Book Review: A Scientist’s Life in the Treetops


When you consider that “upward of half of all terrestrial creatures live about 100 feet or more above our heads,” as biologist Meg Lowman notes in “The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us,” it makes sense for scientists to go to where the action is. But it’s only been in recent decades that researchers have systematically explored the canopies of the world’s tropical and temperate forests, in large part due to the efforts of so-called arbornauts like Lowman.

BOOK REVIEW“The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us,” by Meg Lowman (Allen & Unwin, 368 pages).

It’s daunting work, and often dangerous. And while there have been others in the past who have used ropes and climbing gear to conduct scientific research, Lowman in 1979 pioneered a simple method of rigging a tree for climbing using a slingshot. Essentially, from the ground she shoots a weighted fishing line into the upper branches of the tree, then attaches that fishing line to a nylon cord and hauls it over the same pathway. She then ties a heavier climbing rope to the nylon cord and pulls it up and over the support branch.

Lowman and an Australian colleague also did groundbreaking work building canopy walkways. During a field trip with Earthwatch, an organization that matches citizen scientists with researchers around the world, one of the volunteers got her hair caught on the climbing rope. She had to cut her hair without cutting the rope to free herself — a dicey situation, especially for a volunteer. So Lowman and the owner of the lodge at which they were working discussed how they could bring climbers safely into the canopy via an aerial path. This would also be a boon for research, as many researchers could work in the canopy at the same time. The next year, the world’s first canopy walkway was constructed in Lamington National Park in Queensland, Australia. Lowman has also accessed the canopy using construction cranes and an inflatable raft attached to a dirigible.

The book traces her scientific career, from her study of plants and bird eggs as a child in upstate New York, to her undergraduate years studying tree growth and her master’s research studying tree phenology (spring leafing), and finally to her Ph.D. work, where she got into her specialty: the effects of plant-eating insects on the leaves of tropical trees. The field was understudied because most researchers didn’t access the canopy to measure it — and it’s that access that Lowman developed.

She repeatedly notes that there is a research bias when scientific findings are based on studies done just on the forest floor or in the lower parts of trees, excluding the canopy. She likens it to looking just at someone’s big toe to diagnose an illness.

One of Lowman’s recurring themes is the importance of the scientific process, which she expresses as a series of iterative questions; indeed, the longest section of the book describes her Ph.D. research and the additional sub-studies she did to rule out bias in her main study. The reader is bombarded with experiment after experiment that Lowman conducted to answer smaller questions that arose during the course of her research, like whether insects are drawn to eat the water-resistant ink she uses to label leaves; whether they can find their way back to their food source if they fall out of the canopy; and whether young or old leaves are more toxic to the creatures.

Undark is a non-profit, editorially independent magazine covering the complicated and often fractious intersection of science and society. If you would like to help support our journalism, please consider making a tax-deductible donation. All proceeds go directly to Undark’s editorial fund.

Lowman also discusses the struggle of women in science, writing that “over my 11 years in Australia, I experienced more sexual advances by male colleagues during fieldwork than can be counted on both hands.” She married an Australian rancher during her postdoctoral research and recalls coping with rural Australia’s sexist attitude toward professional women like her. She writes about doing canopy research from a cherry picker bucket while pregnant and how she hid her scientific journals inside copies of Woman’s Weekly magazine so her mother-in-law wouldn’t find fault in her homemaking. She applied for a professorship at an Australian university but was denied because she says the hiring committee believed “a farmer’s wife, and especially a young mother, could not possibly undertake a professorship.” But when she was offered a visiting professorship at Williams College in the U.S., she took it, marking the end of her marriage and the beginning of her long career as a single mother and scientist.

After she left Williams due to a change in administration, Lowman cycled through a series of positions in American museums and resigned from each one after what she claims was poor treatment by her immediate (male) superiors for being a woman in science. As Lowman writes: “My female peers and I may have been trailblazers in field biology, but we bruised ourselves on a glass ceiling every time we reached beyond what was expected, so much so that I came to anticipate — and even worse, tolerate — the bruises.” This section, while brief, highlights the problems for women in science, and shows that, in the absence of female mentors, women at the top of the science ladder have little support to keep them there.

Canopy Meg, as Lowman is known, is now a “freelance explorer-author” who runs two organizations: the TREE Foundation, a nonprofit promoting forest research and education, and Mission Green, which promotes building canopy walkways and ecotourism to preserve biodiversity. Lowman sees herself as a bridge builder in more than the literal sense. “Part of the joy of scientific discovery is sharing it with others,” she writes.

“My female peers and I may have been trailblazers in field biology, but we bruised ourselves on a glass ceiling every time we reached beyond what was expected.”

Now in her late 60s, she has been instrumental in getting scientists who use wheelchairs into the canopy via her rope techniques. For 25 years, she has hosted annual trips to the Peruvian Amazon for citizen scientists who want to learn about the tropical forest canopy. Her canopy work has taken her to Malaysia, where she hosted a “BioBlitz” to help volunteers identify all the species they could find in the forest in 10 days. She has also worked with researchers and local priests in Ethiopia to protect the remnant forests that surround their churches. And in India she worked with local scientists to train arbornauts and enhance canopy studies by hosting an international conference.

Structured more or less chronologically, the book’s timeline is nevertheless a bit confusing in places. Though Lowman writes in the first person, it’s expository prose, filled with minutia about tree life and her research methods, but with virtually no dialogue to liven things up. She winds up telling, not showing, readers her life story, and while her writing is generally accessible, the frequent use of Latin names and detailed scientific descriptions might be distracting for a non-specialist audience.

Nonetheless, Lowman has had a fascinating journey. While she may have been a lone arbornaut when she started climbing into the forest canopy, she is now one of hundreds worldwide. “As an arbornaut,” she writes, “I shout ceaselessly about the importance of trees and how they keep the planet healthy as well as all of humankind.”

Sarah Boon is a Vancouver Island-based writer whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, Longreads, The Millions, Hakai Magazine, Literary Hub, Science, and Nature. She is currently writing a book about her field-research adventures in remote locations.