Mike Shanahan, Gods, Wasps and Stranglers, The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees


mike-shanahanMike Shanahan is a freelance writer with a doctorate in rainforest ecology. He has lived in a national park in Borneo, bred endangered penguins, investigated illegal bear farms, produced award-winning journalism and spent several weeks of his life at the annual United Nations climate change negotiations. He is interested in what people think about nature and our place in it. His writing includes work published by The Economist, Nature, New Scientist, BBC Earth and Ensia, and chapters of Dry: Life without Water (Harvard University Press); Climate Change and the Media (Peter Lang Publishing) and Culture and Climate Change: Narratives (Shed). He is the illustrator of Extraordinary Animals (Greenwood Publishing Group). He maintains a blog called Under the Banyan and is on Twitter at @shanahanmike.
Get the book: Gods, Wasps and Stranglers, The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees.


Caryn: Hey everybody, I’m Caryn Hartglass and we’re back for the second part of our program. I’m really looking forward to the next half hour and my conversation with Mike Shanahan, the author of God’s, Wasps, and Stranglers: The Secret, History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees. Mike is a freelance writer with a Doctorate in Rainforest Ecology. He has lived in a National Park in Borneo, bred endangered penguins, investigated illegal bear farms, produced award-winning journalism, and spent several weeks of his life at the Annual United Nations Climate Change Negotiations. He is interested in what people think about nature and our place in it. Welcome to It’s All About Food, Mike! How are you doing today?

Mike: I’m very well Caryn, thank you for having me.

Caryn: I am really delighted to talk to you and I want to tell you I enjoyed your book. I enjoy every book that I’ve read from the Chelsea Publishing Group. I’m at a loss for words other then, I enjoy them because they’re all about the environment and how beautiful and magical and majestic and important our environment is. How our environment is going to do whatever it does regardless of what we try to do to it. So, I wanted to start with early in the book, you had a lovely description that I could relate to. I wanted to talk about the importance of that. You wrote about the forest, saying all these things seem insignificant in the presence of the forest itself. It hugged all. It’s contained in a humid, humming, gloom. The outside world seemed remote. Now the sun, an intruder. There’s something really profound about being in a forest. It’s almost like another planet.

Mike: Yes, it’s very different from the day to day world that we inhabit I think. Partly it’s because the horizon is no longer visible. You have a lot of things crowding your view. It’s very difficult to see where you are going. There are trees everywhere, plants, strange animals making strange noises. There’s a strange sense to everything as well. There are also all of these many hundreds of shades of green that are flooding our eyes as we are in a forest. It’s a really very special experience to be surrounded by all of that.

Caryn: I think everyone needs to have their moment in the woods. I’m very upset right now about the United States politics and the recent election and our new President. I don’t even like to say his name. All the damage that is happening as a result. Then you go into the forest and there’s all this tremendous life that has no concept or care about humans or government and what we are doing. Some ways it can be very healing and regenerative.

Mike: It does put things into perspective a little bit. Especially when you walk in a forest like those in Borneo where the forest has been there for a hundred million years. It’s been getting along just fine really, until we came along. It’s certainly a good experience to be in a forest, whether you are with people or whether you are alone. It’s especially good when you’re on your own I think.

Caryn: Now you wrote this book, which is primarily about fig trees and figs. It’s fascinating! I can’t even imagine discovering the information that you speak about in the book, which we will get to. It must require so much time and patience and just still watching.

Mike: Well, some of the information in the book is the result of research that I did when I was studying in Borneo and in other forests. That does require a lot of patience and a lot of time just waiting for things to happen. It’s a fig tree; it’s a strangler fig or another kind of fig tree. When you are waiting for the animals to come and feed. A lot of the other information is things that have been written and recorded for the past few hundred years by various people around the world. It was a great adventure trying to find all of this information in libraries and on the Internet and through talking to people. It was a real joy to research this book and I have to tell you, it took me a long time. I started thinking about this probably about 16 years ago. I’ve been working on it in spare moments since then. It’s been a real labor of love.

Caryn: What’s fascinating about it is, we know so little, OK? Then we start learning stuff and then we form some sort of comprehension of the way the world works. In some ways that can slow us down because we are less open minded and objective about other possibilities and when people find out about, for example, how figs reproduce and grow it doesn’t seem to fit into what we know. It’s so different.

