Part I: Gene Stone, The Trump Survival Guide
Gene Stone has been a book, magazine, and newspaper editor, is also the author of more than forty books. He lives in New York City.
Part II: Mike Shanahan, Gods, Wasps and Stranglers, The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees
Mike 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.
Buy the book, Gods, Wasps and Stranglers, The Secret History and Redemptive Future of Fig Trees.
Since 2009, It’s All About Food, has been bringing you the best in up-to-date news regarding food and our food system. Hosted by Caryn Hartglass, a vegan since 1988, the program includes in-depth interviews with medical doctors; nutritionists; dieticians; cook book authors; athletes; environmental, animals and health activists; farmers; food manufacturers; lawyers; food scientists and more. Learn about how we can solve many of the world’s problems today and do it deliciously, here on It’s All About Food.
TRANSCRIPTION PART I:
Caryn Hartglass: Hello, everybody. Hello out there, everybody in progressive radio land. Thanks for joining me today. I’m Caryn Hartglass. The name of this program is It’s All About Food, and I’m so glad you’re out there. I need you more than ever; we all need each other more than ever. Being progressive is more important than ever.
So we always talk about food on this show, and sometimes we stretch a little. Today we’re stretching it a little more because we’re going to be talking about some very serious issues that are going on today in the United States of America and what we can do about it. Because when our basic rights are being taken away, that’s going to affect a lot of things including our food system.
The first thing that I want you to keep in mind—which I talk about a lot on this show at the beginning of the program, but it’s so important now, more than ever—is breathing. (inhales) I keep reminding myself to breathe. We all breathe for a living. (chuckles) When we’re reading things, when we’re hearing things, when things aren’t going the way we’d like them to, the most important thing to get through the first initial shock is breathing. So please remember to take low, deep breaths. We all want you around to fight the good fight.
Now, to help fight the good fight, we have Gene Stone on the program today. I’ve talked to him a number of times. He is the author of the book Forks Over Knives based on the film of the same name, and we’ve talked about that quite some time ago. He also helped Dr. Michael Greger write the New York Times best-selling book How Not to Die that we talked about at the end of last year. And now he has a new book out which is a really critical piece of material for all of us to take a good look at and consider, and that is The Trump Survival Guide. Gene Stone has been a book, magazine, and newspaper editor and is an author of more than forty books, and he lives in New York City. Gene, thank you for joining me today.
Gene Stone: Well, thanks for having me.
Caryn Hartglass: Are you breathing?
Gene Stone: I am breathing. It’s not always easy, but, yes, I am breathing.
Caryn Hartglass: (chuckles) Good. I’m constantly reminding myself. Don’t hold it, breathe. Okay, I’ve read your book. Very helpful. Just to know that there are things that we can do is helpful in this time because more and more, every day, almost every few hours, we’re feeling so powerless. Like we’re not being heard and there’s nothing we can do.
You started with civil rights in your book, and there’s a very chilling line in here that was said by Nixon’s domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman to an interview, where he said, “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” And it goes on, “Did we know that we were lying? Of course we did.” I’m breathing, I got to breathe here. (chuckles)
Gene Stone: (chuckles)
Caryn Hartglass: I just saw two films recently and this is on the same theme. One was the story about Lyndon B. Johnson, one of our earlier presidents, called All the Way. Now I’m watching the series on Netflix called The Crown. They all talk about politics. Seems like lying in politics is the standard or the norm. Why is it different now?
Gene Stone: Well, it is certainly true that lying in politics is (chuckles) something that’s been around ever since there’s been politics. The difference is that lying was always seen as something that is necessary, but it was rationed out very carefully. I can’t remember—I think it may have been Ari Fleischer, the last press secretary for Bush who said about Sean Spicer, “You’re only allowed one terrible lie—”
Caryn Hartglass: (chuckles)
Gene Stone: “—as the press secretary,” and Spicer had already done it. So what we’re seeing now is that whereas lying was something that was a tool used occasionally when necessary, now it’s just standard operating procedure. And that’s pretty scary.
Caryn Hartglass: It is very scary. So what do we do about it?
