Chapter-by-chapter preview of my book Ladders to Heaven

Here is an outline of each chapter of Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future, the book I am crowdfunding through publisher Unbound. There’s a 10th chapter that I haven’t mentioned yet. That’s a secret for now.

If you like what you see, please considering reserving a copy. Everyone who does will have their name printed in each edition of the book. To watch a short video about the book, read a synopsis and summary, or to order a copy, visit the Unbound site.

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.

Chapter 2: A Long Seduction

I will show you how people have revered one special fig species in Asia for more than 5000-years. You will meet the Buddha and a bloodthirsty dictator. I will tell the tale of a fig tree that has travelled thousands of kilometres and been made a king, has helped spread a philosophy of peace and had its flesh torn by hot bullets during a brutal massacre.

Chapter 3: Banyans and Botanical Monkeys

You hear how fig trees influence the founders of biology, more than 2300 years ago in Greece, and how Alexander the Great encountered a fig tree in India that was big enough to shelter thousands of his soldiers. I will tell the story of a 20th century fig biologist whose extraordinary drive to botanise had him labelled a traitor and a spy.

Chapter 4: Sex and Violence in the Hanging Gardens

You will find out how an 80-million year-old partnership between fig trees and tiny wasps will influence the fates of forests and wildlife across the tropics. This story is surely one of the most astounding in all of biology. It is one of the most important as well, for without these tiny creatures and their interactions with fig trees, the world as we know it would not exist.

Chapter 5: Struggles for Existence

I’ll show tell you the story of the ancient relationship between birds called rhinoceros hornbills and the giant fig trees whose seeds they disperse. Both partners face extreme challenges in their bid to survive and reproduce. Their solutions have knock-on effects on thousands of other species.

Chapter 6: Goodbye to the Gardeners, Hello to the Heat

I’ll take you to Borneo where I lived in a national park for 18 months studying dozens of wild fig species and the animals that disperse their seeds. I’ll explain how climate change, hunting and deforestation threaten the 80-million year long reign of the fig trees, and what this could mean for us.

Chapter 7: From Dependence to Domination

I’ll show you how fig trees played crucial roles in human evolution and cultural development, as sources of food, medicine and more. The figs were influencing our ancestors long before they descended from the trees. You will meet dinosaurs and ape-men, ancient royals and strange spirits, pharaohs and farmers. I will explain timeless wisdom of letting fig trees stand tall.

Chapter 7: The War of the Trees

I will explain the ecological and cultural reasons fig trees played many curious roles in the struggle for Kenyan independence. You will find out how fig trees connect a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a rum smuggler, Queen Elizabeth II, a prophet and the most wanted man in the British Empire.

Chapter 9: Once Destroyed, Forever Lost?

I’ll show you how fig trees could give yet provide us with their greatest gifts if we learn the lessons their biology can teach. I will tell you about a terrifying Time of Darkness, take you to volcanoes where fig trees have helped rebuild forests and share the story of a scientist with a vision of robots in rainforests.


A fig tree swallowing a warehouse

Roots ooze through windows and cracks between bricks. They pour down walls and pool on the floor. They entwine with remnant beams from the roof their weight has crushed. They seal once-busy doorways and claim the rooms they hide. It’s a strangler fig in action, engulfing an entire building in Taiwan.


I’m always on the lookout for interesting fig trees so was pleased to learn about this specimen known as the ‘Anping treehouse’ in an article by Jenny Zhang.

Strangler figs usually grow on other trees but some are as adept at colonising buildings. This one began its assault on an abandoned warehouse in the 1950s. For decades local people avoided it, heeding folk tales that say spirits lurk among strangler fig roots. The fig was free to thrive.

Those folk beliefs themselves have deep roots. Across large parts of Africa and Asia taboos against harming wild fig trees were once common. In some places they remain. My forthcoming book Ladders to Heaven explains the ecological basis for these ancient traditions and describes how fig trees and their powerful roots could bring us future benefits.

Photo credits: Flickr: riNux / Creative Commons; Blowing Puffer Fish / Creative Commons; Alexander Synaptic / Creative Commons


Going dotty about fig trees: Ancient and imagined images of the world’s most fascinating trees

I want to share some photos of the illustrations I am creating for my book Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future…. (watch a short video about the book, read an extract or order a copy, here) .

The pictures below are not finished but they will give you an idea of what the final versions will look like. Below and left you can see the view you can get by looking up inside a strangler fig that has killed its host tree.


