Canopy Meg: a scientist’s pioneering life in the treetops

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Canopy Meg: a scientist’s pioneering life in the treetops

In the 70s Meg Lowman was the first person to study trees while dangling in their canopy. It was her front row seat to climate change

Meg Lowman pioneered the field of canopy ecology and travelled the world climbing trees

Sophie Cunningham

Last modified on Sat 28 Aug 2021 23.22 EDT

It was dark at the base of the Coachwood tree but sun began to flicker across Meg Lowman’s face as she hoisted herself higher. It was 1978 and the 25-year-old borrowed some caving ropes to pull herself up into the canopy of the tree in the Royal national park in Sydney. When she reached 30 metres, she says, “mayhem broke loose around me”.

Hoisting herself took some doing and at first Lowman found herself “spinning in mid air on a half-inch-thick lifeline, like a tiny caterpillar ballooning on a silk strand through a huge expanse of green”. Once she made it into the canopy, “all I could do is look around me in awe”.

Despite the dizzying beauty, the strangeness of it all, she was soon marking leaves with a felt-tip pen and trying to figure out what creatures were eating the leaves, and how long those leaves might live. Lowman was in the unique position of being the first scientist to sit in the canopy of a rainforest tree to study the rich biodiversity of what she now calls “the eighth continent” – the world of the treetops – at exactly the time in history this biodiversity was becoming imperilled.

Meg Lowman, author of The Arbonauts, in January 1979 making her debut as an arbonaut climbing a Coachwood tree in the Royal National Park near Sydney Australia.

A few decades later, and a few mornings ago, I sat in regional Victoria watching the sun rise while the woman called the “real life Lorax” by National Geographic and “Einstein of the treetops” by the Wall St Journal sat in her home in Florida as evening fell. I’d just read the memoir she had written, The Arbonauts, about an extraordinary life, one spent among trees. For 12 years the trees Lowman climbed were Australian.

When we greet each other Lowman is surprisingly friendly. “I’m really happy to be talking to an Australian paper. The country is very special to me.”

I say I was surprised by her warmth because Australia had not, as far as I was concerned, treated Lowman – also known as Canopy Meg – very well. Despite the fact she’d received an international scholarship to study rainforests at Sydney University, she was asked on arrival, “Why is a nice girl like you wasting her time to do a PhD when you will only get married and have kids?” Undermining aside, Australia became the country where Lowman’s focus, curiosity and capacity to come up with practical solutions to complicated problems, blossomed into a career.

By the time Lowman arrived our nation’s rainforests had already been heavily logged. They counted for 3% of our total remaining forests but were home to 60% of our plant and bird species and 35% of its mammals. Thanks to the work of people like Lowman, and an active conservation movement, almost a third of those remaining stands of rainforest are now Unesco world heritage sites.

Fast forward to the mid-80s and Lowman had finished her PhD. At 31 Lowman had become the lead scientist in a team that was working out the cause of northern NSW’s devastating outbreak of dieback. But she had another dilemma to solve first. “How was I going to persuade some station-holders in outback NSW to allow me, a scientist, an American, a woman, onto their property so I could climb into the canopies of their trees?”

Meg Lowman tests her harness on a tree on the Botany Department lawn at Sydney University, 1979.

Her friend Hal had a solution. “Visit the pubs with the slingshot you use for climbing, and tell a few good tree-rigging yarns.”

Lowman enlisted the help of some male colleagues, headed to the pub and told some stories. Soon enough she was climbing the canopies of eucalyptus on stations throughout northern NSW, trying to understand why it was that millions of them were dying.

It was one of the first massive dieback events in Australia’s post-settlement history -and a harbinger of things to come.

The answer was insect infestation in an ecosystem that was out of whack. All trees have insects living on them but if they surge, as they were doing as a result of the rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall, the trees die. Australia was one of the first places in the world where the deadly impacts of what we now call climate change were becoming clear.

“This was in the years before a lot of talk about climate change, though farmers and scientists alike knew that something was up,” Lowman says. And by this stage Lowman was herself a local. One of the station owners Lowman met the night she told tree-rigging yarns became her husband.

In her time living in Walcha NSW, Lowman learned that combatting deforestation and tree death wasn’t as straightforward as planting trees – not even a million of them, as she and her husband set out to do.

“It is a lot of work to keep saplings alive. They need to be watered and protected from rabbits and other pests.”

This was an unhappy time for Lowman. The science departments of Australian universities were not interested in employing a young mother, and there was family resistance to her working. While she continued research when she could, she was largely relegated to the home. Three years after the birth of her second child, Lowman returned to America with her children for a visiting, and temporary, professorship at Williams College, Massachusetts. It was there that she realised she could not continue to work effectively in Australia, and filed for divorce.

Lowman became increasingly passionate about female leadership in conservation and stepped into a series of senior roles with different organisations. Despite having greater intellectual freedom in the US, Lowman continued, she writes, to “hit the glass canopy”. She did not give up, and in 2000 became the founding director of the Tree Foundation, a non-profit promoting forest research, education and sustainability.

Her achievements are manifold. Not only the first woman but first person to pioneer a number of techniques that allowed scientists and others to climb trees as high as 100 metres from the roots up. Since those early days, Lowman has descended into canopies from air balloons and worked on inflatable rafts dangling from canopy cranes in Australia, Africa, Asia and the Amazon.

In another first, Lowman oversaw the building of the world’s first canopy walkway in Australia in Lamington national park in 1984-5. That walkway’s design, was first drawn onto a napkin over a conversation and bottle of wine. The structures have proliferated and in 2020 Lowman established Mission Green, an organisation that has built canopy walkways around the world to encourage both research and ecotourism around the world. She has become a leader in the conservation movement.

Lowman advocated the building of forest walkways to encourage people to feel more invested in conservation

“Walkways provide economic incentive. They inspire local people to become their own conservators,” Lowman says. “Without trees, without forests, humans will die.”

Lowman and I talk for a while longer. We talk about the loss of rainforests around the world. She tells me about her work in Ethiopia to save its few remaining native forests – known as Church Forests because they cluster around and are protected by Ethiopia’s Orthodox churches. She’s becoming increasingly concerned about deforestation. As we talk I wonder what keeps her going past the age where many people have retired, and I find the answer to that question in her book also.

“I want to make each day count,” Lowman writes. And that is what she does.

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