Where falling fig trees portend political change

Mugumo

When, after hundreds of years of sustaining life all around it, of providing shade in which prayers were chanted and blood was spilt in sacrifice, of binding communities who claimed it a symbol, when —after all these things — a great mugumo dies and crashes to the ground, its death echoes through both ecology and society.

In the Kikuyu culture of Kenya, the demise of a sacred mugumo fig tree (Ficus natalensis) is more than a local tragedy. It is a portentous event. Now, with two giant mugumos having fallen this year, and another expected to crash down soon, many Kenyans are wondering if some big change is coming.

Mugumo trees are awesome to behold. Some grow upwards from the soil, while others are strangler figs that grow from seeds that fall on other trees. They send down pendant aerial roots that dominate all they touch. In time, these roots coalesce into a solid mass that even an elephant would struggle to topple. To birds, monkeys and fruit bats, a mugumo’s figs offer a lifeline. To people, these titans symbolise strength and power.

Mugumos feature in the Kikuyu people’s origin story. Once consecrated as a shrine, they serve believers as a conduit to god. As such, they must never be cut. As I recount in my book Ladders to Heaven (US title: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers), taboos against felling fig trees are not unique to Kenya.

Elsewhere in Africa, as in parts of Central America and much of Asia and the Pacific, many different cultures have developed such bans – often with punishments, both real and imagined, for transgressors.

According to a recent media report, a Kenyan man’s skin turned white after he pruned a sacred fig tree in 1972. Contrast that with the fate of some Kikuyu converts to Christianity who — according to the missionary Constanzo Cagnolo writing in 1933 — were killed for chopping down a mugumo for firewood.

With such strong protections in place, the sacred mugumos have been free to grow into giants. And so, the very notion of one falling has become wrapped up in faith.

Perhaps the most famous of Kenya’s fallen fig trees is one that grew in Thika until 1963, and whose downfall was prophesied more than a century and a half earlier. In the late 1800s, a Kikuyu seer had foreseen the arrival of pale-skinned people toting ‘fire sticks’ — their guns. He saw an iron snake that would eat people and vomit them out – the train. He also predicted that when a huge fig tree in Thika fell, his people would be free.

When representatives of the British Colonial Government heard this story, they reinforced the tree with a metal rail. It did not help. Part of the tree fell in May 1963 and a month later Kenya had gained internal self-rule.

The remainder of the tree fell six months later. Within a month – on 12 December – Kenya became an independent country, with Jomo Kenyatta its first Prime Minister. One of Kenyatta’s first acts as leader of the new nation was to plant a mugumo fig tree where the British Union Flag had fluttered in the wind.

In the years ahead, people would link falling fig trees with the declines of heroes of the struggle for independence. On 2 March 1975, the day after one of these trees fell, a popular politician in Kenyatta’s administration called JM Kariuki was found dead. He had been assassinated, his burnt body dumped on an ant nest. The tumbling-down of another sacred mugumo in 1978 foreshadowed the death of Kenyatta himself, later that year.

Falling fig trees can also signify shifts in power. A giant mugumo in Nyeri County fell shortly before Mwai Kibaki won Kenya’s presidency in 2002, ending nearly 40 years of unbroken rule by Kenyatta’s party KANU.

Another huge mugumo fell just days before the March 2013 general election. As in 1963, this mugumo split in two before it fell. In Kikuyu lore, this signifies ituika — the change of guard from one group to another. Kikuyu elders said it presaged a generational change in Kenya’s leadership. Sure enough, Jomo Kenyatta’s son Uhuru won the presidency – replacing Kibaki and shifting political power from the old to the young.

These mugumo fig trees have played many other curious roles in Kenya, from wartime lookout post to clandestine post office. In the story I tell in my book, they star alongside a queen, a Nobel Prize winner and the most wanted man in the British Empire.

Now, with Kenya’s next general elections taking place on 8 August 2017, the country’s fig trees are again under intense scrutiny. Since the start of the year, dozens of media reports have pondered the significance of an apparent increase in falling fig trees, such as the one that crashed down in Karatina, Nyeri County on 3 May.

Back in March, the body of another sacred mugumo cracked and began tilting toward people’s houses in Kiambu County. A village elder said mugumo trees do this when the society has committed a sin: “God is angry and people need to seek forgiveness,” he said.

Three days earlier, a giant mugumo fell in Kiamigwi village, Nyeri County. Some locals suggested that this symbolised the death of Nyeri’s Governor Nderitu Gachagua, in February. Others said it was because a snake had made its home among the fig’s roots and defiled the holy place.

The Kikuyu elders chanted, sacrificed lambs and sprayed libations of beer to cleanse the shrine and, as one elder put it, to “say goodbye” to the tree. When asked what the mugumo’s demise meant, the elders said there was nothing to fear. On this occasion, it was just a case of old age.

Photo credit: JMK (Wikipedia / Creative Commons)

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.

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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

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A job for conservation’s keystone cops

Take the keystone away from an arch and down will tumble the whole structure. Take a keystone species away and — so the concept goes — other species will go extinct too. In his excellent recent feature for Nature, Ed Yong explains how biologist Bob Paine came up with the concept while he studied starfish in the 1960s.

Paine’s keystone species concept “would go on to be applied to species from sea otters to wolves, grey whales and spotted bass” and — a group Ed missed from the list — wild fig trees, whose huge crops are available year-round and keep more animals alive than any other species.

