What happens when our attention snags on something that takes us out of our isolated selves into a larger, richer place? The poem, To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian, by Ross Gay, gives us a taste of what can transpire when that happens.

To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian

by Ross Gay

Tumbling through the
city in my
mind without once
looking up
the racket in
the lugwork probably
rehearsing some
stupid thing I
said or did
some crime or
other the city they
say is a lonely
place until yes
the sound of sweeping
and a woman
yes with a
broom beneath
which you are now
too the canopy
of a fig its
arms pulling the
September sun to it
and she
has a hose too
and so works hard
rinsing and scrubbing
the walk
lest some poor sod
slip on the
silk of a fig
and break his hip
and not probably
reach over to gobble up
the perpetrator
the light catches
the veins in her hands
when I ask about
the tree they
flutter in the air and
she says take
as much as
you can
help me
so I load my
pockets and mouth
and she points
to the step-ladder against
the wall to
mean more but
I was without a
sack so my meager
plunder would have to
suffice and an old woman
whom gravity
was pulling into
the earth loosed one
from a low slung
branch and its eye
wept like hers
which she dabbed
with a kerchief as she
cleaved the fig with
what remained of her
teeth and soon there were
eight or nine
people gathered beneath
the tree looking into
it like a
constellation pointing
do you see it
and I am tall and so
good for these things
and a bald man even
told me so
when I grabbed three
or four for
him reaching into the
giddy throngs of
yellow-jackets sugar
stoned which he only
pointed to smiling and
rubbing his stomach
I mean he was really rubbing his stomach
like there was a baby
in there
it was hot his
head shone while he
offered recipes to the
group using words which
I couldn’t understand and besides
I was a little
tipsy on the dance
of the velvety heart rolling
in my mouth
pulling me down and
down into the
oldest countries of my
body where I ate my first fig
from the hand of a man who escaped his country
by swimming through the night
and maybe
never said more than
five words to me
at once but gave me
figs and a man on his way
to work hops twice
to reach at last his
fig which he smiles at and calls
baby, c’mere baby,
he says and blows a kiss
to the tree which everyone knows
cannot grow this far north
being Mediterranean
and favoring the rocky, sun-baked soils
of Jordan and Sicily
but no one told the fig tree
or the immigrants
there is a way
the fig tree grows
in groves it wants,
it seems, to hold us,
yes I am anthropomorphizing
goddammit I have twice
in the last thirty seconds
rubbed my sweaty
forearm into someone else’s
sweaty shoulder
gleeful eating out of each other’s hands
on Christian St.
in Philadelphia a city like most
which has murdered its own
this is true
we are feeding each other
from a tree
at the corner of Christian and 9th
strangers maybe
never again.

Copyright © 2013 by Ross Gay. Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.

As I read this poem, I am struck by the spirit of joy and abundance running both through the language and the theme of the poem. When I read it, I follow a narrative trail that begins with a mind disconnected and alone in its surroundings that winds its way through a picture of care, abundance, and generosity until it reaches and even creates an entirely new embodiment of community.


The woman sweeping the sidewalk gives me the first picture of care. She cares that people don't slip and fall; she values what the tree has produced and doesn't want to waste the enjoyment and goodness the figs can bring her neighbors. When I was growing up, I had aunts and uncles who would always send you home at harvest time with your arms full of yellow plums, zucchini, grapes, dill—anything and everything they were growing in their garden. It was a way they had of showing they valued both what they had grown and you, their visitor.

Like the woman in the poem, the narrator, too, cares. He wants to "help" the woman by taking as many figs as he can–filling his pockets and mouth, bemoaning his lack of a sack. The willingness to stop and interact with the woman and others passing by and his use of his height to pick fruit for others who they can't reach it, point to the spirit of consideration and care running from one person to another.

Abundance and Generosity

For a tree which doesn't belong in this place, the fig tree is doing remarkably well—thriving in fact. Amidst the concrete of the city, the fig tree produces a bounty for any and all who can reach and carry it. This fertility seems to insist on being shared, spilling its fruit across the sidewalk.

Generosity abounds. The tree, the woman, the narrator, each in their turn recognizes abundance rather than scarcity. With a wild generosity, creation (from the hand of the Creator) sends its abundance through the cracks of the city and the recipients pass along those gifts to others, feeding each other with their own hands.


Care, abundance, generosity—one leads to the other, culminating finally in community. If any of these three were missing—for instance if abundance led to hoarding rather than generosity—the community would never be brought into existence.

The interaction first initiated by the fruit's presence leads to a wonderful picture of community, making this particular group of people "strangers maybe never again." The fruit may be temporary, the interaction brief, but something has happened through the shared experience. Generosity has had a permanent effect on the neighborhood.

Does this poem make you think of something in your own experience? Have you ever experienced the generosity of creation or a community in a way that changed your experience of a strange place? How do you pass the generosity of creation on to others?

You can listen to Ross Gay read the poem in the video below.

Another poem of Ross Gay's I love is The Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. To listen to his enthusiastic 14-minute reading of this poem, click below.

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