The ultimate ideas book: a stunning biography of the extraordinary and surprising way that fig trees have weaved their way throughout history.
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.
“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.”
“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
“This is a ‘who knew?’ kind of book. Every chapter has at least one of that sort of nugget. The author has lived and breathed his subject for years. And who knew how important this fruit tree has been and still is. A bedtime read of the first order.”
Lynne Rossetto Kasper, food writer and radio journalist, host of The Splendid Table
“A truly informative book”
Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics and What to Eat
“Mythology, biology and hope for the future combine in this highly accessible story of the family of fig trees, with its profound ecological relevance… A joyful, celebratory world history of the fig tree and its ecological impact”
Julia Jenkins, librarian and book reviewer for Shelf Awareness
“Fig trees, with their ‘sinuous aerial roots,’ hidden flowers, wondrous pollinators, and nourishing fruits, have sustained diverse ecosystems and civilizations for millennia. In this lively and mind-expanding mix of personal adventures, myth, religious history, and science, rain-forest ecologist and award-winning journalist Shanahan traces the intricate connection between humans and Ficus species. He cogently illuminates how fig trees were held sacred by various spiritual traditions around the world, including those of ancient Egypt and Greece, along with the fig tree’s place in the Buddha’s story and the Garden of Eden. He profiles intrepid fig-tree experts and vividly explains how tiny fig-wasps burrow into figs, lay eggs, and reemerge to distribute pollen, allowing the planet’s 750 Ficus species to thrive and feed 1,274 species of birds and mammals, including humans. Scientists now recognize that fig trees are “keystone resources” essential to sustaining life and foresee their playing a central role in forest restoration as we struggle with the consequences of environmental decimation and global warming. Shanahan’s spirited celebration of the fig tree as symbol and life force is richly entertaining and truly enlightening.”
Donna Seamen, editor (adult books), Booklist