Mike: Yes, it’s pretty mind blowing, some of the things that fig biology does. The way a lot of the interactions that fig plants have with the wasps that pollinate their flowers, and with the animals that disperse their seeds, and then the way the figs grow themselves as well. Some of them grow normal, like trees from the ground up, but many of them also grow from the top down- growing from seeds that are deposited high in the rainforest canopy by birds that are passing through and then they send their roots down a host tree and eventually strangle that tree.

Caryn: Now there’s this fascinating relationship with the fig wasp and the fig and I really encourage people to read this book to get into the nitty-gritty details of what’s going on. You can’t possibly cover it in a few minutes. There’s this dependency- so the fig wasp will really, in a short amount of time, go through all kinds of complications just to find the right fig to plant her larva. Then do all kinds of other things, and then later have to escape. It’s just so complicated, I can’t even get into it but it’s fascinating. What I want to know is, can figs be grown and bear fig fruit without wasps?

Mike: Yes. And yes in two ways. First, the fig is not a fruit; it’s a hollow ball that contains flowers. So, any time you plant a fig anywhere in the world that fig tree can produce figs. But, without the wasps those flowers will not be pollinated and the fig will not produce any seeds. The exception that some of the edible figs that we eat, that species called ficus carica, some of the varieties of that species produce figs that ripen and they don’t need to be pollinated. So some of the edible figs that you will eat or buy from the market have never had a wasp in them, yet they have still produced edible figs.

Caryn: Now you’ve probably heard this, but vegans are concerned about this. I’m a vegan and I’m wondering, can I eat a fig? Because it has wasps in it! I’m still eating figs because I see this as a natural process. Are the cultivated figs, like you’re saying, the ones that we find in stores more likely than not to have wasps?

Mike: It depends. There are lots of different varieties of the cultivated one, even though that’s just one species. Some of those varieties do indeed need wasps to pollinate them, and some don’t. You can find out on the Internet, which is which. But even if you have one of the varieties that does require the wasps to pollinate it, most of the wasps will depart before you get to eat the fig. Any that remain, they get broken down inside the fig by enzymes. So there’s nothing really, you can’t open a fig and find carcass of wasps really. Even if you found a carcass of a wasp, it would be so tiny that you wouldn’t even recognize it as an animal because these things are really so small, you could walk around swallowing them and not even notice, because they’re tiny. They’re really just a couple of millimeters long.

Caryn: Now the danger is great these days. You began your book with a beautiful history about how figs and fig trees have played an important part in history, even before humanity stepped on the Earth. And how many animals have been dependent on the fig as food and how many stories and myths and history have included information about fig trees. It’s just lovely! Now we come along and the things that we’re doing to the environment unfortunately are causing the decline of fig trees and fig wasps.

Mike: Yes and also of the animals that disperse the seeds of fig trees. Maybe you’re listeners would like to know that there are 750 different species of figs around the world, that’s a conservative estimate. They mostly live in the tropics and they mostly live in rainforests and other hot areas. As you say, they feed a huge variety of animals. They feed at least 1,200 different species of birds and mammals around the world. Because of their relationship with the wasps they produce figs all year round and that means that the animals have got a steady supply of food all year round. So, if the figs disappear, the animals are in trouble. But it seems actually that the trouble in the relationship is really coming from hunting of the larger animals that disperse figs in the wild and also habitat loss, which is reducing the area in which wild species live. So, the rainforests are falling and other habitats are being turned into farmland and the fact is, this relationship, which has lasted for at least 18 million years, is starting to feel some pressure.

Caryn: Now, you were talking about how fig trees can actually help heal our environment and heal, well the environment and our climate and things that are related to the balance of our ecosystem. How can we make that happen?

Mike: Well, because figs are attractive to so many different kinds of birds, bats, monkeys and other animals, when you have figs in a forest, the animals that come to feed on the figs often deposit the seeds of other fruit that they have been eating. When you have an area that has been de-forested or there’s been large-scale mining or other disturbance to the forest, what you can do is plant fig trees and they will attract animals that bring the seeds of other species. People in Africa and Asia and in Latin America, are using fig trees to help kick start rainforest regeneration in areas that have been really seriously disturbed.

Caryn: Now, are there fig tree plantations where people grow figs for sale?

Mike: There are a lot of different kinds of figs that people grow as ornamental plants and also indoor plants as well. Those things are happening on a large scale. In certain parts of the world, people are growing up fig trees in nurseries so they can take them out and plant them in areas where the forest has been chopped down and they want to restore the forest to those areas.

