How 24 bodies transformed to tell one of nature’s most amazing stories

A strangler fig (left) and a banyan (right)

Something special has happened in India. Last week, 24 black-clad dancers took to a stage before an audience of scientists and, as music played, transformed into insects, birds, mammals and strangler figs. It was the world premiere of ‘How to be a Fig’, a performance based on my book Ladders to Heaven (a.k.a. Gods, Wasps and Stranglers) about how fig trees have shaped our world and can enrich our future.

I am honoured and humbled by the artistry with which the performers brought to life the stories I told. What they have achieved is beyond all of my expectations.

‘How to be a Fig’ is the brainchild of artist and ecologist Abhisheka Krishnagopal and a project of the Artecology Initiative. Abhisheka wanted to show, through the movement of human bodies, the important roles fig trees play in ecosystems thanks to their curious interdependence with tiny wasps. Movement artist Veena Basavarajaiah choreographed the piece and trained the volunteer performers, who included ecologists and engineers, home-makers and lawyers (see profiles of the performers and collaborators).

The performance — narrated by fig biologist Vignesh Venkateswaran —  includes sequences in which the performers portray a strangler fig dominating another tree, the courtship rituals of hornbills that depend on figs to survive, and the way fig trees sustain more wildlife species than any other plants. The way the performers depict the fig-wasp’s journey, reproduction and interaction with its partner tree’s flowers inside a fig is both amazing and true to science.

After last week’s premiere at the Students Conference on Conservation Science at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, the audience gave the performers a standing ovation. I too salute them for their brilliant portrayal of some of nature’s most fascinating and important relationships. I want to say a big ‘thank you’ to everyone involved.

The Artecology team would love to take the show on the road, so if you can help in any way please get in touch.

Abhisheka Krishnagopal performing as a female fig-wasp inside a fig. Photo by Nikhil More

Vinay Kumar and Veena Basavarajaiah portray the courtship rituals of hornbills

Artecology performers as primates coming to feast on figs

The performers of How to be a Fig take a bow

Photo credit: Nikhil More (see more photos here)

More information

My interview with Artecology

How to be a Fig page on the Artecology website

Priyanka Sacheti Mehta’s article: Building bridges between ecology and art: a Ficus love story

Deepthi Nagappa’s pre- and post-performance articles: “How to be a Fig” – A cross-over of conservation science and movement; and How to be a Fig – An engaging and educative presentation of science

My book Ladders to Heaven (US title: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers)

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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)

‘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.

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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