blessing came to us in its filtering of the morning sun, shielding my eyes and all of our computers. The purplish-black figs, like horrible bruised testicles, dangled unappealingly among its leaves, and were ignored by us completely back then.

 

Working at my computer one spring day, I noticed more and more racket coming from the fig tree. I stopped typing and looked up through the window. As the figs were ripening, flocks of birds were coming to feast on them, leaping around from branch to branch and squawking merrily. Through the dark leaves, I saw little figures moving, heads rising and falling, tails twitching. I got up from my desk and slowly moved towards the window to observe them more closely, hoping not to scare them off. Urban neighborhoods like this don't get a lot of wildlife beyond pigeons and feral cats, so I was curious to see what kind of birds these were. Round and brown, they reminded me of the mockingbirds I miss so much from Southern California, but fatter; and their noisy chatter was nothing like the repetitive phrases of a mockingbird's song.

 

I edged up to the glass, and the nearest bird cocked an eye at me, pausing for a moment, then went back to work on its fig. He pecked it off its stem, then clutching a leathery edge in his beak, shook his head mightily until the fig finally tore open. Then the bird stood one black-clawed foot on the fig against a branch, and ate all he wanted of the wet, bright pink center. Chunks and splatters of fig innards flew every direction, splattering the glass between us. Now I understood where all that dried brown goo, which constantly speckled the glass, came from! And so I came to love the feasting birds who came to interrupt my work, flitting and chattering and stuffing their faces like bejeweled matrons plucking gorgeous hors d'oeuvres off cocktail platters.

 

I don't remember what made me pick one of those ugly things and eat it, but I did finally try a fig. I guess after watching the birds eat them with so much obvious gusto, I figured, If they like them so much, maybe I should try one. I threw open the office window and reached out for one of the dark, plump figs which wasn't already partially ravaged by an indecisive bird spoilt for choice. It was then that I noticed, looking down at the leaf- and fruit-strewn yard below, what a messy tree it was. The birds dropped a lot of half-eaten figs; and the tree dropped what was left in the winter after the end of its cycle. By January it had no leaves left either, so the entire tree's contents ended up, year after year, in heaps at its own feet.

 

I took the fruit into the kitchen and washed it off, then stuck it between my teeth, biting suspiciously. The leathery skin was unresponsive to biting, so I looked at it again. The short stem on top of the teardrop-shaped body looked sturdy enough, so I grabbed it and pulled down, using my thumbnail at the same time to split the skin open below. Sure enough, the black peel unfolded to reveal its seedy, wound-like interior. I turned the whole thing inside-out, and started biting the juicy, warm flesh off the skin. It was so unlike anything I had ever eaten! It was pure, soft sweetness. The texture was at once slimy and a little crunchy from the small, brittle seeds, a little like a kiwi but without a hint of sourness, and sort of... warmer, less juicy. I was completely in love.

 

The rest of that summer and fall, I could be found standing on the cool marble bathroom sinktop, leaning precariously out the window for figs. I watched as each fig ripened, cursing the birds that got to any within grasp before I deemed it ready to pluck. Though I still enjoyed their visits to my office, the birds had become my competition. Their recklessness in pecking partial holes in the figs, or knocking uneaten, ripe figs to the ground below, tormented me to no end. They could always eat the figs off the ground, while I was limited only to those within reach of my windows. I ate all the figs I could until the season ended. During this time, the house whose yard the fig tree grew in had been sold, and the new owners had moved in.

 

One day that following winter, I was sitting at my desk working when I heard a sawing noise downstairs, outside the office window. For some reason, every occupant of that house over the last five years had been an ardent builder of some sort, usually favoring early morning hours for heavy construction. Sawing sounds were nothing new. On this day, I remember the sawing had gone on for a long enough time to have drifted to the back of my skull and become a sort of gentle urban rhythm to which all other sounds played. The lullaby was interrupted suddenly with a crash, followed by crunching, scraping noises against the side of the house.

 

My eyes bolted up from my work to see what appeared to be the entire world outside my window, anchored surely to the base of the fig tree attached to it, keeling over. I ran to the window and saw with relief that the world hadn't tipped over, just the fig tree. New sadness washed over me at that realization, though, as I watched a young man wrestle with the tree which had fallen against the side of our house, narrowly missing crashing through the windows. I threw open the window and craned my head out to see the side of the house.

 

"Sorry," the young man called up to me casually. I asked him why he was cutting down the tree.

 

"It's such a mess!", he frowned. "Besides," he continued, "I prefer that tree," he said, motioning to a small, bushy laurel which the previous owner had planted in the middle of the yard. "I wish it were over here instead of this one," he said pointing with the saw to the severed trunk of the fig tree.

 

After cutting it down to its stubby trunk, the man left the fig tree alone for a couple of months. During that time, it optimistically sprouted loads of bright green shoots out the top of the trunk, where its fruit-laden limbs once reached out over the whole yard. Now I saw how much light the tree had blocked in not just the bathroom and office, but in the bedroom as well; for all these rooms were suddenly roaring with sunlight each morning. I couldn't sleep past 9am, when great shafts of sunlight poured through the curtains; before, the gentle dappled light used to wait for me to open my eyes to tell me it was time to get up. Now there were suddenly scores of windows outside my bedroom, though which prying eyes might be watching me at any moment, pinching my thigh in the mirror after a workout, or putting on makeup. The toilet was unguarded, and when exiting the shower I felt glad at least that the window was steamed up; for no leafy fig tree held up its arms to preserve my modesty. And nothing, certainly not the filmy, translucent curtains, protected the computers or my eyes from the morning sunlight. It became nearly impossible to use my computer before noon without my lovely figgy sun-screen. And I haven't heard a bird chirp in weeks... not a single one.
 

Then this morning came the chainsaw roaring to finish off the trunk. When it was all over, I padded to the office window, totally unprepared for the horror below. Now the trunk, with its new leafy sprouts, was lying in chunks on the ground. Next to that lay the dark fist of root ball, the still and unbeating heart of my fig tree, ripped out from its earthy chamber. Seeing this ugly organ lying there dead, previously hidden underground where it nourished the tree all its life, I gasped and put my hand to my chest. This really would be the end of the fig tree. In its place, only a surprisingly shallow hole in the dirt remained.

 

Requiem for a fig tree: Goodbye, and thanks for all the snacks. I appreciated the chatty birds you brought, and I'll have to find a way to live without your protection from sun and prying eyes. Maybe one day, a long time from now, the little bushy laurel tree will have its turn knocking on the windows of this house; but it will have no fruit to give. I'll have to get used to the idea of paying by the pound, down at the organic market, for someone else's figs.

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