While I Was Away

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Good heavens, beloved readers, an entire riding season has passed since I last posted here! It was never my intention to be so quiet for so long. Time just got the better of me. I won’t let that happen a second time. Here is a recap of things that have transpired since I last wrote to you.

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The new job I started last fall with Diaz Group LLC has continued to expand and evolve. The people there, at all levels of the organization, are top shelf and having spent so many years in the facilities maintenance, snow and ice management, and green industries, I’m definitely in my element. Although my title has not yet changed, my role with the company has become increasingly strategic in scope. This has become a unique opportunity that almost makes me want to thank my last employer, whose name does not even deserve mention on my pages anymore, for having decided to part ways with me. Of course anything can happen, sometimes without warning, but for now I am exactly where I want to be.

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With my shoulder replacement completely healed, I was able to resume riding again. Getting the rust off my riding skills took me longer than I expected, in part because the layoff had been so long, but also because something that has changed between my ears. Even though my severe shoulder injury occurred while walking, not riding, just getting hurt so badly has made me aware of my vulnerability. That’s something on which I must continue to work because the wrong kind of fear can be dangerous when riding.

As I do every year, I kicked off the riding season at the beginning of May by attending Motorcycle Sunday in Aurora. This year’s event was made extra special when my son came in from the Quad Cities to attend with me, meeting up with another dear friend to hang out together, and then my daughter and her boyfriend, non-riders, came over to hang with the three of us for a while.

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From spring through fall, I did much grilling, both at home with family and with my dear friend Ann up in Wisconsin, who like my son shares my love for cooking and is a very skilled cook in her own right. I used my little smoker a few times as well. Some dishes were better than others but all were quite flavorful and there were no total failures.

The smoker is new for me and a welcome addition to my culinary arsenal. Smoking foods, however, is far from a foolproof endeavor. In short order, I have already learned a couple of fundamental lessons. First, that just like any other type of flavoring, woodsmoke can be overdone. The smoke flavor should complement all the other flavors in play. Overdo it and you may end up with an unwelcome bitterness that overpowers all the other flavors. The second lesson I learned in a hurry is that you can’t hurry. When you’re slow cooking with a smoker, time is your friend, your ally. For best results, don’t shortchange that friend.

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Last June, for the first time in years, my son joined me for the annual Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run, which benefits the Middle East Conflicts War Memorial. I was grateful to have my son along. I only wish the weather had been more favorable. Despite the Freedom Run being a rain-or-shine proposition, and with significant rain in the forecast, attendance for the 2019 event was a fraction of what I’ve witnessed in past years. Indeed, we were hampered by an extended torrential downpour at the starting point. Still, I would like to have seen a better turnout. This cause deserves a better turnout. That’s why I was there, as was my son. In fact, I have been trying to get Ann to come down for this event since we began riding together — about four years now — but she has always had a conflicting commitment during that weekend in June. As it turns out, this was one time I was glad she couldn’t come. Not because I didn’t want her along for the ride — I always want her along — but she would have been miserable in that rain and the turnout would not have impressed her at all. Maybe next year.

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July brought about two fantastic road trips. The first was a very long day trip with my wife Karen. The only thing that kept it from being an overnighter was that we couldn’t get anyone to take care of the pets. Ah, but it was a fantastic little road trip! We went to the Quad Cities to see Holiday Inn performed at a dinner theater called Circa 21, where our son John had been working as the theater’s Technical Director. As such, John was able to get us good seats, ate dinner with us and sat with us for the show, introduced us to the theater’s Operations Manager as well as some of the cast and crew, and then after the performance, gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the theater. Karen and I returned home sometime during the overnight hours, tired but happy and more than a little bit proud, too.

As a venue, Circa 21 is a great theater. Actors come in from across town as well as across the United States to perform there. Dinner, served buffet style, is exceptionally well-prepared. We enjoyed a bottle of wine with our dinner and the bar also sells a variety of cocktails, including ice cream drinks. The show itself was excellent and was preceded by performances by the waitstaff. For the money, one would be hard-pressed to find any better theatrical entertainment value.

