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.
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.
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