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.
Earlier this year I travelled to the tropical house at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, where ethnobotanical researcher and writer Anna Lewington interviewed me about two fig trees with amazing stories.
The BBC World Service will broadcast her two-part radio programme this month, starting tomorrow (18 August) with the story of the Buddha’s tree of enlightenment (Ficus religiosa). Next week’s…
Some of the best ideas are the simplest ones. Like Science in the Pub. It brings people together in the informal setting of a London boozer to hear about and discuss interesting scientific topics.
On Wednesday 7th June I'll be joining the crew to talk about the weird biology that explains why fig trees are so important to ecology, to culture and to the future of life on earth. The talk will be…
It has been an eventful month for the book you brought into the world. Here's a quick update and a request.
You know the book as Ladders to Heaven but in North America, where it has found a new publisher, it is called Gods, Wasps and Stranglers. That edition went on sale on 15 November.
It recently featured on a public radio show in the United States, whose host Mike McGrath…
Some advance praise for Ladders to Heaven from Annie Proulx, Deborah Blum, Sy Montgomery, Fred Pearce, Simran Sethi and Thomas Lovejoy...
“Surprising, engrossing, disturbing, and promising, [Ladders to Heaven] 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…
The splendid banyan trees I met today in a park in Honolulu, Hawaii prompted me to share some things I learned while researching my new book about how fig trees have shaped our world, influenced culture and can help us protect life on Earth. Here are ten nuggets:
On a moonlit night in southern Africa a reproductive race is about to begin. The stakes are high but so are the risks. Most of the competitors will be dead or doomed by dawn. The starting line is a solitary fig tree whose gnarled form towers over a small stream. Figs hang in clumps from its branches like a plague of green boils. Tonight they erupt with life.
An insect emerges from a hole…
Here it is... the first ever photo of the first physical copies of my book.
I saw these on Friday and I am delighted with how they look and feel. I owe huge thanks to the more than 300 friends and strangers who bought a copy in advance and so made this book possible. Your copies will be arriving with you soon. The official publication date is 8 September. The book will be available in shops and…
Here's a story about fig trees and their wasps that never made it into the book. I first published it in 2013 and am sharing it again here while we wait for the book to be born.
It’s the land that time forgot, a remote island whose strange life forms have survived in splendid isolation since the time of the dinosaurs. Or is it? Because while biologists have long thought this, geologists…
Here’s a preview of the book’s cover and the text that will appear on the back.
The publication date is 8 September 2016, but anyone pre-ordering a copy through Unbound will get their book before it reaches the shops, as soon as it is ready. Anyone who orders their book by midnight (UK time) on 2 June 2016 will be listed as a patron in the back of every edition.
I'm pleased to unveil the final 20 illustrations that will appear in Ladders to Heaven. Below the image, you can read each picture's caption. Supporters can order prints or postcards along with their copy of the book (here).
Each picture is made up of thousands upon thousands of tiny little dots. Each picture therefore took hours upon hours to complete. With the pictures finally finished, the book…
Here's an outline of what will be in each of the book's chapters. There's a 10th chapter that I haven't mentioned yet. That's a secret for now.
Chapter 1: Trees of Life, Trees of Knowledge
I will show you how fig trees inspired the co-founder of the theory of evolution, how they feature in the creation myths of diverse religions and cultures, and how these two facts are connected.
I want to say a big thank you to everyone who has pledged support for my book so far. The campaign began just one week ago and already 90 of you have pledged.
I am so very grateful to you all. You have pledged from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Guatemala, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, the UK and US.
The book is now 27% funded. It will…
It is time for a quick update.
Ladders to Heaven is now 57% funded! I want to say a BIG thank-you to all you for your support so far. Please do continue to spread the word. The sooner we reach 100%, the sooner the book will be born.
In the meantime, here's a sneak preview of the chapters (as they currently stand).
Chapter 1: Trees of Life, Trees of Knowledge
I will show you…
These people are helping to fund Ladders To Heaven.