A great month for a book about fig trees

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It has been an eventful month for my new book. Published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven and in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers, it tells how fig trees have shaped our world, influenced diverse cultures and can help us restore life to degraded rainforests.

This week BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme featured it in its annual review of new food-related books. Author Alex Renton called it: “A lovely little book, a real pleasure”. You can listen to the show here.

Earlier in the month, on WHYY public radio in the United States, broadcaster Mike McGrath said: “My mind has been blown… Absolutely wonderful… My book of the year”. You can listen to the full show here (I’m on from about 14 minutes, 10 seconds).

Also this month, Marion Nestle of Food Politics called it “a truly informative book”, and Donna Seamen of Booklist called it “lively… mind-expanding… richly entertaining and truly enlightening”.

In other news, I learned a few days ago that the first translated edition of the book will come out in 2018, in Turkish, through Istanbul-based publisher Nail Kitabevi.

I have also been busy with interviews. Last week, Erik Hoffner at Mongabay.com opened with a question about the virtues of strangler figs and ended up asking about robots in rainforests.

Along the way we talked about why figs are so important in rainforests, whether figs will endure climate change or help us to limit it, and what is special about strange shaggy animals called binturongs. I started by explaining why strangler figs are trees of life, not death. You can read the full interview here.

And, if you are in the USA, you can listen this week to a new interview by Lynne Rossetto Kasper for The Splendid Table, a food and culture show broadcast by American Public Media. It airs on Friday 2 December, and will be available online as a podcast after that.

I am learning just how hard it is to market a book, but that every little bit of publicity helps. So, if you have already read my book, I would be very grateful if you would consider leaving a rating at Amazon (US or UK) and/or Goodreads.

Why are so many strangler figs home to ghosts and goblins?

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No trees are home to a more motley mix of supernatural creatures than the strangler figs, whose eerie aerial roots are adept at seizing imaginations in their grip. Diverse cultures around the world say these trees shelter angels and fairies, gods and ancestral spirits, ghosts and other malevolent creatures.

There may be a biological basis to some of these beliefs. Strangler figs attract ghostly nocturnal animals such as leathery-winged bats and small primates with big eyes that reflect moonlight. In Indonesia and Malaysia, these trees are often home to small saucer-eyed primates called tarsiers (Tarsius tarsier) whose local names mean ‘spirit animal’ or ‘spirit monkey’.

Other denizens of strangler figs are decidedly less cuddly. In the folklore of the Philippines, they include giant tree demons called kapres, goblin-like duendes and the half-human, half-horse tikbalang.

On the Japanese island of Okinawa, folk tales feature impish red-haired spirits called kijimuna that live inside the hollows of strangler figs. These mischievous sprites love to play tricks on passing people, such as sitting on their chests so they can’t breathe.

In Australia, aboriginal stories warn of an altogether more fearsome fig-dweller, the yara-ma-yha-who. This manlike creature has bulging eyes and a gaping toothless maw. When hungry it will leap out of its fig tree onto an unsuspecting traveller. Its fingers and toes end in flattened discs, through which it sucks the blood of its victims.

These are just a few of the many supernatural beings that people across Africa, Asia, South America and the Pacific have said live in fig trees. As my new book Ladders to Heaven (US title: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers) explains, often these stories coincide with taboos against harming fig trees — in the image above, ghosts assail a Bengali man who made the mistake of chopping a branch from a sacred strangler fig.

Whether ancient people realised it or not, by protecting strangler figs, they were ensuring the survival of many other species of plants and animals upon which they depended. That’s because strangler figs are ecological linchpins. They produce figs year-round, sustaining a rich variety of birds and mammals that disperse the seeds of many other forest species. Without strangler figs many of these animal and plant species would simply go exinct.

So next time you see a strangler fig, fear not. The world would be a scarier place without them.

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Picture credit: Illustration by Warwick Goble from the 1912 illustrated edition of Folk-Tales of Bengal by Lal Behari Dey / Wikimedia Commons. Photo: A famous strangler fig called the Cathedral Fig in Queensland, Australia (James Niland / FlickrCreative Commons).

