It was a few years ago that I read God’s Secretaries, Adam Nicolson’s excellent book on the making of the King James bible. That a bunch of old scholarly guys got together and, by committee and at the behest of the king, came up with such an elegant contribution to our literature is amazing to me. My experience with committees is that they work more in the denaturing line, and it’s hard to imagine that the behest of the king improves the process.
That beautiful and incisive translation has given us a host of expressions that have become part of our idiom. There’s the eye for the eye, the cup that runneth over, the pearls before the swine, and also some that hit much closer to home. Like biting the dust, and being at your wit’s end, and getting through by the skin of your teeth.
While it doesn’t hold a candle to the King James bible, agriculture has also given us expressions that have entered the language. We all of us, farmers and laity, know what it means to make hay while the sun shines, or what a tough row to hoe is. Kevin and I have personal experience with how ducks take to water, and why it’s unwise to count your chickens before they hatch.
Growing food is so painfully literal. In farming, things like seeding, cultivating, and reaping involve metal tools, internal combustion engines, and back-breaking labor. In, say, marketing, they involve white papers, executive retreats, and Powerpoint presentations.
Sometimes I miss marketing.
Today, one particular word is hitting home, and that word is ‘fruitless.’
I have long experience with figurative fruitlessness, and I know how disheartening it can be. Literal fruitlessness, though, is newer to me, which is perhaps why I feel it so keenly.
I suppose, since I’ve had four years of this already, it isn’t that new. I’ve had blackberry and raspberry that give new meaning to unyielding, and a high-bush blueberry that feeds only birds. I’ve had a peach tree die before it sent out root one, and I’ve come up empty in my search for wild grapes. I’ve taken it all, if not in good part, at least without despair.
But my figs. My figs are breaking my heart.
Back in July, I was filled with hope. Our fig tree had set at least 150 figs, and it looked as healthy as a tree can look. The leaves were big and undamaged, the trunk stout. The figs, which ranged in size from hazelnut to walnut, were firm and green. Kevin and I wanted to ensure that birds and varmints wouldn’t get them before we did, so we covered the tree with a net.
All of you gardeners out there should know that covering something with a net freezes it in time. From that day to this, there has not been one iota of change. The leaves are still big and undamaged, the trunk still stout. The figs are the same size, the same shape, and the same bright shade of green. “Unripe Fig” would be the name of the color if Benjamin Moore ever got hold of it.
I am convinced that up in some attic somewhere is the Fig Tree of Dorian Gray, with soft, brown, fully ripe fruit.
Now that temperatures are dropping and the days are shortening, I harbor very little hope that my figs will ripen. Kevin still waters it and fertilizes it, and, if fruit can be coaxed out of that tree, he will do it. But, as a hedge against disappointment, I am resigning myself to fruitlessness.
When we went into this we knew that, given our climate, figs would be a tough row to hoe, and even when I saw those little green figs I didn’t count my chickens. Although there’s some hope that, by the skin of our teeth, we’ll eke out a small harvest before winter, it’s much more likely that this year’s crop will bite the dust.