In my father's backyard, in the heart of what used to be Little Italy but is fast becoming yet another enclave of Toronto yuppydom, there is a fig tree. As fig trees go, it is a scraggly little thing with a kind of forlorn theatricality that would make it a suitable stage piece for Beckett's Waiting for Godot. But when you consider that the species was not meant by its creator to live north of, say, the 35th parallel, its paltry appearance is a sign of its endurance, and like Beckett's tramps, the little tree seems to go on with a kind of hope-against-hope response to its absurd position in a climate that is, to put it mildly, hardly conducive to its health.
I like to think of it as a conscious display of the desire to survive against overwhelming odds, if only to reward my father's obsessive care, sustained by his soul's need to surround itself with a vestige from the Garden of Eden of his youth in the Calabrian hills.
Brought here from Southern Italy as a young sapling, the fig tree, like its immigrant caretaker, survived the violent uprooting and thrives in its new home, a large wooden half-barrel, of the kind that is used by wine makers. To prevent its freezing to death, it has spent the past three winters buried under four inches of soil.
Shortly after Victoria Day my father unearthed it and within days, like the Phoenix of the storytellers, it was magically reborn, its leaves luxuriatingn in the northern sun; the Mediterranean homeland but a distant memory, an indelible genetic imprint. It's as though my father and the little tree have agreed upon an ecological covenant and both struggle to live up to its terms, practical concerns being merely secondary to the tree's great symbolic value as messenger across time and geography.
It's a tough bargain for the little tree to live up to, but it seems to have managed bravely for the past four years. This summer it bore an appropriately abundant crop of figs, about a baker's dozen. My father was thrilled and understands this to be nothing short of a renewable miraculous event; for him clear evidence of the providential bursting forth of the Great Chain of Being(my words, his reality).
For his part, he tends to the tree's needs, checking the soil moisture, the lustre on its large three-pronged drooping leaves, turning each one over to check for parasites in a daily ritual that never fails to light up his whole face. In their silent dialogue, my father and his tree speak of a distant homeland, a world disrupted by large-scale emigration, a pre-industrial, agricultural time in which the movement of the sun and moon in the sky and the ebb and flow of the seasons set clear parameters for the life of the senses and the soul.