Gene Stone: Well, the point of The Trump Survival Guide is what you just said: it’s to do something. What I’ve done here is taken twelve of what I consider to be the most important issues facing the country—there are certainly others, but these were the twelve that I’ve picked. And each one gives a history of how the United States have been affected by this issue, what Obama did, what Trump might do, but, most importantly, to answer your question, what the reader can do. In other words, at the end of each section there’s a resource guide so that readers can decide if this is the issue that they want to adopt as their own—what do they do? Where do they go? Who do they talk to? What organizations can they join? What books do they read? Etc., etc.
Caryn Hartglass: It really is difficult to know in this age of so much information who we can trust and who is going to help us fight the good fight. There certainly is more power in numbers so we want to be a part of an organization that we trust, that’s going to represent us in a fair and just way. And also be strong enough to do so. (exhales) I have to breathe again. (laughs)
Gene Stone: (chuckles) Well, everybody has to breathe. The moment we start talking about Trump, I would say probably 50-60% of the country has to start breathing. Because remember, he only got in with about 26% of the eligible voting population. And I suspect that most of the other people really do not like him. As I’m sure you know, he is coming in with the lowest favorability ratings of any perspective president in the history of polling.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so here’s a complicated question. We’re in this social media world, and we’re seeing the power of social media. Trump is using social media quite a bit. Social media is helping to defuse good information and bad information; it’s difficult to discern the two. But we have to stay current with social media and use it effectively.
Meanwhile, we hear that the White House is shutting down their telephone line, so they don’t want to take calls anymore. For those of you who have tried to contact Paul Ryan’s office or Mitch McConnell’s, you can’t get through there either. So the telephone is not really that useful. What about paper?
Gene Stone: Well, unfortunately, paper doesn’t tend to work. There was a time when writing a letter was a very effective way of communicating your ideas to the White House or any other politician. But it doesn’t tend to have the same kind of impact. For one, it may never be read by anybody of importance and there’s also no way of knowing exactly how many letters reach the White House or your representative because, well, again, they can lie.
Caryn Hartglass: (chuckles)
Gene Stone: They can say, “We didn’t get any mail. We didn’t get anybody talking about anything.” So calling is what The Trump Survival Guide recommends people do. But, as you point out, they’re already onto the fact that that’s what we feel is important. And so they’re already disconnecting phone lines, which make this extraordinary gap even larger between politicians and their constituents.
Caryn Hartglass: (inhales) Oh, take a deep breath. (chuckles)
Gene Stone: Another deep breath, another deep breath. Can’t stop breathing. Can’t stop breathing. Deep breaths. I agree with you. I once wrote a book for a guy for Dr. Robert Fulford, who is Dr. Andy Weil’s mentor, and Dr. Fulford, who many people consider to be possibly the world’s greatest healer. He said more problems that people can possibly imagine can be solved by deep breathing.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, I’m so glad you said that. I’m just going to sit here and breathe all day! (chuckles)
Gene Stone: (chuckles)
Caryn Hartglass: I feel so good about myself, right? (chuckles) Deep breathing and probably meditating during the deep breathing. Because that brings a lot of clarity.
Gene Stone: Absolutely. Dr. Fulford, who as I said was Andy Weil’s mentor and then the other people’s mentor, would give people instructions on how to breathe right. And, as you say, so much of it really depends on where you’re breathing from and taking these deep breaths from your belly. Course, yoga and other Eastern philosophies have stressed this for years. It’s probably the best answer—not just to a panic attack where you need to take a deep breath, but to any time when you see Donald Trump on TV.
Caryn Hartglass: (chuckles) Let’s just jump a minute. You have twelve topics, and I’m looking at what you can do under education. I was talking to the lawyer Steve Wise a few weeks ago, and this amazingly patient and persistent man has been fighting for the rights of animals (specifically chimpanzees right now). And his point was to work at a local level. Because when you make change at a local level, over time, that will gain momentum and the rest of the country will shift. This is the importance of volunteering, working, and organizing at the local level: at your schools, with community organizations.