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After missing the Midwest Motorcycle Rally last July due to my broken shoulder and subsequent replacement surgery (see My Summer Interrupted, Part II if you haven’t read the shoulder saga), I picked up Ann on a sunny Wednesday morning and we headed to Winona, Minnesota for a few days. What an awesome time we had exploring the area, on our own as well as with other rallygoers on the guided tours for which the MMR has become famous.

This year’s trip was particularly enjoyable for several reasons, not the least of which was that this was my longest trip of any consequence since I’d had my surgery a year earlier. The recovery period for shoulder replacements is measured in months, not days or even weeks. Most people don’t know this but during the first two months of my recovery, during which my physical activity had been severely restricted, Ann would “take me with her” on her daily walks by sending me photographs from the nature trails, river walks, lake shore, marina, farmers market, and more. She did her darnedest to keep my spirits up during what were some pretty dark days for me.

Besides getting to visit the rally’s new venue in Winona, Ann and I had also gone Dutch on a pair of matching Bell helmets with Bluetooth® communication headsets. This allowed us to talk to each other in a near-normal tone of voice wherever we went on the bike. Fantastic! Our Bell helmets also cut down on the wind noise in our ears, reducing fatigue as well as possibly some hearing damage, which for a half-deaf gent like me is important.

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Labor Day weekend brought about one more road trip, which may seem like something but was still well below average for me. I picked up Ann on Friday morning and we headed for Cedar Rapids, Iowa with a stop in Rockford to see the Anderson Japanese Gardens. I had been there once before, years ago, and it made such a lasting impression on me that I felt compelled to share the experience with Ann. She loved it! From there we took Highway 2, a very pleasant motorcycle road, down to Dixon and then endured some endless road construction until we hit Interstate 80. Following a burger stop at Cerno’s Bar and Grill, a historic bar imported from Belgium and built by Pabst Blue Ribbon in 1898, we continued on to Cedar Rapids, arriving at our hotel that evening. My son John departed from work later in the day and joined us at our hotel that same night.

Our Saturday was a full one. A delightful friend of John’s named Marjorie, who hails from elsewhere in Iowa, met us in the hotel parking lot for a day of two-up motorcycle touring. We began with a hearty family-style breakfast at the Ox Yoke Inn in historic Amana. After everyone had eaten their fill, we strolled through the town, visiting the shops, tasting wines, etc. before gearing up and riding northwest to Anamosa, home of the National Motorcycle Museum and J&P Cycles retail store. We then went into nearby Stone City for supper at the General Store Pub. In hindsight, I guess we went pretty high on history that day.

On Sunday morning John, Ann, and I saddled up and rode into Illinois, stopping for a few hours in historic Galena, where we met up with another old friend of ours for a few hours before heading home. At that point, John and our friend Vern headed toward Chicago while Ann and I meandered back to her home in Wisconsin before I turned south and headed back home myself. We couldn’t have asked for a better weekend.

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A week later, Karen and I were making our annual excursion to the Sandwich Fair, which is hands down the best county fair for miles around. We tried to get the now-grown kids to join us, as they used to do when they had no choice in the matter, but getting four or more adults to rendezvous at the same place at the same time can be challenging. Still, Karen and I had our usual fun time. Can’t wait ’til next year.

In September, my son John and I met up after work and went to the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago for a night of fantastic reggae/ska/club music. The opening act was Steel Pulse, a UK-based band that was the first non-Jamaican group to win a Grammy for Best Reggae Album. They were astounding, to say the least. I walked in not knowing who they were and walked out a fan.

The next performer was Shaggy, a Jamaican-born musician of whom both my son and I are great fans. Exactly how this artist has bridged the generation gap between John and I is not exactly clear, but we were beeboppin’ into the night.

The headliner was UB40, a group whom I have adored since the 1980’s. As Ann has also appreciated a number of their songs, I had hoped to entice her down to Chicago for this event, but as the show occurred on a Wednesday night and a late one at that, it was not to be. Hey, I never expected to see UB40 in person myself and my son John never thought he’d ever see Shaggy live and in person. I submit that the possibilities are indeed possible, so who is to say that Ann and I won’t see UB40 in concert sometime in the future?

