ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Life, according to Lloyd Kreitzer, is like walking through a field of tall grass.
“I look behind me and I can see very clear meandering trails. It’s easy to see where I’ve been,” Kreitzer says. “But when I look in front of me, all I see is tall grass.”
Although Kreitzer’s future is somewhere yet to be revealed in that tall grass, his past is well-known to gardeners across New Mexico.
Kreitzer is the Fig Man.
For the past 13 years, Kreitzer has devoted himself to preserving and cataloging heirloom fig trees, to nurturing cuttings from fig trees from all over New Mexico, to singing the praises of the fig and selling fig trees to new generations of fig lovers.
Soon, that will all come to an end.
“I’m retiring from figdom,” Kreitzer announced when he called to tell me that his life was taking another turn.
We had gotten to know each other in the rally a few years back to save some large, beautiful fig trees in the southern New Mexico village of La Luz from a local priest who believed the proper way to trim them was with a chain saw.
I often meet people who have a narrow interest in an arcane topic – it makes for good stories. But I don’t meet many people as energetic and passionate about their small slice of the world as Kreitzer.
We were standing in a greenhouse in Albuquerque filled with several hundred pots of different sizes. They contained fig trees, each labeled with a wooden identification stake: Pancho Villa, Black Baca, unnamed from a house near downtown Albuquerque.
“These are great friends,” Kreitzer told me.
Kreitzer, 69, got married for the first time this year and he moved into his new wife’s home, so he makes a trek at least once daily to tend to his fig friends in what used to be his backyard.
First marriage at 69 – that’s unusual.
“I thought I should wait until I was wise enough and mature enough before I got married,” Kreitzer said.
So the Fig Man finally got wisdom at age 69?
“No,” Kreitzer said. “I realized I would never be wise enough and mature enough, so I thought before senility completely sets in I should go ahead and get married.”
A lot of what the Fig Man says comes with an arch of his magnificently woolly eyebrows and could be punctuated with a rim shot. He proposed several headlines for this column: “Where have all the Fig Men gone?” And “A Fig Man of Your Imagination.” If he hadn’t gravitated to figs all those years ago, he might have found a life in corn.
But it was figs that called to Kreitzer – and the call came at a flea market. He was on his bicycle when he came across a woman selling small fig trees. He bought one and hauled it home on the handlebars.
It was only later that he was reminded of how, as a boy of 4 in Santa Monica, he used to climb in a low, wide fig tree and sample its fruit. And how as an adult he kept bowls of fresh figs in the refrigerator and handled them like gems.
“We all have learning or wisdom on the installment plan,” Kreitzer says. “And then all of a sudden something brings it all together and we go, ‘Where did that come from?”‘
Soon he had 125 fig trees. Then close to 1,000. His backyard became filled with greenhouses. And the greenhouses became filled with potted figs and grapes and dates and pomegranates.
Figs became how Kreitzer, who had made his living as a massage therapist, organized his life. He traveled all over the state, rescuing cuttings from trees in Silver City, Truth or Consequences, Columbus, Socorro.
“Everywhere I go, I see fig trees and take cuttings,” Kreitzer tells me. “When I see a fig tree, I’ll come to the front yard and knock on a door and present these eyebrows and this face and this passion and I’ll say, ‘I’m the Fig Man of New Mexico. Talk to me about your backyard fig.'”
Kreitzer usually learns some history about the tree, and he usually trims it for the homeowner in exchange for taking some cuttings.
“When I leave, I have cuttings and they have knowledge. The tree’s happier, I’m happier, everybody’s happier.”
This has happened all over New Mexico for so long that it’s hard to remember a time before Kreitzer became infatuated with this dangling sweet fruit.
A world without the Fig Man strikes me as a world out of whack. And I wondered how the Fig Man decided it was over.
“You know when you’re at an airport and you’re on one of those accelerated walks?” he says. “At a certain point you look up ahead and you see that it’s coming to an end. So I looked up and perceived it was coming to an end.”
Not having an after-fig plan as he faces his self-imposed Dec. 31 deadline for moving on doesn’t faze Kreitzer one bit.
“When we authentically look ahead and don’t see what’s next, that isn’t blindness. That’s a sense that when we get there, then we’ll know,” Kreitzer says. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen. I really don’t know. But when I do know, I will know.”
Kreitzer’s collection of heirloom trees and grapevines will be purchased by Gary Nabhan, an acclaimed ethnobotanist in Arizona. As for the rest of the trees and vines, Kreitzer is hoping someone will step forward to buy out his inventory and carry on the mantle. If you think you have what it takes to be the next Fig Man or Fig Woman or even Fig Collective, you can find Kreitzer in the phone book and online and begin to cultivate a relationship.
As the Fig Man leaves figdom and I leave the Fig Man, I have an enduring picture in my rearview mirror: In a sweeping field of tall grass, a lone man walks forward. To where? Who knows? But the Fig Man cometh.