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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Climbing to the Canopy

Air Date: Week of

Forest canopies are home to countless species of plants, insects, and animals, many of them as yet undiscovered by humans. Canopy botanist Margaret Lowman who calls herself an arbonaut," has spent twenty years climbing through the trees in forests across the planet. Dr. Lowman talks to host Steve Curwood about her experiences, which are documented in her new book called Life in the Treetops: Adventures of a Woman in Field Biology.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Much of the life of forests resides tens or even hundreds of feet in the air. The canopy is host to countless species of plants, insects, and animals, many of them still undiscovered, especially in the tropics. Canopy botanist Margaret Lowman has spent 20 years climbing through the trees in forests all over the world. She recently wrote a book about her experiences: Life in the Treetops: Adventures of a Woman in Field Biology. I asked Dr. Lowman, who calls herself an "arbornaut," what it feels like to be way up in tall trees.

LOWMAN: Being in the treetops is analogous, perhaps, to scuba-diving. It's a very magical situation. My first time there, I guess I was a little bit frightened because I had never climbed a rope before, but once I got over that fear, to look around and see and touch and feel all of the organisms up there is very, very exciting. It's just a whole above-ground ecosystem that very few people have been fortunate enough to see. And if you do ever get a chance to visit a walkway or an ecotourist operation with canopy access, I would definitely recommend it as a breathtaking opportunity.

CURWOOD: Now, since few people get to go there, this means that there's a high opportunity for making some kind of a discovery. And you had experiences along these lines, right?

LOWMAN: I did. Because it's only about 20 years old, the field of canopy biology, in terms of access, it means that so much up there has never been discovered. And a few chapters of my book highlight some discoveries that I made, such as the fact that most insects feed at night. These are things that we take for granted now as making a lot of sense, because the insect can avoid a bird, of course, if it feeds at night. But when I was a graduate student I spent a lot of futile hours and days and months looking in the canopy by day and discovering that no insects were up there.

CURWOOD: Just how high have you been in the treetops?

LOWMAN: My highest climb is 165 feet, and that was in the forest of Cameroon, Africa.

CURWOOD: Sixteen stories up.

LOWMAN: That's right. But you know what? You don't feel it when you're surrounded by foliage. It almost looks like it would be a cushion for a fall, and that's of course a dangerous illusion --

CURWOOD: (Laughing) I guess so!

LOWMAN: -- but if you go up through the understory in the mid-canopy, you almost feel that it would be absolutely soft and spongy if one were to descend at a very rapid rate.

CURWOOD: Just what kind of falls have you had?

LOWMAN: Fortunately, I've been pretty lucky. I do allude to one in my book. In Australia, at one point in time, I was racing against an oncoming thunderstorm, and forgot to hook on safely when I was about to descend. So I did make a fall of about 15 feet. It really didn't hurt me, but I think emotionally it did. It really made me question: should I pursue this life as a scientist, or should I retreat to the kitchen? Because those were 2 kinds of choices that I was facing at that point in my life at age 31. So, I guess that any sort of setback like that does make one stop and think about what's the best way to be a good mom and a good parent and a good scientist at the same time.

CURWOOD: You have a chapter, pretty much, on being a mom, about your pregnancy, pregnancies, and childbirth, and -- now, why did you include this chapter about your domestic life in this book about your scientific experience?

LOWMAN: That's a great question, because it was a little bit of the baring of the soul. But I recognized, as I give lectures to different student groups, oftentimes that many students come up to me and say, "By the way, in addition to telling me about your science, I would really love to know: how did you choose having a family and how did you balance getting married and then doing field work?" When I thought back to my own career, I realized that in graduate school nobody ever talked about those issues very much.

CURWOOD: What a fascinating career you've had. You've discovered new beetles, you've designed ways to get around on walkways among those trees. You've been up there in a balloon. But I'm wondering out of all of this, is there a story that you recall that you'd like to share with us now?

LOWMAN: One experience that I remember that I guess just illustrates that even those little small events are quite meaningful: One day I was eating my lunch up in a canopy of a red oak tree, which is probably something that is familiar to most of your listeners. And as I sat there a sapsucker came right next to me, about 2 feet away in a branch, with a whole mouthful of caterpillars, and proceeded to chew and digest and do his thing while I was eating my most delicious turkey sandwich. (Curwood laughs.) It kind of went full-circle to make me recognize, number one, being in the canopy is neat because the animals don't know you're an enemy; and number two, all of us are animals on this planet doing our thing to survive, and it really, I guess, makes me feel good to be a scientist and know that I'm trying to help conserve that system a little bit better.

CURWOOD: Margaret Lowman's new book is called Life in the Treetops: Adventures of a Woman in Field Biology. Thank you for joining us.

LOWMAN: Thank you.



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