Biologist reveals the variety of creatures that live 30 meters above us in a fascinating tome

NATURE

THE ARBORNAUT

by means of Meg Lowman (Allen & Unwin £16.99, 350pp)

When was the last time you got the urge to climb a tree? When we are little, most of us love to climb them, but once we reach our teens, trees somehow lose their appeal.

Meg Lowman is an exception to this rule. A biologist nicknamed Canopy Meg, is mesmerized by trees, especially their higher reaches. The tops of trees, she says, are mysterious and seductive, an “eighth continent” teeming with a heady variety of life.

Raised in a rural part of upstate New York, Lowman was immersed in nature from an early age—the space under her bed was filled with twigs, bird’s nests, pressed flowers, and snakeskins—and something of a loner. “Finding friends with nerdy interests like birdwatching was difficult,” she says wryly.

Meg Lowman, from New York, shares fascinating insights about nature in a new book. Pictured: Meg visits the Amazon

After earning a degree in biology, she enrolled in an ecology program at the University of Aberdeen, and it was in Scotland that she did her first exhilarating exploration of the forest canopy, clambering 25 meters up a rickety jetty to discover the overlook the tops of birch trees. Her career as an ‘arbonaut’, as she calls it herself, was launched.

In 1978 she moved to Australia to continue her research on tree canopies. The trees in Australia’s tropical jungle were 50 meters high, and Lowman, determined to find a way to climb them, designed a terrifying-sounding device: a suit of armor attached to the tree with a rudimentary slingshot. What she saw at the top of these towering trees was an epiphany: “Beings that chew, fly, crawl, pollinate, hatch, burrow, sunbathe, digest, sing, mate. . . almost completely invisible from the forest floor.’

Lowman was the first to attempt to study this fascinating hidden world. Her work, and that of the scientists who have followed her, have revealed that nearly half of all creatures on our planet live 30 meters or more above our heads.

But why is it so important to understand everything we can about the higher regions of trees? Their canopies produce oxygen, filter fresh water, convert sunlight into sugar and clean the air by absorbing carbon dioxide. Simply put, says Lowman, “without these green machines with their myriad efficient power plants (also called leaves), life could not exist on Earth.”

In the 1970s, the rainforest in Australia was rapidly disappearing due to logging, but Lowman’s ‘exploration of the whole tree’ emphasized its importance and thanks in part to her research the remaining rainforests are preserved. “I’m proud that my forest canopy discoveries have contributed to this transformation,” writes Lowman, dubbed “the Einstein of the treetops” by the Wall Street Journal.

THE ARBORNAUT by Meg Lowman (Allen & Unwin £16.99, 350pp)

THE ARBORNAUT by Meg Lowman (Allen & Unwin £16.99, 350pp)

Not content with her armor and her slingshot, Lowman was also determined to find an easier method of exploring trees. The answer was an ‘air path’ and in the 1980s the world’s first canopy was built in Queensland.

Treetop paths are now commonplace – even Kew Gardens in London has one – and they have introduced many to the magic of treetops. Lowman’s favorite is in the Peruvian Amazon and spans nearly a quarter of a mile.

She is stoic about the natural hazards she has encountered, such as leeches and poisonous snakes, but life on the ground also had its perils for this shy but determined woman.

While investigating why so many of Australia’s eucalyptus trees were dying, she fell for a handsome young farmer and moved to his family’s sheep and cattle station.

Everything was blissful at first, but the marriage was ruined by her overbearing mother-in-law, who thought Canopy Meg should stay on the farm, raise their two sons, and forget about her treetop research. After a few years, Lowman returned to the United States and pursued her academic career.

Life as a single mother was not easy, but she took her children with her whenever she could, even to the Amazon. They were, she says proudly, particularly good at spotting tarantulas.

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