Caryn: But I guess, are those trees, have they been, well I guess since they’re growing they have been pollinated somehow, how did they become pollinated? You describe this very complex difficult situation about getting the fig seed to be pollinated.

Mike: It’s not the seed that’s pollinated; it’s the flowers that get pollinated. So, you can take a fig seed and grow it up into a plant or you can chop a branch off a fig tree and stick it in a ground and it will take root. It will turn into a tree of it’s own. In time, it will produce it’s own figs and inside those figs are the flowers and that’s where we need the wasps to come. The wasps enter the figs; they force their way in through a little tiny hole at the base of the fig. Once they get inside they lay their eggs in some of the flowers and they pollinate some of the flowers. So the fig then turns into an incubator for the next generation of pollinator wasps that then also produces seeds for the next generation of fig trees.

Caryn: I got that kind of, it’s complicated but I’m glad you cleared that up. Now the wasps that we see flying around that are big and kind of daunting and sting us. Are any of them involved with figs? Or are they a different variety?

Mike: No, they are totally different. You have nothing to fear from fig wasps. They don’t sting and they don’t look anything like that in fact. They don’t have black and yellow stripes on them. They look very strange, the females, which are the ones that do the pollinating; they have a strange flattened head, which helps them to get inside the fig as they force their way in. Once they go in, they loose their wings; they loose their antennae off their heads because it’s such a tight squeeze to get inside the fig. They don’t need them because they’re going in there not only to lay their eggs and pollinate but also to die. So, it’s a one-way journey for the fig wasps. Her next generation, when they are born, the larvae feed inside the fig for a little bit and then they come out and mate inside the fig in the darkness. The males of the fig wasps are very strange. They don’t have wings, they have their eyes are blind, if they have eyes at all. They have really big jaws, which they use to bite a tunnel out of the fig to let the next generation of females depart once they’ve got their pollen.

Caryn: It’s just a fascinating story and in some ways it’s just another part of nature that has beauty to it, beautiful, sweet, luscious figs to eat as a result. Also, there’s tremendous danger and violence all wrapped into one and it all depends on each other somehow.

Mike: Yes it’s strange, there’s a kind of mathematical beauty to what goes on inside figs. The result of those equations is different. Different insects battle it out inside the fig and the result of that is the ripe fig that animals can eat, which we of course can eat as well when we choose those varieties that we’ve cultivated. In our revolutionary past as well we were very lucky to be growing up in a continent where a hundred different wild fig species existed and we’re producing figs year-round. I think they probably were quite useful to us as our first ancestors took their first steps.

Caryn: I’m wondering what, if anything, the general public, me and everybody I know, what can we do to help or support the future of figs?

Mike: Well, to be honest I think the fig trees don’t so much need our help, we need to help ourselves. The fig trees have been around for 18 million years. They’ve survived the asteroid that took out the dinosaurs. They’ve survived climate change, they’ve survived temperatures hotter than we have today, they are extremely resilient. Rather than thinking of how we can help them, we might be better to ask ourselves what can we do to help ourselves? And can we use fig to help ourselves? What we need to do, is we need to limit climate change. We need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. We need to take carbon out of the atmosphere and one way to do that, a great way to do that, an extremely cheap way to do that is to increase the area of forests on the planet. Certainly planting fig trees helps to speed that process up. It also helps to sustain the wildlife species that disperse the seeds of thousands of other plant species in the rainforests and other habitats. What we can see from recent research in Africa and Asia is that fig trees are also very useful for farmers in dry areas that are experiencing droughts. In Ethiopia, farmers are now planting a certain kind of fig tree and they’ve found that by planting this tree it creates shade and that allows them to plant coffee underneath it. The fig tree doesn’t need any watering even though this is in extremely arid parts of Ethiopia. Yet it produces an abundance of leaves, which they can feed their goats and the goats do better than if they’re fed commercial feed. So, by using fig trees we can not only mitigate climate change, we can also help to adapt to the changing condition that we are facing.

Caryn: Plant fig trees! Now, do you have a favorite fig species? You seem to focus quite a bit on the stranglers, is that your favorite?

