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Ladders To Heaven

How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future by Mike Shanahan

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Ladders To Heaven cover

The Synopsis

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 Excerpt

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.


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The Author

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.


Photos used in video under Creative Commons licences: Double-eyed fig parrot (James Niland / Flickr); Cathedral fig (James Niland / Flickr); Orang utan (Col Ford and Natasha de Vere / Flickr); Orang utan (Flickr); Lemur (Tree Madagascar/ Flickr); Strangler fig on boulder (O. Baudys / Wikimedia Commons); Green figged tree (Jnzl public domain photos / Flickr Creative Commons); Fig wasps (Jnzl public domain photos / Flickr) and (P. Zborowski / Wikimedia Commons); Adam and Eve (Wikimedia Commons and Wikimedia Commons); Wild fig in Spain (Wildlife encounters / Flickr); Banyan in Hawaii (Wikimedia Commons); Jesus cursing tree (Wikimedia Commons); Box of figs (Pixeltoo /Flickr); Papua New Guinea fig (Arthur Chapman / Wikimedia Commons); Nava Jetavana Temple (Photo Dharma / Wikimedia Commons); Temple under fig tree (Wikimedia Commons); Thai fig tree (Wikimedia Commons); Bodhi tree replica (Wikimedia Commons); Hornbill (Wikimedia Commons); Australopithecus (Wikimedia Commons); Buddha head (McKay Savage / Wikimedia Commons); Banyan roots (Graham Crumb / Wikimedia Commons); Strangler fig (Neil Ennis / Flickr); Banyan (Heiko S / Flickr); Ta Phrom (Steve Cornish / Flickr).

Questions & Answers

Kahli Hethorn Kahli Hethorn asked:

Will the print copies be manufactured using environmentally friendly materials and processes?

Unbound Unbound replied:

Hi Kahli,

Thanks for getting in touch. Whenever we can we use fsc certified paper and materials and we like to work with printers who are using more environmentally practices. If we can help you with anything else please do just contact us via

Best wishes,

Caitlin - Unbound Community Coordinator

Hi Mike, we have number of fig species including ficus religiosa, ficus racemosa or cluster fig which is edible and people here make a curry out of it and ficus benghalensis which is used in native Ayurvedic medicine and these little wasps (some of them are some times could be a real nuisance because they fly around your eyes) they do a fine job of pollinating virtually many thousands of trees, especially in the dry zone. What is fascinating to me is that they could help to tackle climate change! Congratulations Mike! But do you know we have here in Sri Lanka world oldest historically cultivated ( in 249 BCE) living tree? Which happened to be Ficus Religiosa, a branch of the original Bo (as buddhists call it) Tree under which the Siddartha Gauthama attained enlightenment in India, according to historical records, in Anuradhpura said to be one of the longest historically inhabited cities in the world! This tree is one of the most sacred few things to the buddhists in the country. Mike did you mention any thing about that? In almost all the buddhist temples have one Bo tree (ficus religiosa) each, one of three items venerated by Buddhists in any temple. All the best,

Mike Shanahan Mike Shanahan replied:

Hi Wasantha

Thanks for writing, and for your support with the book.

Yes, Ficus religiosa is one of the stars of the book. This species has a long relationship with humanity. It was a sacred tree thousands of years before the Buddha attained enlightenment beneath one, and has remained sacred for 2,400 years since then. Chapter 2 focuses on this species. It includes stories about the original Bodhi tree in India and the Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka. Emperor Ashoka the Great is said to have cried when he said goodbye to the branch of the tree that he sent by boat to Sri Lanka.

Shelly sharon Shelly sharon asked:

Hi Mike,

I've just learned about your book, I watched the video and I was deeply touched.

I am a channeller (among other things) so this might be a bit "off your track", nevertheless I wanted to share with you that my last channelling article was about the fig tree and its spiritual symbol and sacred knowledge about the ascension of humanity :) Beautiful synchronicity for me. This knowledge is actually being supported these days by geology research.

I am looking forward to reading your book.