Gene Stone: Absolutely. In The Trump Survival Guide, we talk about all these different things people can do. Instead of having an overview of what people can do in general, it’s divided up these chapters. So sometimes it can be competitive on purpose, and fighting on a local level comes up in pretty much all of them. That’s something that the Tea Party figured out a long time ago. It’s what is referred to as trickle-up politics, that if you can affect change on a local level, that change is more likely to then move up into a state and national level than just trying to wait every four years and voting for president, and hoping that will be all that is necessary. So in areas like education, civil rights, immigration, by all means, try to work at your local level.
Caryn Hartglass: Now, I’ve acknowledged many times—especially as an activist, and I’m an activist for plant-based foods, animal rights, the environment, human rights… what else is there? (chuckles) We’ve had a bleak history of a lot of exploitation and violence in this country, all over the world, that continues to go on. But there’s something that feels very different about this point of time for me, and I know for many others. Does it feel different for you?
Gene Stone: It does. When Reagan was elected, I remember thinking, “Well, it really can’t get worse than this.” And then George Bush was elected, and I thought, “Well, it really can’t get worse than this.”
Caryn Hartglass: (chuckles)
Gene Stone: And now Trump is elected and I’m still saying, “It can never get worse than this.” It’s just impossible to imagine how it can get worse than this, although the trajectory seems to be going downward. The ray of hope here is that instead of looking at it as a progressively downward spiral—this country’s just had this constant back-and-forth between Carter then Reagan. Reagan and Clinton, Clinton and Bush, Bush and Obama, and then we have Obama and Trump. The country just seems to go back and forth. So what I’m hoping is that people who elected Trump don’t really like or endorse these policies that we tend to find rather abhorrent, as much as they voted for change, not necessarily knowing what that means. And so I don’t think he has a mandate to do what it looks like he wants to do, which is to turn the country so far right it looks like Russia. But whether or not we can stop that depends on us. And that’s why these marches last weekend were terrific, but they’re not enough. Marches can go on and on, and millions of people can join them, but there has to be engagement, involvement at local politics for any actual actions to be accomplished.
Caryn Hartglass: Something that I’ve been saying for a very long time is that many of us are relatively comfortable in our lives. I know that there are plenty of people who have food and security in the United States and all over the world. And the gap between the rich and poor is growing; there’s less middle class. More people are feeling this tightening of the economy and their ability to spend on a lifestyle that covers their basics and maybe a little bit more. But we’ve gotten complacent, I feel.
I know in the organizations I work for at the non-profit level, when volunteering and lending a hand is so important—when you have someone competent, you tend to back off and say, “Great. They’re in charge. They can do the job.” And you can go off and do other things, and not have to focus on this. I think in business and government, we want that. We want to know that we have leaders that we can trust to promote what we believe in and do good work, so that we can get on with our busy, crazy lives. As a result, many of us have gotten complacent and not gotten involved enough.
Reading your book—seeing the brief history of how things have come about, we really can take some of the blame on ourselves for letting this happen.
Gene Stone: Well, I agree with you. I think that for eight years, things felt pretty complacent. We had somebody in the White House where we may have not agreed with everything that Obama did, but in general, he was an extremely competent, very intelligent leader. So for these last two terms, think we all kind of felt, “Well, you know, things are being taken care of and we can lead our own lives.”
Unfortunately, that’s not really the way democracy should work. As I have just said before, if you just show up every four years and vote for president, you’re really not participating in our country’s political system. The conservatives figured that out a long time ago, and while I don’t like the Tea Party, I have to admire the fact that they have been relentless on a local level, doing everything they can, every moment they can, to turn things around their way. Whereas progressives haven’t really been doing that at all. Again, The Trump Survival Guide is really about all of these things that you can do if you feel that it’s time for you to get involved.
I totally agree with what you’re saying. We cannot just sit back anymore. All of us have to be involved.
Caryn Hartglass: We do. Has anything changed in your mind since you wrote this book?
Gene Stone: Gotten more depressed. (chuckles)
Caryn Hartglass: No! (laughs)
Gene Stone: And it’s true. Because here’s what happened, I’ll tell you honestly. Like most people, I thought Hillary was going to win.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah.