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‘I didn’t choose figs — They seduced me’

Howard Lovy, executive editor at US-based Foreword Reviews, recently published an interview with me about my new book. Published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven and in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers the book tells how fig trees have shaped our world, influenced diverse cultures and can help us restore life to degraded rainforests. I am reproducing the interview here with Howard’s permission.

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HL: Let’s get this question out of the way first, since many in the U.S. don’t get it. You’ve attended United Nations climate change negotiations. You’ve devoted your career to studying and writing about nature. I’m sure you’ve also spoken to some very smart people. Can you, for the record, state whether climate change is real and man-made?

MS: Yes, man-made climate change is real. The mass of scientific findings made over the past three decades shows very clearly that human activities are raising the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and that this is raising the global average temperature and changing the climate. 2016 is set to be the hottest year on record.

HL: Figs and wasps depend on one another for their existence. Not to be too obvious in our metaphors, but did you choose to focus on figs because of its wider implications for humans and nature?

MS: I didn’t choose figs—they seduced me. I spent three years studying dozens of wild fig species in Borneo and Papua New Guinea. I worked in forests where fig trees play a critical role in sustaining a large proportion of the wildlife and the thousands of plant species whose seeds these creatures disperse. The biology of fig trees was fascinating enough—shaped as it is by an 80-million-year-old partnership with tiny wasps. But when I also learned the many ways fig trees have influenced our own species, I became compelled to write their story.

The more I researched, the more these trees amazed me. I firmly believe everyone should know their story, not least because it is linked to every one of us in some way. It offers a powerful lens through which we can examine our own place in nature, as well as our future and our past.

HL: What is the most unusual, or surprising, role figs have played in altering the course of human history?

MS: Well, Queen Elizabeth II was asleep up a fig tree when she inherited the throne. The Buddha attained enlightenment whilst meditating beneath one. And without figs to power their bodies, the Egyptians might never have built the pyramids. In the colonial era, Britain used sacred fig trees as gallows to hang hundreds of Indian rebels. And in Kenya, rebels used a fig tree as a secret post office to plot against the British. Fig trees have played roles in the births of biology, of agriculture and of the first great civilizations. They feature in every major religion and have influenced diverse cultures all across the planet.

I’m most interested, however, in the possibility that fig trees played a role in our evolution, feeding our pre-human ancestors a year-round diet of energy rich figs—the perfect fuel for a large primate evolving a big and complex brain.

HL: You recently told The New Yorker that you used to spend time lying beneath a fig tree and recording its visitors. An amazing number of species would come and eat. Did that tell you anything about our own place in the ecosystem?

MS: A single strangler fig can produce as many as a million figs more than once a year, and at any time of the year. They are the pop-up restaurants of the rain forest and, year-round, they attract a great variety of birds and mammals.

Two things struck me as I watched these feasts unfold. First, I had no doubt that a fruiting fig tree would have often offered a lifeline to our earliest human ancestors, the first people, whose days would have focused largely on finding food. Second, I realized how fig trees are magnets for wildlife, and how the early humans would have used them as hunting grounds, just as hunters do today in forests across the tropics. As sources of both meat and figs, such trees would have been valuable resources to protect and respect.

It is little wonder then that all around the tropics, diverse cultures have woven fig trees into their stories and have often developed taboos against felling these trees.

HL: There are, very likely bits of mummified wasp in every fig we eat. How should we feel about this?

MS: While that is certainly true of the hundreds of wild fig species, we tend to eat figs of just one species: Ficus carica. This plant is among the first that people ever cultivated for food—several thousand years ago. Over that long history farmers bred some Ficus carica varieties that no longer need wasps to produce ripe figs. So, for those varieties, there’s no trace of a wasp. Great news for vegans!

Other Ficus carica varieties do need wasps to pollinate their flowers in order for them to develop seeds, then become sweet and ripe. But the wasps are so small and so few that you really won’t notice them. By the time you eat a fig, any dead wasps will have mostly broken down into nothingness. Rest assured, when you bite into a fig, any crunch comes from fig seeds not wasp corpses.

