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Geoscientist Online

Ladders to Heaven: How Fig Trees Shaped our History, fed our Imaginations and can Enrich our Future

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In Ladders to Heaven author Mike Shanahan demonstrates 'fig trees as the trees of life and trees of knowledge'. He shows that in combination the fig tree, fig-wasp and the fig fruit feed many layers of forest ecology and its food chain. The sub-title of 'How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future' more-or-less sums up the contents.

The book takes an informative stroll through aspects of the fig tree, the fruit (the fig) and the fig-wasp with many diversions describing fascinating snippets of how the fig tree has been inculcated into myths, ritual of many cultures and religions and fables and the role of the fig in the growth of civilisation and perhaps its potential ecological influences.

We learn that there are some 750 varieties of the species Ficus, with a wide range of forms, sizes and colour of tree and fruit. The fig flowers are often inside the fig shell and are pollinated by a tiny fig-wasp, frequently a specific wasp for a specific Ficus, by penetrating a tiny hole in the fig.

How this fertilization is achieved is amazing (page 64 onwards) especially the way a specific genus emits a unique fragrance to attract a particular wasp to it; this scent being detected by the female fig-wasp maybe upto 10 km away. However it costs the fig-wasp its life (maximum 48 hours anyway). The resulting seeds within the fig fruit are often eaten by birds then dropped.

Shanahan widens his fascination for Ficus by sharing his concerns about deforestation. He suggests the breakdown of the fig-cycle due to deforestation and fig-wasp annihilation causes non-fertilisation of figs which could devastate mankind's future and  global climate changes, but conversely the planting of significant numbers of fig trees, even perhaps by drone, could begin to effectively reforest an area.

Ladders to Heaven is an entertaining read telling us how the fig tree has been part of our natural history over maybe 80 million years. Botanical science is surrounded by good helpings of wide-ranging mythical stories, rituals and attitudes towards the fig tree. We meet dinosaurs, ape-men, ancient royals and strange spirits, pharaohs and farmers, the Mau-Mau and names such as Corner, Theophrastus, Wallace and Maathai.

However, the book will not give a botanist/biologist much specialist information, nor the student knowledge for their examinations (Wikipedia gives more!), but would help a traveller while-away an otherwise frustrating journey or help fill periods of insomnia, or perhaps be a candidate for BBC's 'Book of the Week'.

 

Reviewed by Richard Dawe


LADDERS TO HEAVEN : HOW FIG TREES SHAPED OUR HISTORY, FED OUR IMAGINATIONS AND CAN ENRICH OUR FUTURE by MIKE SHANAHAN, 2016. Published by: Unbound,  London W1S 2GF, 224 pp (hbk) ISBN: 978-1-78352-236-1

List Price: £16.99.  W: www.unbound.co.uk

 


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