‘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.

ladders-launch975442

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.

two-covers-black

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

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.

cornercover

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.

One book. Two titles. Coming soon. Get them while they’re hot.

two-covers-black

Nearly 20 years after I started putting ideas down on paper, my book is finally here. The UK title is Ladders to Heaven. It is available from 8 September 2016 as a hardback or ebook, and can be pre-ordered from Amazon, Unbound, and all good book stores.

Later this year, Chelsea Green Publishing will bring out an edition for the US and Canada, with the new title Gods, Wasps and Stranglers. It is also available to pre-order from Amazon.

If you can’t wait, then I recommend journalist Ben Crair’s article Love the Fig, which The New Yorker published last week. It includes some quotes from me. I was also talking figs last week on BBC Radio 4’s comedy chat show The Museum of Curiosity. You can listen to the show online here until about 15 September.

Lastly, here is a preview of the text for back of the book, and below that a photo of the first batch of books themselves. Go on, you know you want one.

They are trees of life and trees of knowledge. They are wish-fulfillers … rainforest royalty … more precious than gold. They are the fig trees, and they have affected humanity in profound but little-known ways. This book 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.

Book-covers-pile

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

After many years of research, writing, illustrating, re-writing and more re-writing, my book Ladders to Heaven is about to be printed.

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. And if you order by midnight (UK time) on 2 June 2016 you will be listed as a patron in the back of the book.

Here’s a preview of the book’s cover and summary text, and a montage of its 20 illustrations, which are available as prints via Unbound.

cover-and-blurb

All20screengrab.jpg

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.

L2Hpromo

Announcing my book: Ladders to Heaven

ladders-launch975442
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 mystery bird that called for a dictionary of vanishing voices

birddiction2

In the summer of 1897 the call of a mysterious bird sparked a brief but thorough quest whose hand-sized outcome is a curious testament to the speed of change in our world.

A retired engineer called Charles Louis Hett heard the bird near his home in Brigg, a small town in Lincolnshire in the north of England. Certain he had seen the bird’s call described in print a few days earlier, Hett scoured his books — but he couldn’t find the paragraph so he couldn’t identify the bird.

What followed was a six-month burst of research and writing. Hett scavenged scraps of information from books. He corresponded with strangers around the country. He walked in the wilds with his ear to the sky. His aim was to build consensus around a definitive descriptive list of the calls of nearly 400 bird species. By January 1898 his small ‘bird dictionary’ was on sale.

A few years ago my mum found a copy of it in a second-hand bookshop and gave it to me. It still amazes me as I hold it in my hands. Among the calls Hett listed are the Red-throated Diver’s “ak-ak-kakara-kakera“, the Whimbrel’s “tetty-tetty-tet” and the “tst-tst-tsook-tsook” of the Red-backed Shrike. Just like the French-English/English-French dictionaries I remember from secondary school, Hett’s book first lists the hundreds of calls and the birds that make them, and then lists the bird species and the calls that each makes.

But it is what comes next that interests me most —  a list of 1,300 local and old-fashioned names for British birds*. There you can find the Stanepecker (for Turnstone) and the Scawrie (for Herring Gull), the Rusty Crackle (for Blackbird) and the Teapot (for Goldcrest) — each one is a name that is rarely, if ever, uttered today.

It’s hard to imagine how Hett managed to compile so much information in just six months, working from a tiny town about 100 years before the Internet entered public life. What’s more striking is that an effort to replicate Hett’s mission today would likely fail. Many of the names will have slipped out of use. Gone extinct.

Many of the birds have gone too. The new State of British Birds report [PDF] shows that populations of many British birds are in steep decline. In the past three decades alone, several species have declined by more than 80 percent. Extinction beckons. “Since 1966, we’ve lost 44 million individual birds from our countryside at an average rate of 19 birds every 10 minutes,” says a joint statement from the organisations behind the report.

We don’t know what populations were like when Hett heard his mystery bird but we do know that modern threats — pesticides, habitat loss, climatic change —  had yet to make themselves known.  The only danger that Hett himself noted was from people who killed birds so they could identify the corpse — something that helped motivate him to publish his dictionary. “The destruction of an uncommon bird for the purpose of identification, is a barbarism,” wrote Hett, who hoped his book might prove an “aid to identification without slaughter.”

It is easy to dismiss Hett’s world as a long-forgotten yesterday. But, given that the oldest person alive today was born some months before Hett heard his mystery bird, the dictionary shows just how much the world can change in a lifetime. And it seems likely that some of the species Hett listed will have fallen forever silent — in Britain at least — by the time I pass my copy of his book on to my own child.

*[By 1902 Hett had published an updated list [PDF] that more than doubled the number of synonyms to nearly 3,000 names — an average of more than seven for each real species.]