There will be 20 illustrations in the book. Some I have redrawn from very old images , such as one of Adam and Eve beneath a fig tree, which a Spanish monk created in the year 994 (see above, right).

An even older image is that found on a stone seal in the Indus Valley in what is now Pakistan. The image was created about 4,000 years ago. It shows a human figure, possibly a deity, inside another kind of fig tree. In front of the tree is a kneeling man and alongside him is a human head on a stool (see below). The book will explain what’s going on in this scene.


The illustrations will include pictures of famous fig trees, such as the one Queen Elizabeth II was sleeping in when she ascended to the throne, and wildlife such as this rhinoceros hornbill, one of the most important fig-eating animals.


Each of the images involves lots of dots. In the set of photos below you can see how I move from a pencil sketch to ink. .


I will share more images as I complete them. Meanwhile, here is some more information about the book.

Ladders to Heaven will appear early in 2016. My publisher, Unbound, uses a crowdfunding model: Everyone who orders a copy in advance will be named in the book as a patron.  As well as e-book and hardback editions, supporters can choose packages that include prints or postcards of the illustrations. To watch a short video about the book, read a synopsis and summary, or to order a copy, visit:

Snakes and ladders and tantalising figs

… an extract from the prologue of my book Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future.


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.

First, there were few primates left in the area. The national park I was in was an island of ancient forest at whose edges lapped a sea of oil-palm plantations, farms and logging concessions.

These man-made habitats posed dangers to primates and other wildlife. Like the national park itself, they were often visited by shotgun-toting hunters for whom a monkey or a gibbon would be a prize kill.

But even if primates had been abundant, something else was wrong. Like all fig species Ficus aurantiaca depends on a specific kind of tiny wasp to pollinate its flowers. That year, however, an intense drought killed off these insects.

Across the national park the same problem had stricken many other species of figs too. No pollinators meant no seeds to create a new generation of Ficus plants. It meant no ripe figs to feed hungry animals. And that would have knock-on effects for the other plants whose seeds these creatures dispersed, and for the other animals that depended on those plants.

The local extinction of tiny wasps had impacts that rippled across the forest ecosystem. That’s why the Ficus aurantiaca figs I spotted that day had made me incautious. I had never seen so many of that species before and I needed to know what was going on inside them. All that lay between my curiosity and the answers I sought was that poisonous snake and the risk of a long fall.

I was hanging on to a ladder that somebody had attached vertically to the trunk of the tree. The ladder was the last of seven that stood toes-to-shoulders, each one flush to the tree.

As I tried to maintain my grip on the metal rungs, an intense wave of vertigo paralysed me. For a moment I could no longer sense my own body. It was as if my mind was all that existed of me, and it scrambled to process the sudden danger. I held my breath. It was a long way down but I needed those figs and that meant I had to let go of the ladder with one hand to reach past the snake.


Tantalus never got his figs but I got mine. As I plucked each one and shoved it into my pocket, sticky latex —whiter than milk — oozed from the plant’s wounds. This gummy sap is common to all fig species. It deters insects from feeding on them and speeds recovery from wounds.

Throughout history people have discovered ways to make the latex work for them. They have smeared it on branches to catch birds, curdled milk with it to make cheese, processed it to make rubber and used it as an aphrodisiac.

I was glad of the latex that day. It covered my hands and strengthened my grip as I lowered myself down the chain of ladders and entered the murky forest again. The snake had not moved a single scale.

It may seem strange to spend time and take risks in search of rare figs but by the time I met that snake in 1998 I had come to understand three things: that fig trees can play critical roles in rainforests and other ecosystems; that they have influenced the development of diverse human cultures; and that today we are both destroying the former functions and forgetting the latter.

Back then the science was fascinating enough. But I was learning too about a chain of reverence towards fig trees that coils back in time for many thousands of years and encircles almost the entire globe.

Fig trees appear in mythologies in the Amazon and in Africa, across the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and from the foothills of the Himalayas to the islands of the South Pacific. They feature in some way in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Jainism and Sikhism. They star in the stories of Krishna and Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed and a host of other gods and prophets.

Fig trees were inspiring, sustaining and even protecting our ancestors long before they invented writing or domesticated the dog. They were pivotal in the birth of agriculture nearly 12,000 years ago and are among the most nutritious of foods we eat today.

