The magic of tropical forests and the fig trees that live in them

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Michael Metivier at my US publisher Chelsea Green Publishing (CGP) recently interviewed me about my book — published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven and in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers. The book is about how fig trees have influenced humanity and the world about us in profound ways thanks to some extraordinary biology.

Here’s how the conversation went:

CGP: You’ve written a fascinating book about figs, but your interest in biology started with big animals. How did you end up finding figs and fig-wasps?

MS: What interested me most when I began studying biology at university was how animals and plants behave and interact and influence each other’s fates. But I was definitely more interested in animals than plants, and in big animals more than small ones.

By accident, I ended up studying the whole gamut in the mixed-up biology of fig trees, their pollinator wasps, and seed-dispersing birds and mammals. For my master’s degree’s field project, I was meant to go to Indonesia to study the wild bird trade, but it turned out that the project there needed a social scientist, not a biologist.

My course supervisor felt bad and reached out to three of his fellow fig biologists to see if any could host a project student for six weeks. It was Rhett Harrison, in a rainforest national park in Borneo, who replied first with a yes. The fig trees I studied there soon seduced me. My master’s project turned into a doctoral thesis, and I would spend 18 months in the rainforest over the next three years.

CGP: What do you mean by “mixed-up biology of fig trees.” Can you elaborate?

MS: By mixed-up I meant that the fates of fig trees, fig-wasps, and fig-eating birds and mammal are all bound together. The flowers of each fig tree species can be pollinated only by specific fig-wasp species. The wasps in turn can only breed in their partner’s flowers, which are inside the figs.

Thanks to this 80-million-year-old relationship, more than 1,200 bird and mammal species benefit by feeding on ripe figs. And because of the wasps, ripe figs can be found year round, sustaining a great variety of wildlife when other fruits are scarce. Most of these animals are fig-seed dispersers, providing a service to the fig trees in return for a payment of fig flesh.

The wasp-fig-wildlife marriage is under constant pressure. Some birds and mammals are enemies of the fig trees, destroying the seeds they consume. There are also parasitic insects that feed on the offspring of pollinator wasps inside their figs. Overall though, the marriage is strong. It has many children too—not only the new generations of fig trees, fig-wasps and fig-eating animals, but also those of hundreds of other plant species whose seeds the fig-sustained animals disperse. As a result, fig trees and their associated animals shape the world about us, just as they have been doing for tens of millions of years.

CGP: You grew up off the coast of England, so what began your fascination with tropical ecosystems, and what/when was your first encounter with them?

MS: I grew up on Jersey, a very small island in the English Channel, with no rivers, no mountains, no forests. My interest in tropical forests was fed in part by my dad’s love of nature and being outdoors. Under his influence, I also watched a lot of David Attenborough documentaries as a kid.

Another big childhood influence was Jersey Zoo, now Durrell Wildlife Park, and its symbol—the dodo. The writer Gerald Durrell had set the zoo up to breed rare species and restock their wild populations. At a very young age, the zoo taught me about the diversity of life, the wonders of the tropics, and the reality of extinction.

Later when I was a teenager, I began reading New Scientist and started to understand just how important tropical rainforests are, not just for wildlife but for the climate and our wellbeing. The first time I went to the tropics was in 1994, when I visited Sri Lanka with some friends from university. To walk in a tropical forest for the first time was an amazing experience. I was awestruck.

CGP: You clearly identify the ecology and biology of fig trees, but you’ve become fascinated with the role figs have played in human history. What can we learn from these cultural associations and meanings?

MS: The more I learned about wild fig species, the more I came across curious stories in which these trees star. They feature in myths and religious stories from places as varied as Greece, Kenya, Mexico, Egypt, India, and Australia—and many more. The local Iban people who lived near my research site in Borneo said strangler figs were hosts to spirits and so should never be felled.

I later learned that such taboos against felling fig trees are remarkably common to diverse cultures around the world. The more I dug, the more I realised how deep-rooted fig trees are in the human story. They were sustaining, protecting, and inspiring our ancestors long, long ago, and today, thanks to their unique biology, they can help us to restore damaged rainforests and protect rare and endangered wildlife.

Protecting and planting fig trees will help us to safeguard many thousands of other species of plants and animals and the ecological functions they provide. Healthy biodiverse forests can both provide sustainable livelihoods and lock away carbon, slowing climate change. Those ancient cultural taboos against felling fig trees are still relevant today.

CGP: One of the lasting impressions from your book is the surprising ways in which science and spirituality quite naturally intertwine. On a personal level, is there a memory you have from your travels and studies where you experienced the sublimity of these connections?

MS: The first time I walked in a tropical rainforest, in Sri Lanka in 1994, I felt what I can only describe as awe. I viscerally felt the abundance of life all about me. It was as if I could somehow detect it at some deep level within me. To be in a tropical rainforest is to be immersed in a new atmosphere, a different humidity, a new soundscape, and a visual flood of myriad shades of green.

With so much life vibrating in one place, it is hard not to feel some connection to the rhythm. I have had that same sensation many times in Borneo and in the Amazon and in other forests. Part of its power is how it reveals that all life is connected, and how small we are in the greater scheme of life. The sensation is both grounding and enlivening.

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More information

Ladders To Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future was published in the UK by Unbound.

Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees was published in North America by Chelsea Green Publishing.

While the titles are different, the content of these two books is the same.

Read a summary and advance praise from Annie Proulx, Deborah Blum, Michael Pollan, Sy Montgomery, Fred Pearce, Simran Sethi and Thomas Lovejoy and others.

Photo credit: Lawrence Murray (Flickr / Creative Commons) – cropped image of strangler fig on ruined temple (Beng Mealea, Cambodia)

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