I’ve just read Brian’s little book called Reports.
It has inspired me to write a report of my own, which follows:
A Report on a Fickle Ficus
It is not really the ficus that is fickle, but referring to our neighbors who are giving up the ficus as fickle or to our neighbors who are adopting the ficus as fickle loses the alliterative advantage.
I recently experienced a similar problem while translating Goethe’s poem about contemplating his friend Schiller’s skull twenty-one years after Schiller’s death. It was not really Schiller’s skull, recent DNA analysis has revealed, but that Goethe believed it was his Weimar neighbor’s skull was enough to inspire a poem dense with terza rima rhymes. I had to choose between terza rima and meaning and opted for meaning. In this report I will opt for alliteration.
It is slightly embarrassing to admit that I had to look up the spelling of ficus. Learning a second and third language is life altering, true, but it also, at least in my case, has altered my ability to spell correctly, proof that the president of the Mormon university where I used to teach was right when he warned in his partially plagiarized inauguration address aimed at the dangers of moral relativism that current trends in philosophy would lead inevitably to approximate spelling.
An approximate German spelling, Feikus, would match the pronunciation. Ph or F? Ck or K? A French spelling would certainly add a dozen silent vowels and consonants. So I looked it up. The Wikipedia article says that Ficus (a simple spelling) is a genus of about 850 species collectively known as fig trees. The Britannica article (splitter to the Wikipedia lumper) claims about 900 species.
People also ask, Google tells me, whether ficus plants are poisonous to cats? whether all figs have wasps in them? and whether a ficus tree can survive a freeze. I’ll return to the last question shortly. First let me point out that the first three hits in the search claim that ficus plants are finicky, that if you look at one cross-eyed it will drop its leaves, and that ficus are fickle yet popular. So fickle is apropos after all.
And now the question about a ficus surviving a freeze. It is mid-March. It is snowing lightly today as it has for a week. We and our two sets of neighbors who are exchanging the fickle ficus live on a mountainside where the winter’s snow lingers. For weeks L., my second wife, has been trying to organize the transfer. Evening after evening she has arranged for the eight-foot tree in a tub as large as a beer keg to be transferred from the neighbors who are moving out of the house they have sold to the neighbors who will adopt the ficus. Each time there has been a problem. Either the moving neighbors’ trailer is stuck in a snowdrift or the adopting neighbors cannot move the tree because of a playdate for little Airich (not to be confused with his father Erik) or the moving neighbors are dealing with a crisis in one of their businesses (pool covers, home health and hospice) or the adopting neighbors are not at home when they promised to be home or the moving neighbors are in Illinois or the adopting neighbors are sick or . . . well, you get the picture.
Did I mention that between them, the moving and adopting neighbors speak 6 languages and own 17 guns? Maybe not exactly 17 guns, but the number feels substantial, and thus correct. Because I have held it in my hands, I know one of them is a replica Henry rifle, fully functional. And I know there are shotguns, hunting rifles, assault rifles, and handguns.
It is possible that I have overstated the number of languages by one.
For some reason, L. feels responsible for the transfer. She has arranged and rearranged. It is possible that both sets of neighbors have decided they don’t care what happens to the ficus.
The moving neighbors and the adopting neighbors don’t know each other. L. is the middlewoman. And on this snowy day she is at a breaking point. The moving neighbors call and say the ficus is the last remaining item in their house. The adopting neighbors are not home. L. races up the hill to ask the 7 Brothers Moving Company if they can bring the ficus to our house. They agree, load the tree in their truck, and deliver it on a dolly to our garage.
There it stands this evening. I hope the garage doesn’t drop below the 40-degree threshold the website that answered the freezing question claimed would be too much. Too little.
The question of the fickle ficus leads me back to my only partially successful translation of Goethe’s poem, the last four lines of which aver that
In a lifetime, what more can one achieve
Than that God-Nature reveals itself?
How it allows solid to trickle away to spirit,
How it solidly preserves what the spirit engenders.
And here I’ve been worried about a goddamned ficus.