For the sake of time and space, I have omitted several other highlights, but suffice it to say it’s been an awesome year so far. Soon the snow will be falling, but I may still get another ride or two in. Time will tell.

I know, it’s been a long post. If you’ve continued reading this far, as always, thanks for hanging with me.

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Have Cucuzza, Will Travel

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As the old adage goes, if you don’t like your situation, change it. If you can’t change it, change your mind. What might have been a dark, depressing weekend for me turned out to be a wonderful one, with a good bit of help from a dear friend and the timely ripening of a somewhat unusual Italian vegetable.

My friend Ann and I were supposed to have gone on a fall motorcycle tour around Lake Michigan last weekend but because I had not yet resuscitated my personal finances following the complete and utter demise of my most recent employer (see Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3), I was forced to cancel our trip. While I’d like to think I can shake anything off like so much dust from my sandals, the fact of the matter is my mind was headed for a very dark place as the result. Mind you, this wasn’t the first time in my life I’ve had to cancel plans for practical reasons. And yes, as a rule, having to do so sucks like a top-of-the-line Dyson vacuum. But what burns me most is not that I was inconvenienced—I can deal with that all day long—but that it had affected a friend of mine. It doesn’t even matter to me that this friend didn’t really mind all that much. If you want to end up on my bad side fast, do something, anything, that adversely affects one of my friends. When that happens, you may want to step back a mile or two.

But you see, though my employer had failed, miserably so, that had occurred last July. This was September and I still hadn’t pulled out of my own tailspin. So while the time span was quite within reason given my career stage (over seven years at the director level), whom could I blame for inconveniencing one of my dearest friends more than me? Nobody. Thus my smoldering ire was turned back on myself. Fade to black… almost.

Enter the cucuzza, a type of gourd that is grown as a summer squash in southern Italy. The Americanized term for this vegetable sounds like “googootz” and thanks to the myriad of Italian dialects, you may also hear it called something that sounds like “cogozza” or “coguzzigia.” It’s all the same thing. They grow on vines and they grow rapidly to substantial lengths, often over three feet long. The skin is inedible. The flesh beneath is white and tasteless raw, but when cooked, it takes on a translucent, pale green hue and has a mild, somewhat sweet flavor.

So there I was, looking at the prospect of spending four days—the length of our planned trip around the lake—obsessing over something I could not change, and that just seemed so pointless to me. So I reached out to Ann and said as much. “Why should we write off the entire four days? Let’s take at least one of those days and do something worthwhile.” Then for good measure, I added, “I’ve got a cucuzza that will be ripe for picking by this weekend. I could bring it up if you promise not to laugh, and we could prepare something with it together.”

“Like what?” Ann seemed intrigued by that idea—such is the power of a nice cucuzza—and so we so we laid pans for one day of riding, walking, and cooking together. In addition to supplying the cucuzza, on the eve of our day together, I offered to harvest some large leaf basil and grill some Italian-marinated chicken breasts for our culinary endeavor. Ann, in turn, obtained the additional vegetables and grains, along with some bread, wine, and other assorted goodies to complete the meal. Game on!

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The following morning, I carefully wrapped my cucuzza in a favorite cotton hoodie, strapped it securely into the passenger area of Miss Scarlett, my Victory Vision touring motorcycle, and headed to Ann’s place up in Wisconsin. What I was not prepared for, one-hundred-plus miles later, was the immediate affection Atlas, one of Ann’s cats, displayed for my well-endowed squash. When it came time to peel and cook my unusual vegetable, the photogenic feline posed no issues. Still, it made us smile and laugh a bit.

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The temperature and humidity were unusually high for late September, so Ann and I opted to restrict our motorcycle outing to the morning and early afternoon hours. This meant staying relatively close to home, but I didn’t mind. We rode a relatively short distance to Oconomowoc and ever my reliable navigator, Ann directed me to Fowler Lake Park, a delightful spot on the eastern shore of Lake Fowler, right in the midst of Oconomowoc proper. Once off the bike, Ann proceeded to lead me on a walking tour of approximately three miles around the lake, pointing out all manner of man-made and natural points of interest. Sure, it was a little warm, but the day was beautiful and we had a really fun time together.

