Ladders To Heaven

By Mike Shanahan

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

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Publication date: September 2017

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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

You can now purchase a copy of the new paperback fromAmazon here.


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  • Mike Shanahan avatar

    Mike Shanahan

    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).

  • 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.

  • Mike Shanahan has written 7 private updates. You can pledge to get access to them all.

    10th April 2021 Big news - From 4 sentences in a book about fig trees to nearly 1000 original artworks

    On a quiet day in June 2020, a stranger on a distant shore contacted me and blew my mind. He asked me to keep a secret until this day.

    The stranger was US-based artist Nathan Langston. He told me he had press-ganged some of my words into the service of an international art project called TELEPHONE. Nathan said that, at that moment, artists and poets and musicians all around the world were creating…

    20th January 2021 Sir David Attenborough spreads the word about fig trees

    Hi everyone

    I have a little good news to share with everyone who supported my book about fig trees, Ladders to Heaven.

    Have you seen the new David Attenborough series A Perfect Planet? Last week, I heard from one of the producers that my book had inspired the sequence in episode two on gibbons, fig trees and fig wasps. You can find the episode on iPlayer here:…

    15th January 2020 The book you funded has inspired a new beer

    Hello everyone,

    Here’s a little news that I’ve been dying to share…

    It is about a quirky side-effect of the book that I wrote, and which you all brought to life with your generous support.

    My book is about how fig trees have influenced human evolution and cultural development, have shaped the world about us, and can help us restore damaged rainforests. Last November, I heard that it had inspired…

    21st September 2018 A new edition has hit the shelves

    I'm very happy to announce that the paperback edition of Ladders to Heaven came out this month. Last week, the Daily Mail called it a 'must read'. Thanks again to everyone who pledged in advance for the hardback two years ago, or who has left reviews on Amazon / Goodreads. I'm grateful for all of your support. Please keep on spreading the word! Cheers, Mike.

    6th August 2018 Outtakes and extras part 2

    In the run up to the paperback edition of Ladders to Heaven coming out on 6 September, I will be sharing some of the stories that didn't make it into the book. Meanwhile, thanks to everyone who has reviewed the book on Amazon – if you would like to add your rating, here is the link (for GoodReads reviews, the page is here).

    Read the story

    Read the story

    20th July 2018 Outtakes and extras part 1

    In the run up to the paperback edition of Ladders to Heaven coming out on 6 September, I will be sharing some of the stories that didn't make it into the book. Meanwhile, thanks to everyone who has reviewed the book on Amazon – if you would like to add your rating, here is the link (for GoodReads reviews, the page is here).

    Read the story

    Read the story

    21st February 2018 Some good news

    Hi everyone

    I've got some good news to share about Ladders to Heaven.

    First up, Unbound will publish a paperback edition later this year. It will come out in September but is available for pre-order now on Amazon, Waterstones and through independent bookshops.

    There is also now an audiobook of the US edition narrated by TV and stage actor James Cameron Stewart. And the first translated edition…

    4th October 2017 World premiere of How to be a Fig

    Something special has happened in India. On 23 September, two dozen black-clad dancers took to a stage before an audience of scientists and, as music played, transformed into insects, birds, mammals and strangler figs. It was the world premiere of ‘How to be a Fig’, a performance based on my book Ladders to Heaven about how fig trees have shaped our world and can enrich our future.

    I am honoured…

    17th August 2017 BBC World Service interviews coming up

    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…

    1st June 2017 Author event - Science in the Pub - 7 June 2017

    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…

    1st December 2016 Good news

    Dear supporters

    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…

    29th September 2016 Advance praise for Ladders to Heaven

    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…

    6th September 2016 10 things you need to know about banyan trees

    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:

    1. The banyan (Ficus benghalensis) is one of more than 750 species of fig trees, each of which is pollinated only by its own species…

    25th August 2016 True or false? Figs contain dead wasps

    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…

    7th August 2016 The book is here. The wait is over (nearly).

    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…

    7th June 2016 The humbling history of the tiny wasps that upset a Jurassic Park narrative

    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…

    24th May 2016 Preview of cover art and back-of-book blurb

    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.


    23rd May 2016 All 20 illustrations unveiled. Prints and postcards available to supporters.

    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…

    7th October 2015 Chapter-by-chapter preview

    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.

    13th May 2015 Ladders to Heaven: Thanks to supporters and an update on progress

    Hello everyone

    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…

    13th May 2015 Ladders to Heaven: Sneak preview of the chapters

    Hello again

    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…

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  • Kahli Hethorn
    Kahli Hethorn asked:

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

    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

    Wasantha Ramanayake
    Wasantha Ramanayake asked:

    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, Wasantha

    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 Shelly

    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 Mike

    Geert Devriese
    Geert Devriese asked:

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

    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 Mike

    Márcia de Lucena Washington
    Márcia de Lucena Washington asked:

    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, Márcia

    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 Mike

    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 Mike

    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 (