Journey to rainforests, volcanoes and ancient temples to discover the mind-blowing story of the strangler figs and their kin, which have shaped our world and our species in many extraordinary ways.
My book — published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven and in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers — tells how fig trees have shaped our world, influenced diverse cultures and can help us restore life to degraded rainforests.
It has inspired a segment of Sir David Attenborough’s Perfect Planet documentary series, a dance performance, a beer, and one of the largest collections of interconnected original art works in history.
Scroll down to read a summary and advance praise from Annie Proulx, Deborah Blum, Michael Pollan, Sy Montgomery, Fred Pearce, Simran Sethi and Thomas Lovejoy and others — or check out reader reviews on Amazon (US/UK/India) and Goodreads (US/UK).
About the book
They are trees of life and trees of knowledge. They are wish-fulfillers … rainforest royalty. They are the fig trees, and they have affected humanity in profound but little-known ways. Ladders to Heaven / Gods, Wasps and Stranglers tells their amazing story.
Fig trees fed our pre-human ancestors, influenced diverse cultures and played key roles in the dawn of civilization. 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.
“Irresistible… Shanahan’s writing is vividly and intimately graphic. The fig wasp may penetrate your dreams.”
—Victoria Glendinning, Literary Review
“Surprising, engrossing, disturbing, and promising, Gods, Wasps and Stranglers 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
“In his insightful book, Gods, Wasps and Stranglers, 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
—Daily Mail (UK)
“Ripe for the picking”
“If you’re looking for a dose of wonder in your reading life, may I recommend this beautiful book about the magic of fig trees?”
“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
“Sex, violence, figs — brilliant book.”
—David George Haskell, author of The Forest Unseen and The Songs of Trees
“Moving and joyous… written with skill, precision, erudition and grace.”
—Edward Davey, book review in Resurgence
“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. Gods, Wasps and Stranglers is a page-turner and a revelation: You will never again think of a fig as just something to eat. There is no better way to introduce the complexity and wonder of nature—and our intricate relationship with it. A must read.”
— Thomas E. Lovejoy, 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, author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain
“In Gods, Wasps and Stranglers, 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
“A real labour of love, concisely and elegantly told.”
—Fred Pearce, author of The New Wild; environmental consultant for New Scientist
“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 New Sylva and The Man Who Harvested Trees and Gifted Life
“Ladders to Heaven is a delightful and fascinating book. A natural and cultural history of fig trees might seem a somewhat esoteric subject, yet as Mike Shanahan so compellingly demonstrates, this group of trees is essential to the survival and biological diversity of our rainforests, which are in turn vital to the wellbeing of our species. Shanahan makes a compelling case for the fragile and complex interconnectedness of life as he charts the evolution of figs and the tiny wasps that pollinate them; he also gives us insights into the lives and obsessions of biologists who have discovered —and continue to discover— the extraordinary story of 80 million years of evolution. This book is a labour of love and conviction, charmingly illustrated by the author. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys fig jam, house plants, or breathing easily in a liveable climate.”
—Gregory Norminton, author of The Devil’s Highway
“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 re-emerge 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
“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
“It’s properly brilliant. Also very beautiful. Get one for the tree lover in your life.”
—Alex Preston, author of As Kingfishers Catch Fire
“A startling number of fascinating facts and stories about a tree that feeds and inspires civilisations as they rise and fall”
—Chris Walters, Acres USA
“Summing Up: Recommended. All readers”
“It may be the greatest story ever told… Strongly recommended.”
“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
“From its beginning—which features the author clinging to a slippery perch high above a rainforest, only inches from a deadly snake—the writing is exciting. Shanahan’s description of the emergence of the less-than-two-millimeter fig-wasp on a mission to deposit eggs reads like a Superwoman comic or a Star Wars script.”
—Joan Gibb Engel, Minding Nature journal
“Crafted with poetical prose… a vibrant tapestry that weaves in mythology, history and geography within its folds… you’ll go on a fig tree-centered adventure through snake-entangled forests, ancient temples and bubbling volcanoes, making your way through diverse cultures, civilizations and times, and meeting a plethora of well-known people, who were charmed, amazed and inspired by the Ficus. ”
—Chandana Banerjee, Gorgeous Girls Go Green magazine
“I’m always looking to read more non-fiction books, and if they were all written like this one with so much detail and an engaging style of writing then I don’t think I’d pick up another fiction book again!… A wonderfully informative read!!”
—Karen Mace, BooksAndMe
For the audiobook
“I listened to this book in one day; between the utterly engrossing subject matter and the engaging narration, I couldn’t stop.”
—Laura Sackton, BookRiot
Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future (Unbound; September 2016).
Gods, Wasps and Stranglers : The secret history and redemptive future of fig trees (Chelsea Green Publishing; November 2016).
In the media
Newsweek; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Mongabay; Shelf Awareness; Booklist; New Scientist; BBC Earth; BookRiot; BookRiot (audiobook review); Minding Nature journal; Resurgence; Saveur; O Tempo (Brazil); Yahoo! India; AudioFile; Living on Earth; Mongabay Newscast; WHYY You Bet Your Garden; New Books Network; BBC Radio 4 Food Programme; The Literary Shed; Boundless; The Splendid Table; BBC World Service — Heart and Soul (Part 2); Daily Mail (UK); Progressive Spirit; KCRW Good Food; Gorgeous Girls Go Green (India); BFM 89.9 (Malaysia); KGNU How on Earth; Geoscientist Online; Readers Lane; Zoomorphic Magazine; Booker than You; Bon Appetit; Responsible Eating and Living