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Once we got back to Ann’s place, we set about to chopping, sautéeing, and simmering our food. You’ll have to wait for my book to come out to get the full non-recipe, but the essential elements are the cucuzza, some aromatics and root vegetables, tomatoes, stock, meat, grains, and seasonings. Many options and variations are possible. The end result is a hearty, flavorful stew that makes a meal in itself. A few hours later, Ann, her son, and I had eaten our fill and true to the Italian tradition into which I had been born, there were ample leftovers.

It had been such an awesome day. In the course of that day, everything wrong had quickly become overshadowed by all that was right. Still, as is often the case, the ending was bittersweet. Why? Because it was an ending. After all the pots, pans, and dishes had been washed and put away, I packed up a few leftovers on Miss Scarlett and after we had exchanged our goodbyes, I headed for home, literally riding off into the sunset before turning south.

Sometimes all you need to do, in order to understand that all is not bad, is to be willing to see the good. Thanks for hanging with me.

The Italians in My Garden

My father had more square feet of garden space on his property than he had of lawn. This was not an unusual sight when I was growing up in Blue Island, Illinois. Many Italian immigrants had huge, beautiful gardens overflowing with all manner of fruits and vegetables. Gardening was to my father what motorcycling and writing have become for me. Working in that yard was his pastime, his passion, his outlet. He tried to pass that along to me—not only his knowledge but his passion. Alas, only some of it stuck, mainly because yard work interferes with my motorcycling and travel hobby.

But as I said, some of it stuck. And now that my father has been gone for six years, my feeble attempts at keeping a garden are one way I stay spiritually connected to the old man. Yeah, sometimes when I’m toiling away on my rocky, weed-choked soil, I can hear my father admonishing me, half in Italian and half in English.

“Michele, che fai??? That’s not the way I showed you!”

“I know, Pop, I know.”

If he were still here, I’d get frustrated but now I only smile, glad to recall the sound of his voice, and I keep working, the sweat raining off of me in buckets.

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It took three years of trying before I was able to keep a fig tree alive by my house. My father kept sending me home with shoots from one of his large trees, which are not easy to keep alive in the midwest, and I kept losing them over the winter. Either my burial technique (a subject for another time) wasn’t quite right or the sapling hadn’t taken sufficiently to overwinter beneath the ground. But on that third year, my little tree survived and I practically broke my back door down running for the phone to tell the old man.

“Pop! Pop! The little sonofabitch is still alive!”

“Eh?”

“The fig tree! My little fig tree is alive! I did it!”

“No shit! See? I told you…”

And so the conversation went. The following month, while at my father’s house, he handed me another shoot, to start a second tree. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But for a good ten years or so, I had two fig trees growing in my back yard and they produced enough figs to be able to give some away (see my 2015 article, “The Ups and Downs of Growing Fig Trees in Northern Illinois“). Then two years ago, one of the trees perished due to a cracked base below the soil line. And last year, something happened to my second tree over the winter and it, too, perished. I felt terrible, not only because I would no longer have figs, but because my trees had begun as shoots from my father’s trees, which like him, are no more. I vowed to start over.

Last winter I began looking into fig varieties, hoping to come as close as possible to replicating the Italian dark fig variety that I got from my father. Without going into any details or the legality thereof, it is highly unlikely that my father’s trees came from an American nursery. But I digress. My brother-in-law advised me to check out a variety called the Chicago Hardy Fig. As I understand it, this is a hybrid developed from a Sicilian variety and bred for hardiness against the harsh winters of the Midwest. As luck would have it, the Chicago Hardy is now sold at local nurseries. This last fact amazes me, as most of the non-Italians I know have never even seen a fresh fig.

Well, like I implied earlier, yard work at my house takes a back seat to my motorcycling and writing endeavors, and it shows. Most of my seedlings did not survive long enough to get transplanted. But for a couple of Italian squash varieties, which I will get to in a moment, and my cucumbers, which can be started outdoors almost any time, I have no garden this year. Yeah, but I still managed to keep one promise to myself.