Gene Stone: And then when she didn’t, I spent the next week being very dejected. I didn’t watch the news; I didn’t look at the newspaper. I pretty much just voided myself from the world. Then I decided, well, that’s obviously not going to accomplish anything. I have very few talents. I can write, however; I can write very fast. So I called up one of my publishers and said, “If I can deliver a book in twelve days, would you publish it before the inauguration?” And they agreed to do it. So I set about doing it, and I think it was the right thing to do.
But what it’s done is that it’s forced me—because I am on radio now and on TV talking—to have to pay so much attention to what’s going on, what Trump is doing, the appointments he’s making, the actions he’s taking. And it is incredibly depressing.
Caryn Hartglass: Depressing.
Gene Stone: For a lot of us, we kept saying, “Oh well, you know, Trump has been on every side of the issue. Who knows what kind of president he’s going to be?” Again, the introduction of the book talks about—well, we don’t really know. Yet it’s only a few days into his administration and we do have an idea of what his administration is going to be like. He’s seems to be taking this turn towards the far, far right. And that’s just depressing to look at, and the more you think about it—it’s been, what, four days.
Caryn Hartglass: Four days.
Gene Stone: And it’s just been more unpleasant piece of news after the other. So how’s it going to unfold for four years?
Caryn Hartglass: Exactly. Well, how much more can he turn around? It seems like he’s doing it all in the first few days, and then what will he have to do? (chuckles)
Gene Stone: Well, that’s one of the fears. It’s actually what you’ve just said: what else can he do? So far, it’s all been appointments and such, but who knows what other steps he could take?
Caryn Hartglass: (exhales) Yes.
Gene Stone: (chuckles) Yeah, you breathing?
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, I have to breathe again. (chuckles) Well, I applaud you, Gene, because you got that news that so many of us got, traumatic news, and you took action and you wrote this book in… twelve days?
Gene Stone: Yeah, they gave me twelve days to do it. Which meant that I drank a lot of coffee and didn’t get a lot of sleep. I’ve had to deal with a lot of things I didn’t want to deal with, but, as I say, everybody has to step out of their comfort zone. If people don’t like crowds, go march anyway. If you’re not comfortable making a political statement, do it anyway. People have to realize that if they want this country to return to the kind of democracy that we feel comfortable with, democracy depends on the people. If people aren’t doing anything or only one side of the political spectrum is doing something, it’s not going to go in a good way.
Caryn Hartglass: Do you have people—friends, family—that feel differently than you do?
Gene Stone: That’s a good question. I live in a bubble like a lot of people.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah.
Gene Stone: I would say that I don’t know anybody—well, that’s not true. I know one person who voted for Trump.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh.
Gene Stone: But I’ve known him all my life, and I have to forgive him. But I know Republicans; I still have some Republican friends. None of my Republican friends voted for Trump.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow, you are in a bubble. I thought I was in a bubble, but I know many people who are Trump supporters: voted for Trump and still support him.
Gene Stone: So what do you say to them?
Caryn Hartglass: It’s—that’s a very good question, and I have to say it depends. (chuckles)
Gene Stone: It depends. (chuckles)
Caryn Hartglass: I have not engaged with everyone. I’m being careful. I have engaged with some when it just became so over-the-top, and I found that what helped reach the other person that I was talking to was to find a personal story of my own. How the policies have affected my own life or how they would affect my life based on things that have happened in the past. When you share a personal story, an intimate story, I think you have more opportunity to get people’s attention.
Gene Stone: Right, right. I haven’t had that situation arise yet in person. Of course, I’m doing publicity; I’m talking to a lot of people and I’m talking to a lot of people on all sides of the spectrum. And what I find interesting is that there’s a divide on the other side of the political spectrum. There’re people who voted for Trump who I’ve talked to on the radio who are quite civil about it, being engaged in a good discussion. We certainly don’t agree on things, but we look for some kind of place of agreement. And there’s almost always something.
Caryn Hartglass: Like what?
Gene Stone: Sometimes there are people that are—no matter what you say and what you do, they’re just not going to be civil and they’re going to call you by names.
Caryn Hartglass: Sure.
Gene Stone: Or just make an attack on your person. So there’s literally nothing that you can do about that.
Caryn Hartglass: What have you agreed on with Trump supporters?