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Photo credit: A famous strangler fig called the Cathedral Fig in Queensland, Australia (James Niland / FlickrCreative Commons)

The orangutan, the strangler fig and the photographer — a story of entwined lives

Orangutan climbing the pillar root of a strangler fig (Ficus stupenda)

Tim Laman / Wildlife Photographer of the Year

I’m thrilled for Tim Laman, who has just won the 2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for this stunning shot of an orangutan climbing the pillar root of a strangler fig (Ficus stupenda) to feast on ripe figs.

There is a sweet irony to Laman’s winning photo. It was thanks to an image of an orangutan that Laman ever visited Indonesia, where he first became a fig biologist and later developed the skills that would enable him to take photos of life in the rainforest canopy.

Back in 1986, Laman had been at Harvard University studying for a PhD when he saw a poster advertising a research assistant’s job in Indonesian Borneo. The poster featured an image (below) from The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace, Laman’s future hero.

Laman got the job, put his studies on hold and travelled to Borneo, where he fell in love with the rainforest. His life tilted in a new direction. For the next few years, he studied  strangler figs — important plants whose figs feed orangutans and dozens of other wildlife species.

To understand these fascinating plants he had to climb the giant trees on which the stranglers grow. It was up there in the rainforest canopy that Tim found his true vocation — capturing phenomenal images of rare and endangered wildlife. Congratulations Tim!

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Notes:

I’m doubly grateful to Tim Laman. First, for his meticulous research on strangler figs, which helped me during my own doctoral research on these plants. Second, for the help he provided when I was researching my book about fig trees Ladders to Heaven / Gods, Wasps and Stranglers. Laman is the star of Chapter 7.

To see more of Laman’s photos, visit his Facebook and Instagram pages, or his website.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the  Natural History Museum, London. For more details of the awards, visit the website.

Full caption for Laman’s winning photo:

Entwined lives by Tim Laman – Winner, Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2016: 
A young male orangutan makes the 30-metre (100-foot) climb up the thickest root of the strangler fig that has entwined itself around a tree emerging high above the canopy. The backdrop is the rich rainforest of the Gunung Palung National Park, in West Kalimantan, one of the few protected orangutan strongholds in Indonesian Borneo. The orangutan has returned to feast on the crop of figs. He has a mental map of the likely fruiting trees in his huge range, and he has already feasted here. Tim knew he would return and, more important, that there was no way to reach the top – no route through the canopy – other than up the tree. But he had to do three days of climbing up and down himself, by rope, to place in position several GoPro cameras that he could trigger remotely to give him a chance of not only a wideangle view of the forest below but also a view of the orangutan’s face from above. This shot was the one he had long visualized, looking down on the orangutan within its forest home. GoPro HERO4 Black; 1/30 sec at f2.8; ISO 231.

 

 

My Father in his Suitcase: In Search of E.J.H. Corner the Relentless Botanist

John Corner has written an extraordinary book.* For years, the titular suitcase lay unopened in his house, its contents unknown. It represented sadness and pain. The suitcase had been willed to Corner by his father, a complex man who had rejected his 19-year old son and refused ever to see him again. When Corner eventually brought himself to open the suitcase, decades later, out came one hell of story.

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As Corner began to explore the books, letters and photos he found, he began to learn things about his father for the first time. Who was this man who had hurt him so? Corner turned detective to find out more.

The author came to know that his father, EJH Corner, was a botanist, a brilliant scientist whose legacy is immense. He discovered dozens of new species, aided by trained monkeys he took into the rainforest. He was a pioneer of conservation – large areas of tropical forest are protected because of him. And he was a brilliant writer, communicating the complexity and beauty of tropical botany in vivid prose. During World War II, his devotion to science would leave him falsely labelled a traitor.

This fascinating man had his flaws. His scientific drive always came first. His temperament was spiky. His family suffered. His marriage disintegrated. He spurned his son and refused to make peace. That’s what makes this book all the more remarkable. John Corner shows great grace in how he writes about the man who made him suffer. He is fair to the father who failed him in so many ways.

While this book is about a particular man in a particular time, it is a deeper meditation on father-son relationships. Long after reading the book, I find myself wondering did EJH Corner set his son a test in that suitcase? Was he harbouring guilt? Did the suitcase contain love?

