This guest essay by arbonaut, Meg Lowman reflects her ardor for exploring and discovering the secrets of trees. Meg and her family enjoy nothing more than deciphering the wisdom of forests—seeking out skyhigh clues in the canopy. Her new book “The Arbonaut: a life discovering the eighth continent in the trees above us,” invites readers to explore the fascinating science (dendrology), character, and charm of these ancient organisms.

Imagine going to the doctor for a complete checkup and, in the course of an entire visit, the only body part examined was your big toe. The visit ends with a pronouncement that you are perfectly healthy, but there was no test of your vital signs, heartbeat, vision, or any other part of you—just the big toe. You may have gone in with a broken arm or a headache from high blood pressure, but the assessment of your lowest bipedal extremity alone couldn’t clue the doctor in to the real trouble. How would you feel? At the very least, you’d probably switch doctors. 

For centuries, the health of trees, even those ancient giants stretching hundreds of feet high into the clouds, was assessed in just the same way. Examining woody trunks at eye level, scientist essentially inspected the “big toes” of their patients and then made sweeping deductions about forest health without ever gazing at the bulk of the tree, known as the canopy, growing overhead. The only time foresters had the chance to evaluate a whole tree was when it was cut down—which is kind of like assessing a person’s entire medical history from a few ashes after cremation. In tropical forests especially, the lower levels are as different from the upper reaches as night and day. The ground receives as little as 1 percent of the light shining on the crowns. So the understory is dark, windless, and often humid whereas the canopy is blasted with sun, whipped by high winds, and often crispy in its dryness between rainstorms. The gloomy forest floor is inhabited by a few shade-loving creatures, while the canopy hosts a riotous variety of life—millions of species of every imaginable color, shape, and size that pollinate flowers, eat leaves, and also eat each other. 

Excerpt from: The Arbornaut by Meg Lowman (Farrar Straus & Giroux 2021).

I am an arbornaut. I climb trees for a living and have been privileged to explore their upper reaches throughout my career of four-plus decades. Thanks to the explorative exploits of a handful of us arbornauts, we now know that treetops house approximately 50% of all species on the terrestrial (aka land) portion of our planet. 

We also know that we cannot live without trees. Period. 

Trees not only provide oxygen and important gas exchange machinery in their treetops, but trees also provide many foods: think chocolate, oranges, cherries, mangos, etc., as well as medicines, timber, soil conservation (tree roots help prevent flooding), carbon storage, energy production from sunlight, and climate control. 

For about two billion people, trees also provide an essential spiritual heritage; and for many others, trees provide recreation and grounding for the human soul. Who does not smile when recalling a childhood memory of climbing a tree? 

Trees are the nurturing denizens of our planet, sheltering and feeding so much biodiversity. As my favorite example, fig trees (Ficus) strategically provide essential food for millions of other species and an important safe habitat as well. They are also critical spiritual sanctuaries to millions of humans in India, Asia and the South Pacific. 

Ta Prohm Temple (Rajavihara) at Angkor Wat in Cambodia is famous for the strangler fig trees (Ficus gibbosa), silk-cotton trees (Ceiba pentandra) and sprung trees (Tetrameles nudiflora) that grow over the structure. 

Over my career as an arbornaut, I have learned so much from trees. As one of the few women in forestry of my generation (although the ratio is slowly improving), I am passionate about inspiring girls to seek careers in science. Women bring an important voice to the conservation decision-making table, as well as innovative and exciting ideas about field biology. 

When mentoring young women scientists, I always emphasize the wise and practical strategies of the fig trees! They are the only tree species which start life at the top (when a fig bird poops out the seeds on a branch), and then sends its roots down to the soil. By starting at the top, figs gain a competitive edge over other seedlings which struggle for light after germinating on the forest floor. 

Pekin robin (Leiothrix lutea) on Indian fig tree (Ficus benghalensis).

Girls, please join me and consider a profession as an arbornaut … and start at the top! If you read my book, you will learn from my misadventures and about the amazing and wonderful elements of trees. I know the world of trees will provide you with inner strength and successful strategies throughout your life.

But no matter what career path you choose, try to remember to always think like a fig: nurture others, seek space at the top, and embrace your place in the sun. 

About the Book: From climbing solo hundreds of feet into Australia’s rainforests to measuring tree growth in the northeastern United States, from searching the redwoods of the Pacific coast for new life to studying leaf-eaters in Scotland’s Highlands, from a bioblitz in Malaysia to conservation planning in India to collaborating with priests in Ethiopia’s last forests? Lowman launches us into the life and work of a field scientist and ecologist. She also offers hope, specific plans, and recommendations for action; despite devastation across the world, we can still make an immediate and lasting impact against climate change. A blend of memoir and fieldwork, The Arbornaut is for fans of Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl and the work of E. O. Wilson, Jane Goodall, Robert MacFarlane, and Helen MacDonald.

Come live among scientists and travel the world (even in a hot-air balloon)—as you discover how a nerdy tree climber and the only girl at the science fair grew into an inspiring innovator and international leader.

Meg’s Memoir will be available in Australia from August 17th, 2021.

About the Author: Meg Lowman, Ph.D. a.k.a. ‘Canopy Meg’ is an American biologist, educator, ecologist, writer, editor and public speaker. She is the executive director of the TREE Foundation and a professor at the National University of Singapore, Arizona State University and Universiti Sains Malaysia. Nicknamed the ‘Real-Life Lorax’ by National Geographic and ‘Einstein of the Treetops’ by The Wall Street Journal, Meg Lowman pioneered the science of canopy ecology. Her motto is “no child left indoors.” She travels extensively, conducting research, doing outreach and speaking to audiences large and small.

Explorer and media producer, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide resources and opportunities for creative exploration.