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On the afternoon of July 4, 2017, while walking the garden center at a local Home Depot, I spotted a handful of Chicago Hardy Fig trees that, along with all other trees and shrubs, were being offered at 50% off. The trees were quite small, but also very much alive and for six bucks apiece, I figured I could afford to take a chance on two of the healthiest specimens. Trees are generally installed in springtime, not July (thus the low price), but I decided to take a chance. And so with temps near 90 and the humidity making it feel warmer than that, I installed those two fig trees. Again my father’s words came to me.

“Michele, if you do it right, they’ll live. Don’t leave any air down by the roots, but give the roots good soil to grow in. Put some fertilizer and give them a drink every few days. You’ll see.”

“I will. Thanks, Pop.”

One day later, my little trees showed no signs of stress. That’s good, but we still have a long way to go. So we wait, cultivate as needed, and pray a little.

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I promised to tell you about the other Italians that made it into my garden this season. Besides cucumbers, which anybody can grow if you can just keep the rabbits away for a while, I have the ever-prolific zucchini and a newcomer to my yard this year, cucuzza.

I know, I know, what’s a cucuzza. My parents, along with many of the other old Italians, used to regularly grow these things in their gardens. In simplest terms, cucuzza is a type of gourd that is grown and prepared like a squash. The plant is a climbing vine. The fruits can grow as long as softball bats. The outer skin is not edible. The flesh is light in color and quite mild. When cooked it tends to hold its shape and texture well. You can saute it, bake it, grill it, etc.

In all candor, I do not have any experience growing these things and since I wasn’t much for vegetables in my younger years, I haven’t had much experience eating them, either. A couple of years ago, I grilled a cucuzza that my brother-in-law had grown and it turned out okay. This year, if all goes well, I will have quite a few with which to experiment. This could be good or bad as just one cucuzza is enough to feed several people. I’ve got four to six vines growing out there. Pray for me.

Gardening has been and will always be a love/hate thing for me. I derive much satisfaction from eating foods that I grew myself. Furthermore, gardening is one of several ways in which I honor my father. At the same time, I detest every minute I give up working in that yard that could have been spent plying great roads on a pleasant, sunny day—the very same type of day that is ideal for yard work. But you see, some people say that having balance in life is not about either/or; it’s about and. I guess that’s why I devote at least some of my time and energy to my garden, even if I am not fanatical about it.

Anybody got any good cucuzza recipes? Just asking. Thanks for hanging with me.

A Tale of Two Christmas Cacti

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I began with only one and given my propensity to kill houseplants, I never expected that one to last long. But it did. Then it gained a mate. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My mother had a green thumb. She loved plants and she surrounded herself with them. Pots and planters filled her home, upstairs and down, inside and out. She knew how to take cuttings and turn them into new plants. We might be walking somewhere and Ma would spot an interesting plant. In an instant, her hand would dart out like a cobra, pinch off a tiny piece of the plant, and disappear back into her coat pocket. In a matter of weeks, the same type of plant would be growing in her collection. My sisters were afraid she would get in trouble for this, but Ma would just look at them and smile.

At some point, my mother’s horticultural interests expanded to include cactus plants and before long, all manner of cacti began to appear—not from pinching off samples, I’m sure. By the time my parents had reached their golden years, every windowsill in their basement was lined with mismatched pots brimming with these needly things. Some of the more interesting cacti joined her other plants in the kitchen, dining room, living room, and porches.

A few years before my mother passed away, which was in 2006, she gave me one of her Christmas Cactus plants, assuring me that these things were not that easy to kill. What can I tell you, this woman knew her son. Turns out she was right. The darned thing seldom threw blooms—sometimes going for months or even years—but when it did, its red flowers were beautiful to see.

cacti-2011-03-20maOver the years, “Ma’s cactus” continued to grow and thrive, but after my mother died, it would go for very long periods of time without blooming. That pattern abruptly changed, however, when my father died in February of 2011. Within days of his passing, my mother’s cactus erupted, throwing more beautiful red blooms than it had ever done for me in the years prior. Having no better explanation for this phenomenon, I took the shower of blooms as a message from my mother, sent to assure me that Pop was with her once again.

