‘If you drop, you are dead,’ said Siba anak Aji. I had met him just an hour earlier and already I liked his sense of humour. But he was right about the drop. A fall would provide plenty of opportunities to snap my neck. We were 30 metres high, dangling on a walkway that blazed an aerial trail through the rainforest canopy in Lambir Hills National Park in northern Borneo. The walkway was little more than a series of planks suspended in mid-air by a mesh of plastic coated cables anchored around big trees. With every step I took, the structure jolted, slid and creaked.
I tasted fear that first day. A safety harness tethered me to the walkway but I did not trust it yet. Nor the insects. Little black bees hauled their bodies over my bare arms, thirsty for my sweat. Giant ants scuttled across my hands and boots. My skin crawled. What vanquished my nerves was the view. It was a vision of a distant past. Thick forests had dominated this landscape for a hundred million years. From the walkway we could see the crowns of thousands of trees of hundreds of species. The tallest had burst through the canopy and reached 80 metres into the sky.
Colourful sunbirds and spiderhunters, barbets and flowerpeckers accompanied us as we traversed the 300-metre walkway. Squirrels crashed from tree to tree, their fur a blur
of russet and cream. They sought what I sought – a pulse of life from the forest’s beating heart. Siba found it first, a strangler fig whose branches bore thousands of orange figs.
Within days they would be red and ripe. I would be shackled to the walkway, alone before dawn, waiting to discover what ate them.
So begins Chapter 8 of my book Gods, Wasps and Stranglers (Ladders to Heaven in the UK), which tells how fig trees have shaped our world and our species over millions of years, thanks to some extraordinary biology (see this page for more info and reviews).
In Borneo where I studied them, as in many other places around the world, the strangler figs are the pop-up restaurants of the rainforest. They feed fruit bats, primates and dozens of bird species. The stranglers operate on a boom-and-bust basis. They ripen as many as a million figs in just a few days and trigger a feeding frenzy that falls quiet as quickly as it begins.
To get an idea of what this looks and sounds like, first check out the noises Vincent Chanter recorded when he was beneath a strangler fig in Danum Valley, in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
Then watch this National Geographic clip, also from Borneo, to see just some of the wildlife strangler figs attract.
The film says the tree only fruits once every two years. In fact, strangler figs can produce two or three crops every year. And within each species of strangler fig, the plants fruit out of synchrony. This means ripe figs are available year round, sustaining wildlife when other fruit is scarce.
Thanks to their plenitude and their presence in so many places, figs feed more species than any other fruit — at least 1274 species of birds and mammals. This makes them critical to forests, as the animals they sustain disperse the seeds of thousands of other species.
This special ecology exists because of an 80-million-year-old partnership between fig trees and wasps so small you could inhale one and not notice. And it’s thanks to this relationship that figs have shaped the world about us, influenced human evolution and inspired cultures around the world, and can help us fix some of today’s problems — from deforestation and biodiversity loss to climate change.
Strangler figs may sound malevolent but on balance they are life preservers not destroyers.
*I’ll be speaking about the secret history of fig trees at the Folkestone Book Festival on 21 November 2017. For more details, see my page on the festival website.