Building Bridges Between Ecology And Art: A Ficus Love Story

Recently, Ghaziabad readied itself to prune cluster fig trees (Ficus racemosa) along a pilgrimage route because its Chief Minister termed them 'inauspicious’. When decision makers, who have neither a scientific understanding of the environment nor a spiritual connect to it support such superstitious beliefs that harm nature, it becomes important for concerned citizens to speak up for the environment and find innovative ways of creating awareness about the need to protect it. "With a deep concern for nature, interest in science communication and love for the arts, a bunch of us came together to form the Artecology Initiative and tell the story of the fig trees – a keystone species in the forest ecosystem, using the medium of art," says a member of the collective.

The first time I heard about the Artecology's project, How To Be A Fig? I was instantly drawn towards what was an undoubtedly fascinating intersection of art, ecology, and performance art. Reading the project being described as an attempt to express through the human body the complex role that ficus trees play in the ecosystem, I started to ponder about how the mobile body would convey the spirit of a tree rooted to one spot.  As someone who frequently photographs and writes about trees, I also found myself thinking about the idea of trees being performers; perhaps, one could say that when they are in glorious bloom, they demand to be looked at and engaged with, deliberately showy. In this case, I also wondered what it would be like to perform as a ficus tree. What would be like to watch a tree in performance? And what was particularly special about the fig tree?

Ficus racemosa  Source

Ficus racemosa Source

I must confess that the fig is one fruit that I have never consumed and knew little about. Some months ago, while attending a tree walk held in Cooke Town in Bengaluru, I encountered a sprawling fig tree in fruit, with bright red and green figs growing in clusters at its base in the garden of an old bungalow. It was then I learned about the fig’s curious, unique mutualistic relationship with the wasp, in which the tree relies on the wasps to make their seeds and distribute their pollen while functioning as a womb where the fig wasps can reproduce. Thanks to its short life cycle of two months, the fig wasps ensure that the fig trees produce fruit all year round. In rainforests, many birds, insects and animals consequently depend on figs for food, making them a keystone species supporting the entire eco-system.

Afterwards, I started to look out for fig trees wherever I went and was pleasantly surprised to encounter one growing in my apartment compound, the marble-sized figs raining down upon me. They would accumulate around the tree, blanketing the soil and adjoining concrete path – and then, just like that, the fruits disappeared, as if they had never been there in the first place.

A few Sundays ago, I visited the Indian Institute of Science campus in Bengaluru to meet the fig trees growing there and hear about the extensive research that PhD student, Vignesh Venkateswaran has been conducting on long-range host location behaviour in fig wasps for the last four years. We walked around the campus to inspect four fig trees, examining the figs studding the branches, slicing them open to see what Vignesh described as a dynamic battlefield within, and learned a great deal about the many specificities of the mutualistic relationship between figs and wasps. I particularly marvelled at the notion that the fig flowers were actually inside the fruit, an inverted flower.

On a fig tree walk with Vignesh Venkateswaran  Source

On a fig tree walk with Vignesh Venkateswaran Source

I had coincidentally just finished reading Lab Girl: A Story of Trees, Science, and Love where the author, acclaimed scientist, Hope Jahren writes about reproduction in figs:

 “There is a wasp that cannot reproduce outside the flower of a fig; this same fig flower cannot be fertilised without the help of a wasp. When the female wasp lays her eggs inside the fig flower, she also deposits the pollen that coated her when she watched within a different fig flower. These two organisms – the wasp and the fig – have enjoyed this arrangement for almost ninety million years, evolving together through the extinction of the dinosaurs and across multiple ice ages. Theirs is like any epic love story, in that part of the appeal lies in its impossibility.”

Actors rehearse Image credit: Vinay Chandra

Actors rehearse Image credit: Vinay Chandra

How to be a Fig?, a collaborative project between ecologists and artists that brings together performers from diverse backgrounds with a common thread that connects them all – their love for trees. It aims to extricate scientific concepts from academic jargon and make them accessible and engaging to the general public, says cast member Abhisheka Krishnagopal. It is an effort at making creative forms of expression borrowed from dance and other movement arts available to scientists and ecologists, enabling them to communicate their work in more imaginative ways.

This project also attempts to channel the expressive tools of dancers and musicians to explore important environmental questions. In essence, communicating science through body movement. Inspired by Mike Shanahan’s book on figs titled Ladders to Heaven, the piece will unravel the mystery of these magnificent, ecologically important ficus trees. The artists try to express through the human body the complex role that ficus plays in the ecosystem.

Watching the rehearsals in which the participants translate the complexities of the fig tree into movement under the guidance of choreographer, Veena Basavarajaiah, I witnessed an incredible example of co-evolution at the micro-level, now being hugely magnified through this performance. It was as if we were looking through a microscope into the intricacy, uniqueness, and drama of the fig-wasp relationship, and how fundamentally intertwined their lives are. I look forward to seeing how the performance evolves over time and enriches our understanding of these incredible organisms.

How to be a fig? will premiere at the Students Conference on Conservation Science (SCCS) on 23rd September, 2017 at the J.N Tata Auditorium, IISc Campus, Bengaluru. The performance starts at 6 PM and is free and open to public. Find more information here.

Featured image: David B Gleason/ Flickr CC

A version of this article was first published here.

Priyanka Sacheti is an independent writer based in Bangalore. She has been published in numerous publications with a special focus on art, gender, diaspora, and identity and currently an editor at Mashallah News. An author of three poetry volumes, she's currently working on a novella. She also explores the intersection of her writing and photography on her blog, and instagram: @iamjustavisualperson.