For this reason, Ed’s article brought a blush to my cheeks. As I read it I recalled the time a journalist falsely quoted me, to suggest that I “came up with the idea of figs being a keystone”. Sixteen years later those words still make me wince, for they made it seem I had stolen another scientist’s idea. In fact it was Professor John Terborgh, then of Princeton University, who had been the first biologist to apply Paine’s keystone concept to fig trees.

The journalist had interviewed me in 1997 for The Reporter, a newsletter for staff and postgraduate students at the University of Leeds, because I had won a prize in the Daily Telegraph Young Science Writers competition with an article about fig trees. While I am certain Professors Terborgh and Paine never saw the piece, I remember well the horror I felt when I read the words the journalist had put into my mouth. The experience would guide me well in my own journalism years later.

Now, thanks to the memories Ed’s article has triggered, I’d like to set the record straight and also publicise a vast dataset that nearly got lost and which explains why figs are so special. I can trace its origins back through the work of both John Terborgh and Bob Paine.

Here too is the story I wrote that got The Reporter‘s journalist all worked up. Please forgive its naivety and clunky construction — it was my first ever attempt to write about science for a non-technical audience and it is clear to me today that I was still writing then as a scientist.

Some months later, on 18 February 1998, The Daily Telegraph published it with the title ‘Answering the distress call’. I prefer the title I submitted at the time — the one I have used for this blog post.

Figs: A job for conservation’s keystone cops

It is a myth that in tropical forests the bounty of nature’s larder is available year round to support fruit-eating animals. In reality, they may experience alternating episodes of feast and famine, with fig-eating potentially meaning the difference between life and death.

Many tropical fruit-bearing plants share seasonal fruiting patterns, with one or two peaks of ripening at the same time each year. Fig trees, though, can fruit at any time and, so, many sustain fruit-eaters through lean times. As well as providing for the vertebrates, figs may ensure the survival of more rarely fruiting species by maintaining animals which disperse their seeds. By attracting seed dispersing animals, figs may also be instrumental in the recolonisation of deforested areas, or volcanic islands.

Ecologists have described figs as keystone resources in tropical forests. Just as the removal of a keystone of an arch is quickly followed by its collapse, the loss of ecologically important keystone species may trigger a cascade of local extinction.

With more than 800 diverse species, fig plants exhibit great variety — including trees, climbers, shrubs, bushes, epiphytes and tree-stranglers. More so than any other wild tropical fruit, figs provide a large dietary contribution for a veritable Noah’s Ark of animal species. With varying colour, design and position, figs attract different types of vertebrates. The weird and wonderful mix of fig-eaters includes: fish, lizards, giant tortoises, birds, fruit bats, monkeys, rodents, bearded pigs, spectacled bears and the oddly-named olingos, kinkajous and binturongs.

Year-round fruiting is good news for the fruit-eaters, especially as fig trees produce superabundant crops (up to one million figs) and have only short intervals between fruiting episodes. The best documented of fruit shortages is the 1970-71 famine on Barro Colorado Island (BCI), Panama, where in the eight months from July 1970, fewer than 50 per cent of potentially productive plant species bore fruit. Intense hunger stress among fruit-eaters resulted in so many deaths that vultures could not cope with the supply of corpses. Starvation declined suddenly when figs came to the rescue — with peak fruiting in January and February 1971.

More recent research has identified a possible keystone role of figs in Peninsular Malaysia, Borneo and Peru’s Amazon basin where Princeton University’s John Terborgh suggests that loss of figs could lead to ecosystem’s collapse. However, at other sites in Gabon and India figs are apparently less important — being present at low densities and feeding only a small proportion of fruit-eaters. The importance of fig species evidently varies (to misquote George Orwell, “some figs are more equal than others”) either due to their distribution, density and crop size, or as a consequence of animals’ abilities to locate and utilise the fig resource.

Ecologists need to act as “keystone cops” to identify which fig species are disproportionately important in tropical forests with rollercoaster fruit economies. This requires exhaustive fieldwork, encompassing studies of fruiting patterns of figs and other species and behavioural studies of fruit-eating animals.

In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, one of the queen’s attendants declares, “I loved long life better than figs.” Tropical fruit-eaters may be able to enjoy both, living longer through their love of figs. If some fig species are show to have keystone importance, their protection may be vital to tropical animal communities. This conservation goal is not too far out of reach as to be unrealistic.

In re-typing these words, I’m pleased to note how much I would write it differently today. I’m amazed too that I managed to wrote about figs being important to wildlife without mentioning the fig-wasps that are the reason for that — see The humbling history of the tiny wasps that upset a Jurassic Park narrative.

The article I wrote back in 1997 won me subscriptions to Nature and New Scientist. Later on it helped me secure funding for a PhD and get my first two jobs outside of academia. It was a real keystone in my career.

Like so many of the researchers Ed Yong highlighed in his Nature piece, I owe some words of thanks to Bob Paine, the man whose starfish throwing days set so many biological balls rolling. As Ed notes in his blog Paine is a keystone too.

Postcard from Hanoi: A city of a thousand fig trees

I took a stroll in Hanoi today*. It’s a beautiful city. But parked motorbikes and perched purveyors of foods and goods possess its pavements. So to walk one must step into the streets and have faith in the swirling mass of motorists whose pulse keeps the city alive.

The constant sounds of their car and motorcycle horns beep and parp and wahdah-wahdah-wa-wa without pause. They tear the air and probably save lives, but they also kill a bit of a wanderer’s pleasure by drowning out other noises.

The only birdsong I heard today came from bulbuls and babblers and magpie-robins that hung from storefronts in little wooden cages. There’s an irony in their lonely captivity because Hanoi is also a city of trees, a city of fig trees that owe their existence to the some of the same species whose caged members no longer fly free.

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