The first time I heard about the Artecology Intiative project, ‘How To Be A Fig?’ I was instantly drawn towards what was an undoubtedly fascinating intersection of art, ecology, and performance art. Reading the project being described as an attempt to express through the human body the complex role that ficus plays in the ecosystem, I started to ponder about how the mobile body would convey the spirit that of a tree rooted to one spot. As someone who frequently photographs and writes about trees, I also found myself thinking about the idea of trees being performers; perhaps, one could say that for them when they were in glorious bloom, demanding to be looked at and engaged with, deliberately showy. In this case, I also wondered, what would it be like to perform as a fig/ficus tree? What would be like to watch a tree in performance? And what was particularly special about the fig tree?
I must confess that the fig is one fruit which I have never consumed and knew little about. Some months ago, while attending a tree walk held in Cooke Town, I encountered a sprawling, spreading fig tree in fruit, with bright red and green figs growing in clusters at its base in a garden of an old bungalow. It was then I learned about the fig’s curious, unique mutualistic relationship with the wasp, in which the tree relies on the wasps to make their seeds and distribute their pollen while functioning as a womb where the fig wasps can reproduce. Thanks to the wasps’ short life cycle of mere two months, the fig wasps ensure that the fig trees produce fruit all year round. In rainforests, many birds and animals consequently depend on figs for food, making them keystone species supporting the entire eco-system.
Afterwards, I started to look out for fig trees wherever I went and was pleasantly surprised to encounter one growing in my apartment compound, the marble-sized figs raining down upon me. They would accumulate around the tree, blanketing the soil and adjoining concrete path – and then, just like that, the fruits disappeared, as if they had never been there in the first place.
A few Sundays ago, I visited the IISc campus to meet the fig trees growing there and hear about the extensive research that PhD student, Vignesh had been conducting regarding long-range host location behaviour in fig wasps for the last four years. We walked around the campus to inspect four fig trees, examining the figs studding the branches, slicing them open to see what Vignesh described as a dynamic battlefield within, and learned a great deal about the many specificities of mutualistic relationship between figs and wasps. I particularly marvelled at the notion that the fig flowers were actually inside the fruit, an inverted flower, so to speak.
I had coincidentally just finished reading, ‘Lab Girl: A Story of Trees, Science, and Love’ where its author, acclaimed scientist, Hope Jahren writes about reproduction in plants in a chapter of the book:
“There is a wasp that cannot reproduce outside the flower of a fig; this same fig flower cannot be fertilised without the help of a wasp. When the female wasp lays her eggs inside the fig flower, she also deposits the pollen that coated her when she watched within a different fig flower. These two organisms – the wasp and the fig – have enjoyed this arrangement for almost ninety million years, evolving together through the extinction of the dinosaurs and across multiple ice ages. Theirs is like any epic love story, in that part of the appeal lies in its impossibility.”
Watching the rehearsals in which the researcher participants translate the complexities of the fig tree into movement under the guidance of choreographer, Veena Basavarajaiah, I look forward to seeing how the performance evolves over time and enriches our understanding of these incredible organisms.
Words by Priyanka Sacheti
Priyanka is an independent writer and editor based in Bangalore. Having participated in environmental and conservation while living in the US & Oman, she has also explored ecology and the environment through journalism. After moving to India three years ago she has been drawn towards photographing and writing about nature, exploring the flora, their rhythms and patterns. Priyanka has volunteered to help ArtEcology with documenting the process of ‘How to be a fig?’ project.