Asked to define material culture

Asked to define material culture, I respond, the histories and philosophy of objects – all of them, tangible and imagined.

Fig bushes bearing breva figs.

Thunderstorms rolled up the Bay last night, broke ashore, sheeting lightening, sheering wind, sweeping rain. The morning, blindingly crystalline blue, tide surges through deep salt grasses setting railbirds chuckling madly, unseen.  In the fig orchard, a freshened breeze bellies the broad leaves, their spatulate, fingered profiles turned underside up to the sun. This day promises a fine year for figs.

Breva figs ripen; new buds appear.

Figs – plant, flower, and fruit – are curious things. The lightest of winters spared last autumn’s buds, now grown large and swelling. These are breva figs, the early ones ready for table mid June, ripening even as the tiny buds of a new season emerge in the crotch of new extended branch and leaf. The pregnant, leather-textured green skins radiate the brightest green, a hue deep and delicately translucent. Memory imagines the transition in coming months through the miserable dog days of summer when brightest green darkens to blackest purple, toast brown, and variegated lemon yellow. Figs, unpicked in August will blossom, crack open in the revelation that they are flowers not fruit.  Great humming black-and-mustard banded wasps, crowds of copper-edged, emerald-shielded June bugs, ants in their disciplined millions will feast. This brilliant morning, though, the breva figs and the new figs are objects of memory and futurity – or, more to the point, nostalgia and desire. These figs are the tangible artifacts of imagined realities; in the materiality of encounter they offer an arrested moment in the continuous flow of things in the world.

Butterflies and June bugs feast.

Figs speak to histories deeper than language – after all they are among the first trees named in Genesis, proof that they predate knowledge and were well-suited for the embarrassment of its arrival. And, fig, not cereal, culture stands now as the archaeologist’s index to the birth of ancient Mediterranean civilizations. Europeans imported figs to the Americas as exotica in the age of exploration and empire and as a contraband taste of home in the era of industry and flight. In the warm climates of the South and Caribbean, figs flourish without attention; where frost heaves earth, they must be pruned, cocooned in burlap, and buried against bark-rivening cold. Often a fig survives as the lingering remnant of an abandoned home site encountered in the woods on the margin of a field. Memorials of a sort that faithfully flower for families long departed, forgetful of its plenty, ignorant of its histories. Thus, the fig epitomizes nostalgia, the “longing for an imagined past.” And, the fecundity of figs nurtures desire, the longing for an imagined future. The jars of fig preserves, stored in our kitchen cupboard and remembered in recipes shared by home cooks, require copious measures of sugar, the overwhelming sweetness that flavors nostalgia and desire.

Considering breva figs in the orchard, I am captured in a moment of reflection about the florescent nature of things. In August I will see figs differently, bend their heavy branches to my hand, savoring the sensations of late summer flavors with pleasure.

A fig rescued from Hog Island after the Hurricane of 1933 thrives at the edge of salt marsh.

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