John K. Corner. My Father in his Suitcase: In Search of E.J.H. Corner the Relentless Botanist. Landmark Books Pte.Ltd ,Singapore (2 Oct. 2014). [see Amazon]

*I am grateful to John K. Corner for help he provided when I was writing my own book — published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven and in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers in which one chapter features EJH Corner and his exploits.

The majesty and mystery of India’s sacred banyan trees

Some 550 years ago, so a story goes, the poet-sage Kabir was on a silt island in India’s Narmada River. He was brushing his teeth with a twig. When he flung his toothbrush to the ground, up sprang a gigantic tree whose crown spread so wide it cast shade over a whole hectare of land. Today Kabir’s tree is one of the biggest plants on the planet. Its true story is no less extraordinary than the myth.

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It is a banyan (Ficus benghalensis), one of hundreds of species of fig trees. No other plants feature in so rich a mix of folklore and faith stories as the figs. And none is as awesome to behold as the banyan. Walk beneath Kabir’s tree’s crown and you will see the illusion of a forest, a tight mass of thousands of trees. But look closer and you will see that everything is connected. There is just one tree. The banyan’s Sanskrit names —nyagrodha, ‘the down-grower’ and bahupada, ‘the one with many feet’— hint at its secrets.

Many years earlier another tree had occupied the spot where Kabir’s banyan grows. That tree’s fate shifted when a bird, or perhaps a bat or monkey, passed by having fed earlier on ripe Ficus benghalensis figs. The animal pooped on the tree and condemned it to a slow death by smothering.

The animal’s droppings had delivered a banyan seed to a moist nook. Within weeks, the fig seed had split open. It sent up a firm stalk with a collar of two tiny green leaves. It sent down tiny roots that hugged the host tree as they stretched earthwards in search of soil. In time these roots would expand and enlace. They would encase the host tree and erase all trace of it.

As the banyan grew, its branches also sent out roots. They dangled like strands of unkempt hair. When they reached the ground these roots grew thick and woody and merged to form what looked like new tree trunks. The massive branches reached ever outwards, sending down yet more and more prop roots. These pillars formed increasingly wide circles around the banyan’s core, enclosing it in nested cloisters.

When British historian Thomas Maurice wrote about Kabir’s banyan in 1794, he said it had more than 350 of these false trunks, each one thicker than an English oak tree, and another 3000 smaller stems. He noted that locals said the tree was 3000 years old, suggesting it existed long before Kabir himself. This raises the possibility that it is the same banyan Alexander the Great and his army encountered on the Narmada River when they arrived in India in 326 BCE.

Alexander’s men were certainly the first Europeans known to have seen a banyan. They were amazed. The vivid descriptions they wrote down would inform Theophrastus, the father of modern botany, back home in Greece. But local people saw banyans as much more than impressive trees. The banyans had long been part of the cultural fabric. More than a thousand years earlier the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation adopted a stylised banyan as a symbol in their script. Later Vedic, Jain and Buddhist and Hindu scriptures and stories mention banyans often.

To bodies, these trees provided shelter, food and medicines to treat dozens of disorders. To minds, they formed bridges to the supernatural. Gods and spirits moved among their leaves and pillar roots. By 500 BCE, Hindu texts described a cosmic ‘world tree’, a banyan that grew upside down with its roots in the heavens. Its trunk and branches reached to Earth to bring blessings to humankind.

The banyan became a potent symbol of fertility, life and resurrection. It features in Hindu stories of the universe’s periodic death and rebirth, when everything that exists dissolves into a ceaseless sea. One story says an ‘undying’ banyan is the only thing to survive the deluge. Another says that to ride the sea’s currents, the god Vishnu assumes the form of a baby, lying on his back on a raft formed of a banyan leaf. With one breath the baby swallows all that surrounds it, taking the turbulent universe into the safety of his stomach before exhaling it into fresh existence.

These symbols of life became agents of death after the British arrived in India and began to use them as gallows to execute rebels who resisted their rule. By the 1850s, there had been multiple occasions when they hanged over a hundred men to death from a single banyan. India restored dignity to these trees when it gained independence and made the banyan its national tree.

While the British knew these trees by name, Alexander’s army would not have heard the word banyan. The name only arose more than a thousand years later when Portuguese visitors to India modified the Gujarati word vaniyan, meaning merchant. They named the tree banyan after the traders who set up their stalls in its shade.

