(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 35)
By Jack Phillips
Thirty-eight years and six weeks ago I sat under a fig tree and gorged myself. The figs ripened in their own good time but too slowly for those who walked by them every day. It was the only tree on that hill and the only native shade. Always tired eyes and feet, long days working dirt we loved so much our little tree. Native to the Negev and Sinai and Sahara just beyond she seemed to love us too on that gorging morning.
She was Asherah, Canaanite Mother Goddess. A few weeks before just meters away we had excavated a small figurine full of curve and bosom, fig-like in aspect and weight. A ripe fig is a milk-stretched skin, an asherah of honey and sun. As long as wild figs grow she will flow with sticky milk and the blessings of excess. Having survived intestinal storms of biblical proportions, we left for Egypt a few days later.
The ink was still wet on the treaty that opened the border. After a sandstorm journey and finally by the Nile we took refuge under the goddess once again, Isis locally known, deified fig tree with hieroglyphic wildlings and pharaonic halflings gathered round for nectars dispensed from stony fingers. Tombs give repose to the here and gone; wild half-gods of dune and delta parade in lithic figures with tree of life presiding.
So long ago and wildness still my longing, again today we climb our Pawnee hill on the river. Wet around sixty under clearing sky and Kickatuus pantheon we follow a local impulse as old or older than Levantine asherahs or anyway older than anyone knows. It seems these plums will never ripen until one day they do like a desert fig but these are not the pommes we seek. I recline under goddess arms to eat a bur oak-nut just as sweet to me and now I read Thoreau.
He complained or rather rejoiced that an acorn eaten indoors is not as sweet: is not the outdoor appetite the one to be prayed for? The bitterness for which oaks are known tempers my impulses but here is a lovely mother feeding her children: curculio weevils and hairstreak butterflies and all manner of nymphs and nestlings, cryptogamic slicks and slimes, secretive beasts and lately-come seekers with eyes on the bounty and mouths to the mast.
And like those nourished by sacred trees and even for forest atheists suckled no less by the tree of life, we are planters not eaters only. In crop and jowl and fingers we bear them, bury the ova of oak not eaten, the seeds of mornings ever new. Carefully slip the involucre to reveal the orb inside the cap and the galaxy of pores. Crack the pericarp, deftly remove the shell, nibble the nut to avoid the weevil maggots with whom you share your wild desires.
If rich and sticky, no matter if happy on the tongue or wincing, savoring or quickly spit into the bittersweet twining there, eat just one more, fill your pockets, and leave the rest to earthy circles. Plant them where the canopy breaks sunny, sacred to remain as long as oaks are feeding local haunts and hungers and native worlds to come.
*Photos by Troy Soderberg and Robert Smith (top left, bottom right).