Gene Stone: Well, that’s a good question. It depends on the person I’m talking to. What I mostly can agree on with some of these people is that if this country becomes so divided between the left and the right that there’s no more discussion, then this country turns into a dictatorship of one or the other.
I’ve written books about Latin America, and unfortunately that’s what happened to several countries down there. Where the left and the right were no longer able to have any kind of meaningful communication. And what you ended up with was one of them taking full power of the other. We don’t want that to happen here. If both sides of the political spectrum can’t engage in a constant communication, then we do really run the risk of losing the democracy.
Caryn Hartglass: Wow. Well, I guess that means we need to really focus—maybe more than anything—on talking with people that we don’t agree with.
Gene Stone: You have to talk with people you don’t agree with. The manner of talking has to be polite and civil, but, again, if all you do is talk to people you agree with and your politics never allow for the possibility that somebody else could be right about something, then there’s really no point talking.
Caryn Hartglass: I guess some of us—the ones that who’ve been promoting the plant-based diet for so long, and animal rights and going vegan—we can tap into those skills because we’ve learned that we don’t get anywhere when we get in people’s face, and we’re angry and screaming at them for eating meat, right?
Gene Stone: Absolutely. I’ve been doing these books for maybe ten years now. My approach is to—what you say, to be diplomatic as possible. To try to understand where the people are coming from.
One of my favorite people in the animal protection area is Gene Baur; one of the co-founders of Farm Sanctuary as I’m sure you know, is a model of (chuckles) diplomatic restraint. Gene finds it so easy to go talk to the pork producers and the chicken farmers, and the people who many animal rights people wouldn’t even want to be near. And really engage them get them to understand Gene’s side while he tries to understand the issues that they’re facing.
What works for animal protection, I think, works for every other issue. Try to be civil, try to listen to other people, and maybe—just maybe—you can change someone’s mind about something. And even more remarkably, maybe someone can change your mind about something.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh! (laughs)
Gene Stone: That can happen.
Caryn Hartglass: Oh, that can happen and that’s good. We need to be open, try to be open. I think one of the biggest problems—and this applies to everything—as humans, as individuals, we want to control things. And we have conflict when people aren’t doing what we want them to do. It could be a sibling, could be a spouse, it could be a friend, could be someone in the workplace, and certainly in the government where we lose control. So the best thing to know is that we can only control ourselves and do what we feel is necessary to move our culture forward in a good place.
Gene Stone: Sometimes I’m not even sure we can control ourselves.
Caryn Hartglass: (laughs) And that’s where breathing comes back in.
Gene Stone: (chuckles) Exactly.
Caryn Hartglass: So let’s end where we started with a nice deep breath. (inhale) I welcome everybody to take a look at The Trump Survival Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Living Through What You Hoped Would Never Happen by Gene Stone. Thank you, Gene, for joining me today.
Gene Stone: Oh, thank you very much.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, be well and fight the good fight.
Gene Stone: Bye. Okay.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, take care. Right, that was Gene Stone, and you might check into my earlier interview with Gene Stone when we were talking about Forks Over Knives. That was a few years ago when we thought everything was going our way, right? When Gene was mentioning Gene Baur who is such a lovely, gentle soul, and he’s right: he does have a great skill. To be able to converse with people that are 180 degrees opposite from what he believes in and what his organization is all about.
I had an opportunity to do that on a big scale just once and I would love to do it again, and that’s, of course, when I was talked to 250 cattle producers on a panel on animal agriculture’s impact on global warming. I knew that I couldn’t be angry or aggressive, and I came at it from a space of love: what we all shared in common and what we all wanted in common. It also helped that I was invited to sing the National Anthem and it sounded very patriotic. We made a documentary about that called The Lone Vegan: Preaching to the Fire which you can see on responsibleeatingandliving.com for free, if you need a little more inspiration than what you’ve been getting.
So I invite you again: check out The Trump Survival Guide, and while you’re digesting that and concentrating on breathing, we’ll take a very short break and get back to my second guest Mike Shanahan.
Transcribed by HT, 1/31/2017
TRANSCRIPTION PART II:
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 email@example.com. 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