Our shared story stretches back beyond the origin of human settlements, back to before the birth of our species, and back to before the day our ape-like ancestors descended from the trees and walked upright for the first time around seven million years ago. In fact, fig species had begun to interact with our ancestors long before they climbed the trees in the first place – back when the closest things to modern humans were the small shrew-like creatures that scampered in the shadows of the dinosaurs.

Ladders to Heaven explains why. It is a story of life and death and of a deal undone. Its cast includes kings and queens, gods and prophets, flying foxes and botanical monkeys. It features scientific wonders and religious miracles, all born from biology that seems almost impossible in its elegance.

Most of all it is a story about the connections between humanity and nature, and what the loss of those links can mean. The story stretches back tens of millions of years to the age of the dinosaurs but is as relevant to our future as to our past. As our planet’s climate changes and reminds us that nature really does matter, the story has important lessons for us all.

More about the book: Unbound will publish Ladders to Heaven early in 2016. My publisher uses a crowdfunding model: Everyone who orders a copy in advance will be named in the book as a patron. To watch a short video about the book or to order a copy, visit:

Photo credits: Bornean Keeled Green Pit Viper (Tropidolaemus subannulatus) juvenile (Bernard Dupont/Creative Commons). Ficus aurantiaca (Ahmad Fuad Morad / Creative Commons)

A thousand murders, a thousand stories to tell

Jurin Ratchapol showing visitors where mangrove trees had been cut down illegally. Photo: MAP-Asia

Jurin Ratchapol showing visitors where mangrove trees had been cut down illegally. Photo: MAP-Asia

Bancha Noppawong is a very rare kind of man, simply because we know his name. He hit the headlines in October 2000, in Phuket, Thailand, when he drove a pick-up truck into a motorbike and knocked the two people on it into the road.

The passenger, an 18-year old woman, sustained minor injuries to her face, knees and arms. Her uncle Siripoj Cheechang, the motorbike’s driver, lay unconscious in the road.

This was no ordinary accident. Bancha turned his truck around, accelerated and drove over Siripoj’s left leg as he lay prone. He then sped away.

Siripoj is lucky to have survived what appeared to be an assassination attempt. He was the managing editor of a local newspaper, a man with powerful enemies. They included the owner of a nearby shrimp farm, which Siripoj had campaigned against when it had expanded into the Pa Klok mangrove forest.

Was it just a coincidence that Bancha worked for that shrimp farm, or are these facts connected? Consider events just three months later, and the fate of another local man.

Jurin Ratchapol was a member of the Pa Klok Mangrove Forest Conservation Group, which had accused the shrimp farm of clearing parts of the forest and polluting its waters. On 30 January 2001 Ratchapol was collecting cashew leaves in the forest when he was shot dead. The man convicted of pulling the trigger was Bancha Noppawong.

I heard these stories more than a decade ago when I wrote a report that documented how people in at least 11 countries had been murdered for opposing shrimp farms near their communities.

It’s perverse that mere shrimp could cause such misery. Shrimp are not alone. They are members of a list that includes logs and diamonds, palm oil and beef, and other commodities produced in poorer countries for consumers in richer ones.

Last year, Global Witness published a report showing little has changed. It said that in the past decade close to 1,000 people have been murdered for defending their local environment from polluters and miners, land grabbers and loggers. The numbers of killings have risen in recent years.

A follow-up report Global Witness published yesterday confirms the trend: at least 116 more environmental activists were murdered in 2014.

In only six of the murders Global Witness documented has the killer been tried, convicted and punished. That’s what makes Bancha Noppawong so rare. He is still in jail, serving a life sentence for murder.

Perhaps he was convicted because he killed someone with a public profile. The Queen of Thailand had presented Jurin Ratchapol with an award for his efforts to protect the local environment just months before he was killed.

Most other environmental murders don’t get such attention. But as the Global Witness research shows, there are a thousand stories waiting to be told.

Related posts:

Dying to save the world

Time to join the dots on environmental murders

Journalists are dying to tell stories of environmental plunder

They kill environment journalists, don’t they?

The dark history and uncertain future of edible pink gold

Announcing my book: Ladders to Heaven

I have spent the past ten years writing a book about an extraordinary group of plants that have affected humanity in profound yet little-known ways. I am therefore delighted to announce today that Unbound will publish Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future.

These trees have influenced religion, culture and history in curious ways the world over. They also play pivotal roles in rainforests, sustaining more species of birds and mammals than any other trees. And all because 80 million years ago they cut a curious deal with some tiny wasps. The best could be yet to come. These trees could also help us restore damaged forests and protect rare wildlife.

