Ficus carica L., aka the fig, was so popular 9,000 years ago that folk in Palestine lined them up in groves to ensure local supplies were met, thereby predating grain cultivation. D.H. Lawrence would have admired the fig during his Italian sojourn, but it only made its way into Europe during the 15th century after being plundered from Persia, Asia Minor and Syria. The above video was created to celebrate Lawrence’s seductive ode to this sun-ripened fruit, but the fig has been a source of reverence for centuries. Figs have come to symbolise fertility, peace and prosperity in many world religions, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism. In Ancient Greece, athletes scoffed as many as they could get their hands on, believing it would enhance speed and strength. King Nebuchadnezzar II had them planted in the hanging gardens of Babylon whereas Egyptian kings were buried with them to please the mother goddess Hathor who would emerge from a mythic fig tree to welcome them into the afterlife. Figs also appear in the Old and New Testament, offering remedies for illness – both medical and social. Hezekiah, King of Judah, recovered from a plague of boils after his servants applied a paste of crushed figs to his skin. Whereas the fig leaf provided Adam and Eve with a bit of dignity after an apple left them rotten to the core. Or as Lawrence puts it: ‘She got the fact on her mind, and quickly sewed fig-leaves/ And women have been sewing ever since’.
Although Lawrence’s naughty poem has become synonymous with the fig, it appears elsewhere in literature. In The Bell Jar (1963), Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel about a young woman’s descent into madness, Esther encounters a fig tree and later reflects ‘I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story’. But it is best known in the 5th century epic poem The Mahavamsa, which covers the early history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and sees the Buddha gaining enlightenment under a fig tree.
Lawrence writes that ‘The fig is a very secretive fruit,’ so secretive in fact that it defies definition. Ben Crair, writing in The New Yorker, explains ‘a clever botanist would sell them at the florist, with the fresh-cut roses’. This is because a fig is technically a ball of flowers, with enclosed flowers that bloom inwards or as Lawrence writes ‘There was a flower that flowered inward, womb-ward;/ Now there is a fruit like a ripe womb’.
This unique fruit, I mean flower – or more accurately a syconium, requires pollination to reproduce and this can only be done by a fig wasp which is just small enough to crawl inside. And not just any fig wasp by the way! Each of the 750 varieties has its own unique species of fig wasp to do the business. So next time you sink your teeth into the ‘glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled’ interior, remember you are most likely chomping into a female fig wasp that got stuck.
Mike Shanahan in Ladders to Heaven explains that this process of codependent evolution has been going on for sixty million years. The fig, unlike seasonal fruit, can be found all year round, making it a vital food source for over 1300 bird and mammal species. High in potassium, iron, fiber, and plant calcium, it has also been essential to survival of certain species in times of want. A 2003 study of Uganda’s Budongo Forest found that figs were ‘the sole source of fruit for chimpanzees at certain times of year’. I doubt these species would care to be instructed on the best way to eat this keystone fruit as Lawrence does in his poem, taking the Italians to task: ‘But the vulgar way/ Is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.’
Mike Shanahan is particularly enamoured with the Strangler breed of fig which grows ‘from seeds dropped high on other trees by passing birds and mammals. By starting out high in the forest canopy instead of on its gloomy floor, the strangler seedlings get the light they need to grow with vigour. As they do, they send down aerial roots that become thick and woody, encasing their host trees in a living mesh. They can even smother and kill giant trees, growing into colossal forms’. Shanahan also points out that the struggles faced by the Strangler fig would inspire the British biologist Alfred Russel Wallace to develop his own theory of evolution by natural selection, independently of Charles Darwin. High-energy figs may also have helped our ancestors to develop bigger brains.
However you eat yours, and for whatever purpose, we hope you enjoy our short video, lovingly put together by Izaak Bosman.
In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts to try to understand this complex writer. How do we capture Lawrence’s playfulness in poems such as Figs? Does the poem draw out important issues regarding nudity and shame or does the idea that ‘ripe figs won’t keep’ chide with modern attitudes towards female sexual identity? Just as Figs have been around for centuries, so to women have faced centuries of insults. In 2019 we will be building our Memory Theatre and retracing Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage both physically and digitally. If you have an idea for an artefact get involved and submit ideas here.