My book

My book —published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven and in North America as Gods, Wasps and Stranglers tells how fig trees have shaped our world, influenced diverse cultures and can help us restore life to degraded rainforests.

Scroll down to read a summary and advance praise from Annie Proulx, Deborah Blum, Sy Montgomery, Fred Pearce, Simran Sethi and Thomas Lovejoy.


About the book

They are trees of life and trees of knowledge. They are wish-fulfillers … rainforest royalty. They are the fig trees, and they have affected humanity in profound but little-known ways.  Ladders to Heaven / Gods, Wasps and Stranglers tells their amazing story.

Fig trees fed our pre-human ancestors, influenced diverse cultures and played key roles in the dawn of civilization. They feature in every major religion, starring alongside Adam and Eve, Krishna and Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. This is no coincidence – fig trees are special. They evolved when giant dinosaurs still roamed and have been shaping our world ever since.

These trees intrigued Aristotle and amazed Alexander the Great. They were instrumental in Kenya’s struggle for independence and helped restore life after Krakatoa’s catastrophic eruption. Egypt’s Pharaohs hoped to meet fig trees in the afterlife and Queen Elizabeth II was asleep in one when she ascended the throne.

And all because 80 million years ago these trees cut a curious deal with some tiny wasps. Thanks to this deal, figs sustain more species of birds and mammals than any other trees, making them vital to rainforests. In a time of falling trees and rising temperatures, their story offers hope.

Ultimately, it’s a story about humanity’s relationship with nature. The story of the fig trees stretches back tens of millions of years, but it is as relevant to our future as it is to our past.

Advance praise

“Surprising, engrossing, disturbing, and promising, Gods, Wasps and Stranglers 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 of an Octopus

“In his insightful book, Gods, Wasps and Stranglers, Mike Shanahan combines poetry and science, history and humanity, to tell a story not only of the fig tree but of life on Earth in all its beautiful and astonishing complexity. In doing so, he reminds us of what a remarkable place we inhabit—and how much we should all want to protect and preserve it.”
—Deborah Blum, director, Knight Science Journalism Program, MIT; author of The Poisoner’s Handbook

“The complex web of ecological connections between fig trees, tropical forest animals and plants, as well as people and human culture is nothing short of a marvel. Gods, Wasps and Stranglers is a page-turner and a revelation: You will never again think of a fig as just something to eat. There is no better way to introduce the complexity and wonder of nature—and our intricate relationship with it. A must read.”
— Thomas E. Lovejoy, Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University; fellow, National Geographic Society

“This book concerns the stunningly versatile and ancient family of fig trees now being used as a framework species to restore damaged tropical forests. Figs are not only considered the keystone species in forests but are perhaps the world’s most perfect tree—they provide highly nutritious fruits with health-giving and medicinal qualities. They attract birds and animals. They grow very rapidly and produce abundant fruits in a few years. They make shade and shelter, their deep powerful roots can break up compacted soils, they draw up water, they prevent erosion, and they have important spiritual qualities. The tree in the Garden of Eden was very likely not an apple but a fig.”
—Annie Proulx, author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain

“In Gods, Wasps and Stranglers, rainforest ecologist Mike Shanahan charts a lifelong love affair with figs, one that has taken him from India to Kenya, through temples and rainforests, all in search of a deeper understanding of what he describes as ‘humanity’s relationship with nature.’ The fig becomes a tasty lens that reveals not only the fruit’s cultural and biological significance but our relationship to that which most deeply nourishes us.”
—Simran Sethi, author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate

“A real labour of love, concisely and elegantly told.”
—Fred Pearce, author of The New Wild; environmental consultant for New Scientist

Publication details

Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future (Unbound; September 2016).

Gods, Wasps and Stranglers : The secret history and redemptive future of fig trees (Chelsea Green Publishing; November 2016).