Oh, you think that’s good? Wait; there’s more.

cacti-2015-03-28popWhen the time came for my sisters and I to sell our parents’ home, decades worth of physical belongings had to be sold, donated, disposed of, or taken home. One of the things I took home was another Christmas Cactus. This specimen wasn’t quite the same as the one I already had. It seemed more rugged somehow and the flat, spiney segments were shaped just a little bit different from those of my other plant.

I wanted to keep the two cacti side by side on top of a wooden pantry in my kitchen, where they would not easily be reached by Jazzy, the family cat. But I didn’t much care for the mismatched flower pots, so I went out and bought a pair of matching ceramic pots, large enough for each plant to grow into. Once transplanted, the two quickly adapted and within a few weeks, began to flourish.

That’s when  funny thing happened. Ma’s cactus, threw a few of her red blooms—but only on the side nearest the new arrival. Hmmm, interesting.

cacti-2015-03-28A couple of days later, the other cactus began to throw beautiful, yet different, white blooms. Both plants then continued to bloom, each in its own color, until finally reverting back to their usual, quiet selves.

This happened several more times in the years that followed, most often around Christmas or Easter. In time the two Christmas cacti came to represent my parents, at least in spirit. The “Ma” plant has always had more going on, growing in different directions and always throwing more blooms, and yet she is the softer of the two plants. Her spiny segments have always been more delecate and they are quicker to droop if neglected. By comparison, the “Pop” plant is sturdier and grows its woody parts just as much as its flat segments. Like my father in life, this plant holds a grudge. If neglected, this one will let sections die off rather than come back when watered again. He also doesn’t bloom as often, but his soft, white blooms are more delicate and short -lived than her prolific red ones.

cacti-2016-12-17And so it goes. Just this past week, with Christmas approaching, Ma threw a handful of red blooms, most of them in the direction of the strong, silent plant beside her. Pop, on the other hand, hadn’t bloomed once in over a year—until a day or two ago, then a couple of tiny white buds appears on the tips of two appendages closest to the beautiful plant to his right.

I observe the banter between these two plants and remember many happy times and the colorful chatter that often took place in our household, especially during the holidays.

Merry Christmas.

 

 

The Ups and Downs of Growing Fig Trees in Northern Illinois

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Yesterday my son and I buried our fig trees for the winter. Well, we buried one and removed another that had been struggling for two years now. Most people look at me funny when I talk about burying trees. Some people look at me funny when I talk about growing figs where I live, because they don’t believe one can grow figs in this latitude. I can state from experience that yes, you certainly can grow fig up here, but it isn’t necessarily easy.

When I was growing up in the Chicagoland suburb of Blue Island, many of the “old Italians” kept fig trees. My father had kept three or four going at any given time. My grandfather across the street had a couple. My uncle “below the hill” (Blue Island’s east side, which was predominantly Italian at the time) had some, as did some cousins and assorted paesani. As you might imagine, fresh figs were abundant among my extended family during the growing season.

Wait. Can you imagine? Do you know what a fresh fig looks like? Perhaps I’d better back up a little.

Another maleFigs are a tree/shrub fruit that grow throughout the tropics, Asia and the Mediterranean. They have been around for a while. Indeed, fig trees are mentioned numerous times in both testaments of the Bible. If you are familiar with the book of Genesis, you know that after having eaten from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve used fig leaves to cover their nudity. The gospels of mark and Matthew include accounts of Jesus cursing a barren fig tree, which proceeds to wither and die.

FemaleFigs themselves (i.e. the fruits) are considered aphrodisiacs and their unique shape and characteristics are representative of both the male and female sex organs. Without getting too graphic here, the whole fruit is thought to resemble a man’s family jewels, while the cross section bears a resemblance to the female… um.. that is… oh, my. Well, anyway…

Presumably because of their thin bark and high water content, fig trees were not designed to withstand our harsh Midwest winters. I have no idea who first had the idea to preserve fig trees by burying them during the winter months, but the practice clearly works. As I said earlier, the process isn’t easy. It isn’t even particularly fun. And the larger the trees grow, the more difficult the process becomes, until finally it becomes impossible, at which point the tree remains standing during the winter months – and dies.

burialSo how does one bury a fig tree? I’m glad you asked. In mid-to-late autumn, after all the leaves have dropped and there is little to no chance of another warm-up before winter arrives, you prepare the tree for burial by pruning and bundling the branches into a narrow, manageable package. Then you dig a trench from the base of the tree outward. The length of this trench must be equal to or slightly greater than the height of your tree. I should also mention that each year (this is an annual process), the trench will be dug in the same direction.

