Mission figs turn dark purple about two weeks before they’re ready to harvest. I check the orchard every day, sliding my hand around a fig and giving it a gentle squeeze. When the figs are soft and have begun to wilt at the neck, it’s time to pick them. You don’t pick a fig by tugging and twisting, as you would an apple or a plum; you slide your thumb along the branch and press against the side of the stem to push the fig off.
We take figs to market in shallow trays. Some of our customers are so greedy for figs that, having bought a tray, they stand in the market, eyes closed, face turned heavenward, dropping figs into their mouths and groaning with pleasure while the crowd swirls around them. But better yet is to eat a fig from the west side of the tree late in the afternoon when the sun has been warming it, intensifying its wonderful fragrances.
We produce 2,000 or 3,000 pounds of fresh figs in the early crop each June (the main crop ripens in September), but we harvest less than 10 percent of them. The reason is that we are not the only ones interested in dining on figs. The birds are into them as soon as they turn color. They test for ripeness by pecking a hole in the fig. Even when the fruit is ripe, the birds would rather vandalize it than eat it.
If they were wonderful birds, toucans for example, I would say to them, “Help yourselves, my friends, take the whole crop. The pleasure of your company is payment enough.” But they are not. Most of the vandals are furtive, wretched, gracklish birds, which are neither musical nor handsome nor bold. The mockingbird also is a fig wrecker, no doubt figuring — like many musicians — that any amount of bad behavior will be excused by his lovely singing.
Closer to the ground, the quail will occasionally take a fig, but he much prefers grapes, or green peas if there are still any about this late in the season. Likewise the ring-neck pheasant (I started to write “wring-neck pheasant”) takes the odd low-hanging fig. The possum is a great fig enthusiast, but a sloppy eater: he chews with his mouth open and smears the fruit around. Mr. Raccoon, on the other hand, is very dainty with a fig, holding it carefully in his little hand and smoothing his whiskers after each bite.
One moonlit night when I was out late, tending irrigation, I saw a gray fox among the fig trees: I don’t know if she was tasting fruit or scouting for rodents. I have not seen coyote in the orchard, but I have found piles of coyote scat composed of beetle carapaces and rodent bones all cemented together with fig seeds — the remains of a memorable meal if you’re a coyote (even more memorable if you’re not).
The ground animals take all the figs up to a height of three feet, and the birds take everything from four feet on up. This leaves a band of fruit for me between three and four feet off the ground — most convenient. I don’t need to stoop or stretch, and it’s an easy harvest.
I suppose I could increase my take by setting snares and erecting scarecrows, or covering the trees with a net, or putting out a device that makes a rude noise every few moments, but I don’t plan to take these measures. The trees require almost no care — I don’t spray them or fertilize them or prune them or irrigate them — just pass through once a year with the tractor to knock down weeds, and mail in the property tax each November. So, truly, the figs are the fruit of the land, to be shared by all who live there, and I reckon that 300 pounds is my full entitlement.
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