Here's a link to my article, which will be published on a magazine in October:!The-Fig-Tree-Mummified-Her-Premies/c21r1/55b610ee0cf2d0bb156ab395

Lots of love

Mike Shanahan Mike Shanahan replied:

Hi Shelly
Thanks so much for pledging for my book! I hope you will enjoy it. There will be plenty in it that will chime with what you wrote in your article.
Best wishes and thanks again

Dear Mike,
do you have also info about the use of Ficus palmata sap to make yohurt or cheese?
Thank you.

Mike Shanahan Mike Shanahan replied:

Hi Geert.
I don't know about Ficus palmata in particular, but people have used Ficus latex to make cheese since at least 2800 years ago. Homer mentions it in The Iliad.
Best wishes

Hi Mike!
No question really, just to congratulate you on this wonderful book. I read the pdf version but since the physical copy just crossed the big pool (the Atlantic) I know I am going to read it again soon. You made me fall in love with the fig trees and reminded me of a ficus elastica (also known here as false rubber tree) we had on the back of the house in Central Brazil but because its roots entangled in the telephone and electricity cables it was put down which made me cry for several days...
All the best,

Mike Shanahan Mike Shanahan replied:

Thanks for writing Márcia. I'm so glad to hear that you enjoyed the book. Many thanks for supporting it.
Best wishes

Murali Pai Murali Pai asked:

Dear Mark,
I am editor of African Conservation Telegraph (ACT) - a singular newsletter for nature conservation stories from Africa. You can check out our current and past issues from this link:
Could you please write a one pager on how we could reduce climate change impacts in the beautiful continent of Africa with assistance from fig trees? This issue would be a special issue on climate change in Africa and will be out in Jan 2017.
Thank you and enjoyed your book.
Editor Pai

Mike Shanahan Mike Shanahan replied:

Thanks for writing. I will send you an email about this.
Best wishes

Hannad Haydar Hannad Haydar asked:

Hi Mike
i have just finished reading your book, (ladders to Heaven), it was a joy.
i share with you the love for figs (not the entire ficus family), but after having read your book, i love the family now (i have different reasons to love the fig, mainly childhood memories but mostly because it was the last solid food that my late father was enjoying. i daily feed by young babies figs (although over here it costs half a fortune -USD18/KG, and it doesn't taste home, but still).

i would like to draw your attention to couple of inaccuracies in your book, and i hope you get them rectified in future editions:
a- page 20, you have mentioned that Koran mentions the story of Adam and Eve. no it doesn't (and also it doesn't mention the apple neither, it just says fruit)
b- page 118, you have mentioned in the Hadith that the Prophet has asked his followers to eat figs for its benefits. whilst this Hadith is not proven (most are not), however, this Hadith , if proven, refers to Honey, not to Figs

however, i would like to contribute a few anecdotes/info on figs
a- the Koran (which again doesnt mention fig in relation to Eve Story), however, in one of the Sourats (paragraphs/stories) swears by the Fig (and olive): it can be translated as : by the Fig(s) and Olive(s)... (if you are interested, i can get you the rest of it), so Muslims tend to "respect" this tree more than many others

b- on the Epiphany (Jan 6), and i am not sure if this applies to Western churches, but i know it does apply to the Greek orthodox followers, in villages, on the night of 5th, they tend to bake pies and leave on the windows, and the spirit of Christ will whisk its way and take these pies. while on its way, all the trees will bed for Christ, except the fig tree.
it sounds like one of the pagan stories that fused into the Christian tradition (i hope you can identify its origins),.
as such rural traditions are disappearing from my home country (Lebanon), i found only a few elderly who know this story well but unfortunately, no one could provide me an explanation why the fig tree "disobeyed".

again, thank you for having written the book, it was a real pleasure to read it

Hannad Abi Haydar

Mike Shanahan Mike Shanahan replied:

Dear Hannad
Thanks you so much for writing and sharing your insights. I will update future editions for sure. I liked that Epiphany story - that was new to me. I will try to find out more.
Best wishes
Mike (

The Rewards

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E-book edition.
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Original Illustrations
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  • Format: hardcover
  • ISBN: 978-1-78352-302-3