Sunday, 9 October 2016

Ladders to Heaven - Mike Shanahan ****


There are two ways to title a book - either say what it actually is (the 'does what it says on the tin' approach), or have a nice but totally uninformative title, but give away what it's really about in the subtitle. Mike Shanahan opts for the second approach in this handsome hardback, produced by the Unbound book crowdfunding site. Without knowing it's 'How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future,' you would be pretty lost. (The US title of 'Gods, Wasps and Stranglers' may leave you even more baffled.)
Shaping history, feeding imaginations and enriching the future are dramatic claims, which seem rather remote if you grew up in those parts of Western Europe where figs are things that come in little boxes and you can go your whole life without seeing a fig tree - but Shanahan makes a compelling case for the significance of the fig and the fig tree in at least the first two of those topics.

There are some genuinely fascinating parts to the book, but sometimes, particularly in the first half, there's a danger of Shanahan becoming a fig tree bore. Doing this kind of crossover book, hovering somewhere science writing and nature writing (which is generally a far more arty, fluffy affair with little or no science involved), is a delicate balance. The Fly Trap does this superbly - in Ladders to Heaven, the approach works most of the time, though occasionally it feels all too much like a sequel to Eat, Pray, Love (though for a nature book, perhaps Eat Prey Live might be more apt).

There is too much myth and mysticism to begin with, but when, for instance, Shanahan tells the story of Corner's botanical monkeys, trained to retrieve figs from the heights of trees, although the writing style is a touch breathless, the storytelling is very effective.
What comes across powerfully is just what amazing organisms fig trees are. I find it difficult to get into the mindset of a botanist, but if you have to study plants, surely these remarkable trees make a case for themselves. Not only do some species encase other trees, which eventually rot away to leave the skeletal fig, and not only do they include that most remarkable tree the banyan among their kind, figs themselves are unique. We're all familiar with the final fruit phase of the fig, but in its early stage it is not a fruit, but a casing for its flowers, which emerge inside the case and can only be fertilised thanks to a symbiotic relationship with a wasp. That's living on the botanical edge, for sure.
So, unlikely though it may seem, reading this book you will discover that 'all you ever wanted to know about figs and fig trees' is not something you find on the back of a matchbox, but makes for a genuinely interesting story. It's not a long book - I read it on a 3 hour train journey - but if you're like me, you will feel you that it was 3 hours well spent. I've never been fond of figs to eat, but I now count myself as an honorary fan of the fig and its trees.
Hardback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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