They are trees of life and trees of knowledge. They are wish-fulfillers… rainforest royalty… more precious than gold. They are the fig trees, and they have affected humanity in profound but little-known ways. Ladders to Heaven tells their amazing story.
Fig trees fed our pre-human ancestors, influenced diverse cultures and played key roles in the dawn of civilisation. They feature in every major religion, starring alongside Adam and Eve, Krishna and Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. This is no coincidence – fig trees are special. They evolved when giant dinosaurs still roamed and have been shaping our world ever since.
These trees intrigued Aristotle and amazed Alexander the Great. They were instrumental in Kenya's struggle for independence and helped restore life after Krakatoa's catastrophic eruption. Egypt's Pharaohs hoped to meet fig trees in the afterlife and Queen Elizabeth II was asleep in one when she ascended the throne. And all because 80 million years ago these trees cut a curious deal with some tiny wasps. Thanks to this deal, figs sustain more species of birds and mammals than any other trees, making them vital to rainforests. In a time of falling trees and rising temperatures, their story offers hope.
Ultimately, it's a story about humanity's relationship with nature. The story of the fig trees stretches back tens of millions of years, but it is as relevant to our future as it is to our past.
Please note, in the USA, this book has been published with the title Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees.
Chapter 1: Snakes & Ladders and Tantalising Figs
Chapter 2: Trees of Life, Trees of Knowledge
Chapter 3: A Long Seduction
Chapter 4: Banyans and the Birth of Botany
Chapter 5: Botanical Monkeys
Chapter 6: Sex & Violence in the Hanging Gardens
Chapter 7: Struggles for Existence
Chapter 8: Goodbye to the Gardeners, Hello to the Heat
Chapter 9: From Dependence to Dominion
Chapter 10: The War of the Trees
Chapter 11: The Testimony of Volcanoes
Chapter 12: Once Destroyed, Forever Lost?
Epilogue: A Wedding Invitation
Mike Shanahan is a freelance writer with a doctorate in rainforest ecology. He has lived in a national park in Borneo, bred endangered penguins, investigated illegal bear farms, produced award-winning journalism and spent several weeks of his life at the annual United Nations climate change negotiations. He is interested in what people think about nature and our place in it. His freelance journalism includes work published by The Economist, Nature, The Ecologist and Ensia, and chapters of Dry: Life without Water (Harvard University Press); Climate Change and the Media (Peter Lang Publishing) and Culture and Climate Change: Narratives (Shed). He is the illustrator of Extraordinary Animals (Greenwood Publishing Group) and maintains a blog called Under the Banyan.
"The complex web of ecological connections between fig trees, tropical forest animals and plants, as well as people and human culture is nothing short of a marvel. [Ladders to Heaven] is a page-turner and a revelation: You will never think of a fig as just something to eat again. There is no a better way to introduce the complexity and wonder of nature – and our intricate relationship with it. A must read."
– Thomas E. Lovejoy, University Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University; Fellow, National Geographic Society
"This book concerns the stunningly versatile and ancient family of fig trees now being used as a framework species to restore damaged tropical forests. Figs are not only considered the keystone species in forests but are perhaps the world's most perfect tree – they provide highly nutritious fruits with health-giving and medicinal qualities. They attract birds and animals. They grow very rapidly and produce abundant fruits in a few years. They make shade and shelter, their deep powerful roots can break up compacted soils, they draw up water, they prevent erosion, and they have important spiritual qualities. The tree in the Garden of Eden was very likely not an apple but a fig."
– Annie Proulx
"Surprising, engrossing, disturbing, and promising, [Ladders to Heaven] combines masterful storytelling and spellbinding science. This is a beautifully-written and important book about trees that have shaped human destiny."
– Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus
"A real labour of love, concisely and elegantly told."
– Fred Pearce, author of The New Wild; environmental consultant for New Scientist
"Rainforest ecologist Mike Shanahan charts a lifelong love affair with figs, one that has taken him from India to Kenya, through temples and rainforests, all in search of a deeper understanding of what he describes as 'humanity's relationship with nature.' The fig becomes a tasty lens that reveals not only the fruit's cultural and biological significance but our relationship to that which most deeply nourishes us."
– Simran Sethi, author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate
"In his insightful book [...] Mike Shanahan combines poetry and science, history and humanity, to tell a story not only of the fig tree but of life on Earth in all its beautiful and astonishing complexity. In doing so, he reminds us of what a remarkable place we inhabit?and how much we should all want to protect and preserve it."
– Deborah Blum, Director, Knight Science Journalism Program, MIT; author of The Poisoner's Handbook
"My mind has been blown [...] Absolutely wonderful [...] My book of the year"
– Mike McGrath, host, You Bet Your Garden, WHYY Public Radio
"[A] cool new book on the deep weirdness, sexual and otherwise, of figs."
– Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma
"The author romps through the history, biology and culture surrounding fig trees with style. Writing fact-packed non-fiction in a way which captivates and enthrals, in language that is accessible to a wide audience, Shanahan reveals a masterful touch. A highly recommended insight into an amazing tree genus."
– Gabriel Hemery, author of The Man Who Harvested Trees and Gifted Life and The New Sylva
"A lovely little book, a real pleasure."
– Alex Renton, author of Planet Carnivore and Stiff Upper Lip