My book will tell tales of kings and queens and gods and prophets, of scientific wonders and religious miracles. It will take you to rainforests, volcanoes and ancient temples. It’s a story that can tell us much about our origins… and a lot about where humanity could go from here. The story stretches back tens of millions of years but is as relevant to our future as to our past. It even involves robots.

You can read an extract and watch my introductory video on the Unbound website. If you like what you see, please consider pledging, because now I need your support.

Unbound uses an innovative crowdfunding approach, without which special books would not be able to reach their deserving readers. What this means is that Unbound agrees to publish and market my book if enough people pledge their support in advance.

Everyone who pledges will not only get the copy of the book they order, but will also be named in the book as a patron, and acknowledged on the Unbound website. Supporters also get access to a private section of the Unbound website, where I will discuss the book and the story behind it, and share extracts and sketches (I’m illustrating the book too).

If you want to help make this book happen, please pledge here. You’ll be supporting something special and different in publishing.

Please also share this with anyone you think will be interested. The sooner I reach my target, the sooner Unbound will publish the book.

Photo credit: Cathedral Fig in Queensland, Australia (James Niland / FlickrCreative Commons)

The empty forest where 100+ bird species are feared extinct


In the latest study to report rapid loss of wildlife, researchers estimate that 106 bird species have disappeared from an area of forest in Mengsong, in China’s Yunnan province.

The air there should be full of bird song: Yunnan lies in the zone where the tropics and subtropics meet and is one of the most biologically diverse areas of the planet.

There’s plenty of high quality habitat too. Amid Mengsong’s villages and paddy fields and plantations of tea and rubber, about 50,000 hectares of natural forest stand tall. Nearly three-quarters of this is protected in a nature reserve, created in 2009. The amount of forest cover has been stable since 1988. If anything, it has increased.

But when biologist Rhett Harrison* and colleagues spent two years looking for the birds in and around the nature reserve, they failed to find more than 40 percent of the species that should be there.

Their study, published this month in the journal PLoS One, rules out disease, habitat loss, predation and climate change as likely culprits. Instead it blames hunting for most of the losses.

Hunting pressure in Mengsong is extremely high, despite the fact that gun ownership has been illegal in China since 1996. In fact, the researchers spotted 59 hunters in just 107.5 hours of looking out for them. They write:

“In addition to people with guns, we frequently encountered hunters employing nets and snares. The use of nets, in particular, indicates that hunters are actively harvesting even the smallest birds, which they barbeque on skewers.”

In 2012, Harrison recorded a similarly rapid loss of wildlife from a forest in Malaysia. He told me he thinks the situation in Mengsong is typical of that “over all of South China and large parts of tropical South-East Asia.”

This raises questions about the value of creating more protected areas if they are not in fact protected at all. In 2010, China, along with nearly every other country, agreed a global conservation target, which said protected areas should be expanded to cover 17% of the planet’s terrestrial area by 2020, and that these areas should be effectively and equitably managed.

“Everyone is focusing on the former part but very few on the latter,” says Harrison. “People need to recognise that there may be a compromise in countries that are already struggling to deliver management of their existing reserves.”

Harrison and colleagues are keen to point out that they do not blame the authorities responsible for Mengsong’s nature reserve, as most of the local bird extinctions happened before it was created.

Nonetheless, what they show is that yet another protected forest is falling quiet with the silence of extinction. When the birds go, it is more than just their songs and calls we lose. The challenge is for us to decide how much loss is acceptable and what we want the word forest to mean.

Related posts:

The near empty forest that proves conservation is failing

Unhappy endlings: What tales of the last days of extinct and dying species can bring to our own story

Photo credits: Wikipedia/Creative Commons (From top left to right: Black-naped Oriole – J.M. Garg; White-crested laughingthrush – Dibyendu Ash; Rufous-necked hornbill – Ujjal Ghosh; Great hornbill – Kalyanvarma). Each of these species is among those the researchers believe to be locally extinct in their study area.

* Disclosure: Rhett Harrison is a friend and former colleague. He is based at the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the World Agroforestry Centre, East Asia Node.

Reference: Rachakonda Sreekar, R., Zhang, K., Xu, J. & Harrison, R.D. 2015. Yet Another Empty Forest: Considering the conservation value of a recently established tropical nature reserve. PLoS One. Published: February 10, 2015. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117920