Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The fig tree

When I was a kid, our "next-door" neighbor (meaning the one who lived closest to us, about 1/4 of a mile away) had a huge orchard. I may or may not have written before about how he used to mow said orchard nekkid, wearing only boots. Anyhow, this guy was a gardener/landscaper by trade and he had an amazing array of plants and trees.

It was really quite awesome that I was allowed to sort of go wherever I wanted within a reasonable distance of our house: around the big field, into the forest beyond, up to the little hill with the creek nearby, or to play in the orchard. It was full of trees: apple, plum, orange, walnut. And there were two enormous fig trees, one that produced a purple variety and one that made green.

The green fig tree was my home away from home when I was a kid. I played in it. I built a fort there. My friends who were part of our babysitting co-op and I played GIJoe there; my sister and I climbed the tree; my cousin and I ate fig after fig after fig. We shared them with the birds, and had to look out before eating a particularly ripe fig to make sure there was no bird poop on it. The tree was gigantic; maybe the oldest and/or biggest in the area. The branches stretched out and then down to the ground, especially heavy during fruit season. This meant that there was the perfect hiding space for a few kids to play and plot and imagine.

One time, when I was maybe 7 or 8, I threw a gigantic tantrum about something and "ran away" from home. This would perhaps have worked better had we lived less than five miles from the nearest town, and even town was pretty wee. So where did I go for those two hours until I ran out of steam and deigned to come home? The fig tree, of course!

We moved away in the summer of 1989, but our neighbor still lived in his old place. The land both of our houses stood on (a cattle ranch, as I think I've mentioned) was sold to a different owner a couple of years later. For some reason, we ended up going up to the old place when I was in eighth grade, so it would have been 1991 or early 1992. I was looking forward to visiting the fig tree, as it was such a huge part of my childhood.

The house where we had lived had been gutted; all the walls removed. We peeked in the windows and saw the different floorings for the kitchen, the kids' bedroom, my parents' room. Everything looked so small. This upset me, to think that this place that had been my home was reduced to four outer walls. Then, things got more upsetting: the enormous green fig tree was dead.

Our old neighbor told us what had happened: the fig tree was so big and heavy that, despite being over 100 miles to the south, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake had caused it to split in half. The tree couldn't recover from a complete split, and died soon afterward. It was then that I really knew that you can't go home again, and things from your childhood are never the same once you grow up. Even though I was probably only 12 or 13 at the time, I felt ancient.

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