Ladders to Heaven tells the story of an amazing group of plants that have affected humanity in profound but little-known ways – by shaping our world, nourishing our bodies and feeding our imaginations.
They are the fig trees and the best could be yet to come. These trees could help us restore damaged forests, protect rare wildlife and limit climate change. And all because 80 million years ago they cut a curious deal with some tiny wasps. It was a deal that created biological shackles for them both, but which also created gifts for many other species, including our own.
It’s thanks to this deal that figs sustain more species of birds and mammals than any other fruit. It’s also why fig trees have so often influenced human history and culture.
They have symbolic significance in every major religion, featuring in the stories of Adam and Eve, Krishna and Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed. But their longevity puts our short history into humbling perspective.
The fig trees survived the mass extinction that saw off the dinosaurs and have been one of nature’s driving forces ever since. They were feeding our ancestors long before they descended from the trees.
Today, the 700+ species of figs are the most varied group of plants in the world. But they are under threat. And time is running out for us to learn what their story can teach us. It's a story of hope in a time of falling trees and rising temperatures.
Ladders to Heaven will take you to rainforests, volcanoes and ancient temples. It will tell tales of kings and queens, and gods and prophets – of flying foxes and botanical monkeys, scientific wonders and religious miracles. It will show how we can harness the biological power of fig trees to enhance our environmental security.
The story can tell us much about our origins… and a lot about where humanity could go from here. It stretches back tens of millions of years but is as relevant to our future as to our past. It even involves robots.
"It's lovely. A real labour of love, concisely and elegantly told” – Fred Pearce, author and the New Scientist's environment consultant
The figs were big orange beacons that lured me from afar. The snake was lime green and venomous and just centimetres from my face. I met them both near the top of a tree, about 35 metres above the ground in a Bornean rainforest.
While the snake was safely coiled on a sturdy branch, I had only some sweat soaked fingers to save me from a fall. My heart raced. The snake’s unblinking eyes looked as patient as time.
The year was 1998 and I was falling headlong into a fascinating story. Its stars are the fig trees — the 750 or so Ficus species. Over millions of years they have shaped our world, driven our evolution, nourished our bodies and fed our imaginations. The best could be yet to come. These plants could help us restore ravaged rainforests, limit climate change and stem the loss of wild species.
They could build vital bridges between religions, and between scientific and faith-based worldviews. Their story reminds us of what we all share and warns us of what we could lose. But these plants are under threat. We risk running out of time to learn the many lessons they have to teach us.
In Greek mythology a branch laden with sweet figs was among the temptations that teased the demigod Tantalus during his punishment in the Underworld. Each time Tantalus reached for the figs, a wind wrenched the tree’s bough beyond his reach. This tale gifted English the verb to tantalise.
Those dull orange figs in Borneo with their guardian snake seemed set to elude me too. I hungered to have them, though I had no desire to eat their flesh.
The figs adorned the stubby branches of a Ficus aurantiaca. This species relies heavily on primates to eat its figs and disperse the tiny seeds within. But in this particular forest Ficus aurantiaca was a plant with problems.Read more...
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