The idea is to bend/pivot the fig tree at the roots level, beneath the soil surface. Mind you, the tree will not want to lie down. It will help to loosen the soil around the base of the tree and gently rock the tree back and forth until it is willing to lie down for a winter nap. I should also point out that in the spring, this same tree that resisted laying down will also not want to stand back up. Such is the stubborn nature of a fig tree.

buriedOnce the tree has been convinced to lie down in the trench you’ve dug, you must cover the trench with boards, corrugated metal, etc., forming a sort of protective tomb for the tree. Then you pile dirt on top of the covering, closing off air flow and providing an insulating layer from the harsh elements of winter. In order to let moisture escape, my father would fashion a breather vent from an old section of downspout and some window screen material. Worked like a charm, so I began using them, too.

The first time I tried this process, I failed. My father had given me a shoot from one of his mature trees and advised me to take it home, stick it in the ground, keep it watered and see what happens. The shoot took – under the right circumstances, fig trees are very prolific (must be all that sexuality with which they are associated) – but when it came time for winter burial, either the tree had not yet been established enough to withstand the process or my methodology was somehow off. In any case, the little tree died. I felt terrible.

The following summer, my dad handed me another shoot, its base wrapped in a ball of newspaper containing a quantity of the tree’s native soil. “Try again.”

“But Pop…”

“Try. See what happens.”

I’ll tell you what happened. I failed again. The shoot threw roots and sprouted a few new leaves, but did not survive winter burial. By this time I had become quite willing to give up and leave the fig tree cultivation to people who knew what they were doing.

My dad had other ideas. The following summer, he once again handed me another shoot, nicely wrapped in a ball of dirt surrounded by newspaper. “Try again.”

I could not refuse. I took the shoot home, stuck it in a patch of cultivated soil, kept it watered, watched it take root, etc. Then, when the last leaves had fallen, I dug a tiny trench, for a tiny tree, laid the little guy down, as I had been instructed, covered the trench with a length of plywood, covered the plywood with an ample amount of dirt, then crossed my fingers and waited until spring.

At the appropriate time, I unearthed the entombed little tree, my third attempt at a craft that my dad had made to look so easy. Weeks went by… nothing. Still I waited. More weeks went by. Then one morning I walked past my kitchen window and glanced out toward this stick standing up in the middle of my garden… and saw something green. Green!

I ran outside to confirm it. Yes, that speck of green was indeed the start of new leaf growth! Then I ran back inside and called my father just as quickly as my shaking fingers could dial.

“Pop!”

“Hey.”

“Pop! Guess what! The little sonofabitch is alive!”

“Eh?”

“The fig tree! My fig tree!! It’s alive! I did it!”

“See? I told you…”

Thus began my love affair with the common fig tree. A month or so later, my father proved his faith in my ability by presenting me with yet another shoot from one of his trees.

“Here,” he commanded and he thrust the carefully wrapped bundle into my reluctant hands. “Take it home, stick it in the ground, keep it watered…”

early figsBy then I knew the drill. But even more importantly, by then I knew it could be done! A year later I had two thriving trees. At first they yielded only a handful of undersized (but delicious) fruit, but a few years later, I was collecting enough full-sized figs to warrant giving some away. I was happy. My father was proud. Life was good.

In the few years leading up to my father’s death in 2011, I began taking over the burial and resurrection of his fig trees, which were much more mature than my own. During those years, two wonderful things happened. First, my dad was able to watch and counsel me on the finer points of this craft. But at the same time, my son was able to begin learning, first by watching us and then by actively assisting my father and me.

Today, at the age of 22, my son knows as much about this process as I did when I was 20 years older than him. More often than not, we work the trees together. I believe my father would have been proud. I know I am.

FIGS