Sharing the Fig Tree

In July, the figs on the tree ripen. Finches, starlings, doves, woodpeckers, and grackles feed on the figs. For years, I fought them off. Now I’ve come to accept them. The birds need the figs because it’s a source of food and water when the heat destroys other food sources.

figsripeEarly in the morning, while the birds are feasting on figs, I hose down the walkway and scrub the ruined fruit off the cement. By noon the fig hulls will be as dry and hard as walnuts and the seeds will be stuck to the cement.

Now that I’ve accepted sharing as part of having a tree in my yard, I also gather  figs from the tree and make jam. I can’t eat the jam, but it’s wonderful to see others enjoy it. Same with the figs. There is enough for both uses

And both uses require work. Watering the tree, fertilizing it, trimming it. Picking up the fig leftovers, scrubbing the sidewalk. Gathering the figs, washing them, cleaning them, cutting, cutting and bottling them. It’s work with a purpose.

We expect trees to be work. We expect food to be work. But somehow, when it comes to our creative work, we think of it as play. And are surprised when it takes work to nurture it, maintain it, and yes, reap the benefits. Creativity is somehow supposed to be immune from the focus, goals and results of the rest of our lives. It’s supposed to be fun and ephemeral. Most of the time, creativity is hard work, but satisfying work. And, like ripening figs, sweet and worth it.

—Quinn McDonald is a naturalist and teacher. Join her in Madeline Island on July 22-26 for a deep writing and intuitive art class. Or in Phoenix on July 13 for a class on Monsoon Papers and accordion folders.


Perfectionist Burns the Jam

Figs are fragile fruit. Birds love them as a source of food and water. When they ripen here in late June, birds that weren’t interested in our yard for months gather to chomp away. The tree is too tall to net, so for two weeks or so, I engage in the dance of the fig protection lady. I never win. I’ve tried scaring the birds, I’ve tried sharing–I’d be thrilled if they ate all the figs at the top of the tree. But nope, they eat a quarter of all of them.

We’ve had a few weeks of fierce heat, and the figs were starting to scald from the sun. I picked as many as I could to make jam. Some riper ones, and some not quite ripe, but fine for jam.

After they are washed, I removed the stems and cut them into chunks.

Into a pot they went, with the juice of half a lemon, some lemon zest and water enough to almost cover them. Sugar gets added later. I simmered them down, then added about a cup of sugar. Simmered again.

They  were getting close, so I added a bit of honey for a deeper taste. Honey burns easily, so I set a timer. I was also doing laundry, watering the plants, and catching up on email, so setting a timer is vital. Too easy to forget what’s on the stove till the smoke alarm smells it.

The timer hadn’t gone off when I smelled scorching fruit. I raced to the stove, but too late. An entire batch of fig jam–probably the only one we’ll get this year–ruined.

It’s hard for a perfectionist to deal with making mistakes. Doesn’t matter that I set the timer, I should have set it for a shorter time. Fig jam is not to be trifled with. Then I had a thought. Of all the tutorials I’ve seen, both on art and on cooking, I’ve rarely seen a mistake posted. Julia Child was calm when she made a mistake, but I haven’t seen a mistake posted in any tutorial I’ve seen.

Here’s mine. In all its burned-on glory. Much as I hate to admit my mistake, I think it’s important to other perfectionists to see that even experienced cooks, successful artists, and practiced experts mess up, ruin the jam, tear the page, use a hideous color, and the project doesn’t work. It happens. The important part is what happens next. A few years ago, I would have burst into tears, threatened the timer, bemoaned my fate. Not effective. Won’t bring the figs back. We learn more from our mistakes than we do from success. Learning to deal with failure is an important part of learning to deal with success.

Here’s the great tip. I learned this from a wise friend: Put cold water in the pot, add about half a cup of salt and a quarter cup of baking soda, but the pot on low heat and let it slowly boil for about 20 minutes. Pour the mess down the drain, and the pot will be easy to clean–no hard scrubbing.

And I’m back outside, watching for a few more figs to ripen.

Summer’s Here–It’s April

Here in Phoenix, we had our first day of over-90º weather. Summer is on the way. And to go with it, fruit trees and ocotillos are doing what they need to do:

9-ft. tall ocotillo in full bloom.

The ocotillo is flowering with extravagant, red-orange flowers. They last about 10 days, then they fade and are the start of new growth.

Close-up of octoillo bloom.

The close-up shows that each flower is made up of smaller flowers. Smart in the desert, where not every plant makes it through.

Figs don't bloom, the bloom is contained in the fruit.

We trimmed our fig tree this year, and the first crop, the brebas, didn’t show up. I thought we’d have no figs this year. Ahh, I am so grateful to be wrong. If you look very closely, you can see a small bud on top of the leaf stem. That will be a fig later in the summer. (Look at the green leaf stem, follow it to the bright green upright branch. You can see a small, fuzzy fig there.

If you crush the fruit, it smells powerfully of grapefruit, even at this size.

These tiny fruits, with flower parts still attached, are smaller than a pencil eraser. They will grow to the size of a large lemon by June and stop growing. They won’t grow anymore till September brings a slightly cooler night temperature. They then continue to grow, and by January of 2011, they will be sweet, white grapefruits with a 1-inch thick rind. But sweet beyond belief.

–Quinn McDonald is a naturalist who is keeping track of the changes in nature in a 3-mile radius of her house.

Figs, I Want Figs!

How do you know your figs are ripe? Well, about a week before they get to the point where you enjoy eating them, right before perfection, exactly at the point where the juice and sugar content soar, the birds will descend on the tree and eat holes in all of them. Figs are ripe when the fruit stops hanging out from the branch and droops downward. I’ll never see it happen if these birds continue with their voracious habits.

Almost-ripe figs

Almost-ripe figs

Now I wouldn’t mind if they ate half the figs, and left me half. Birds aren’t like that. Birds will drill holes in all of the figs. I’m amazed at how tiny finches, barely out of the nest, are bold enough to ignore my cats, ignore me, in fact, even when I’m wielding a broom. These birds, with brains the size of a shelled pea, outsmart me with ease. They stay three inches beyond the reach of my broom, pooping with abandon, and creating a huge mess on my walkway.

There is no rubber snake, pinwheel, pieces of mylar that scares these birds. Huge, aggressive grackles, tiny finches, spotty starlings, rattling doves, curved-beak thrashers and yes, busy hummingbirds, all snack on the figs.

Netting is not the answer, either. The tree is 15-feet high, and between the side of the house and the

Two still-untouched figs

Two still-untouched figs

block fence. Part of the tree hangs over into the neighbors yard. It’s overhung by a palo verde and shares space with a grapefruit. To cover the tree with a net, I’d need a lot of netting, a very tall ladder, another person and the ability to affix the next like a hairnet around the whole tree top.

I’ve seen nets in trees and I’ve seen birds fly under them with ease. The trouble is you then have a bird that can’t easily find its way out from under the net. I don’t want broken-winged birds, and I don’t want panicky birds. Panicky birds are destructive, and I’m losing enough figs.

Quinn McDonald is a nature lover who loves fresh fig preserves. She may not get them this season. Quinn has two websites: one for professional training at and her art journaling site at