A banyan is a natural meeting place, a vast umbrella of dark green leathery leaves that blocks out the sun or showers of rain. These trees form the centrepiece of many villages. Entire cities have even grown up around these trees. Vadodara in western India is one example. It is thought to derive its name from the Sanskrit word vatodar, meaning ‘in the heart of the banyan tree’. Asia’s oldest stock exchange, the Bombay Stock Exchange, was also born beneath a banyan in Mumbai where stockbrokers would gather in the 1850s.

In cities today, the banyans are curtailed by construction or cut down to make way for roads. But if left in peace, there is little to stop a banyan expanding. The biggest one on record exceeds even Kabir’s tree. It is said to have begun life in 1434 at the spot where a woman called Thimmamma died when she threw herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre. The tree, in Andhra Pradesh, now covers two hectares. Twenty thousand people can shelter beneath its crown.

All this from a seed that is just a couple of millimetres in length. Crack one open with your thumbnail and you won’t find much inside, yet the genetic material within has the power to create a tree vast enough to resemble a small forest. Ancient Hindu sages employed this paradox in a parable, which used the imperceptible power within a banyan seed as a parallel of atman, the invisible essence Hindus say permeates and sustains the universe and all it contains.

The banyan’s power reaches deep into our world. Like all fig species, these trees depend on specific wasps to enter their figs and pollinate the flowers hidden within. A side effect of this relationship is that banyan figs are available all year round. They offer a lifeline to birds, fruit bats, monkeys and other creatures, which in turn disperse the seeds of hundreds of tree species, planting the forests of the future. The banyans truly are trees of life.

This post was first published on 21 September 2016 by Newsweek. It is an edited extract of my new book Ladder to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future, published by Unbound on 8 September 2016. Chelsea Green Publishing will publish an edition for the United States and Canada in November 2016, with the new title Gods, Wasps and Stranglers.

Photo credit: Chad Husby / Flickr (Creative Commons)

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 of tiny wasps that breed only inside the figs of their partner trees.
  2. Banyans are strangler figs. They grow from seeds that land on other trees. The roots they send down smother their hosts and grow into stout, branch-supporting pillars that resemble new tree trunks.
  3. Banyans are the world’s biggest trees in terms of the area they cover. The biggest one alive today is in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. It covers 1.9 hectares (4.7 acres) and can shelter 20,000 people.
  4. Banyans are ecological linchpins. They produce vast crops of figs that sustain many species of birds, fruit bats, primates and other creatures, which in turn disperse the seeds of hundreds of other plant species.
  5. The first Europeans to encounter banyan trees were Alexander the Great and his army, who reached India in 326 BCE. The notes they took back to Greece informed Theophrastus, the founder of modern botany, and — ultimately — led 17th-century English poet John Milton to write in Paradise Lost that Adam and Eve made the first clothes from banyan leaves.
  6. Hindus say a banyan tree at Jyotisar is the one Krishna stood beneath when he delivered the sermon of the Bhagavad Gita.
  7. For thousands of years, people have used banyans as sources of medicines. Today in Nepal, people use banyan leaves, bark and roots to treat more than twenty disorders.
  8. Hindu texts written more than 2500 years ago describe a cosmic ‘world tree’, a banyan growing upside-down with its roots in the heavens. Its trunk and branches extend to Earth to bring blessings to humanity.
  9. During India’s struggle for independence from Britain, the British hanged hundreds of rebels to their deaths from banyan trees. Independent India made the banyan its national tree.
  10. Hawaii’s banyans are not native. People who have planted them there include Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Amelia Earhart and Louis Armstrong.

Across the world, the banyans and many other fig species have embedded themselves in diverse human cultures, thanks to some amazing biology and an 80-million-year-old relationship with their pollinating wasps. As my book shows, these trees influenced the development of our species and can enrich our future too, by helping us to restore damaged rainforests and protect threatened wildlife.  The book is out in the UK on 8 September, called Ladders to Heaven, and in the US and Canada in November with the title Gods, Wasps and Stranglers.

I’ll be writing a narrative article about banyans soon. Meanwhile, I will leave you with some more photos of the banyans I saw this morning. Aloha!