Mike: Well, the stranglers are just amazing. I don’t really have favorites in anything, but the stranglers are pretty mind blowing. They grow in an extraordinary way and when you encounter one in the forest it is like coming across something that is part animal and part plant. They send down these roots from very high up on another tree and those roots come down, they descend and they merge with each other and split apart and then merge again so they create this structure that looks like candle wax that is melted into shape. They are phenomenal to look at and when you see these things, sometimes the host tree has died and all that’s left is a hollow core where the host tree was. You can step inside the strangler fig and look up and see the light coming down from the very top of it. You can even climb up inside there, they’re fantastic structures. There are many of these species, the strangler figs, in Africa and in Asia and in Latin America. So, wherever you go in the tropics, you’ll see these things. They also like to grow because they’re so resilient and able to germinate in very dry or bare conditions. They can even germinate in cracks in buildings and you’ll find them all over the cities in Asia, they’re growing out of buildings, sending down their roots and forming this beautiful mix of bricks and concrete and plant material that’s alive. So, it’s quite amazing to see these things! They get very big as well. The one type, the banyans which is a kind of strangler fig that grows in India and other parts of South Asia, sends out its roots and then it sends more roots out from it’s branches and they grow down to the ground and form thick pillars that look like tree trunks. These things get so big, these trees, that it looks like a forest from a distance. They can have hundreds of these false tree trunks and the whole tree itself can grow big enough to shelter as many as 20,000 people beneath its crown. They are quite amazing things.

Caryn: I just wanted to mention the original title of your book, How Fig Trees Shaped our World, Changed History, and Can Enrich our Future. I like that title and I’m kind of curious why it changed when it was published?

Mike: The original title was Matters to Heaven and with the subtitle that you just read out and that was published in the UK with that title. When Chelsea Green Publishing bought the rights to publish it in North America they felt that that title might sound a little bit like, too much of an Evangelical book for the US market. So they decided to go with Gods, Wasps and Stranglers. I’m really happy with that, the Gods, Wasps and Stranglers title. It’s a bit funny having two titles for one book but it’s all right.

Caryn: It is all right and I like them both. My last two questions for you: one is what are you working on now? Is it fig related?

Mike: Well, a little bit. There are some stories that I couldn’t quite squeeze into the books so I’m trying to get them out to different online publishers or different media so that I can get closure on this thing that’s been occupying me for so long. I haven’t quite thought about what is next in terms of another book or anything like that. But I’ve got a few ideas and I’m not quite sure yet whether or I’m ready to leap into something like that yet. I need to get my life back on track.

Caryn: My last question is, do you have a favorite fig or favorite fig dish?

Mike: I quite like figs on pizza. I’ve had them a few years ago for the first time and it was quite a nice experience. Figs on pizza, I recommend it!

Caryn: Figs on pizza, I like that! OK well I’m going to try that, figs on pizza. Any particular kind of fig? Because there are a lot of them out there, I read this book recently and heard there are so many species.

Mike: Any one you can find in your market, slice it thin.

Caryn: Slice it thin, very good. Well, Mike Shanahan thank you so much for joining me today and for writing Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees. I really enjoyed it!

Mike: Thanks for having me.

Caryn: OK, take care. Yes, well I’ll tell you, even though that came out in 2016 that’s going to be one of my favorite reads for 2017! It’s good to know there are a few figs out there that don’t have wasps in them or didn’t need wasps. But even if they do, as he explained, the wasps actually leave the fig that is edible and if it doesn’t it disintegrates. So, there you have it, fascinating information on figs! I like to say that every food has a story and the fig has a great story. So we just have a minute or two left, are you still breathing? One of the things I loved about this story that I really recommend is how the fig tree does he mention can help clean up so much of the damage of what we have done and help with drought situations. So, if you have an opportunity to get involved in any kind of environmental situation where you’re trying to make positive change, don’t forget to include the fig tree! The book also includes some wonderful stories about Wangari Maathai you many remember her. She started the Green Belt movement and won a Nobel Peace Prize. She helped plant over 30 million trees in Kenya when people laughed at her, and she was imprisoned and then she became part of the government, just an amazing person and related to the importance of planting trees. So, when you’re feeling frustrated, number one breathe and then think about planting some trees. There are many wonderful things that we can do to make a positive difference on our planet and this is one of them. If you have any comments or questions, email me at info@realmeals.org. I always love hearing you. Join me at responsibleeatingandliving.com; my What Vegans Eat blog is now in day 713. Oh my goodness, that’s a lot of food! We are traveling right now in California so you can read about how we’re preparing our meals in our small space and where we are going to get great vegan plant-based, healthy nourishment. Thank you for joining me again, I’m Caryn Hartglass and this has been It’s All About Food. Have a delicious week!

Transcribed by Adella Finnan, 2/8/2017

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