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The Arbornaut, by tree canopy scientist Meg Lowman

I was drawn to biologist Meg Lowman’s new book The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us partly by my love of adventurous travel in distant lands, and partly by my fascination with those who make ground-breaking discoveries. And if those innovators are women dealing with systemic sexism in their chosen field, all the more interesting.

The Arbornaut hits on all three. She takes us to Australia, Peru, India, Ethiopia, Malaysia and more.  Lowman pioneered the science of treetop ecology, which greatly changed our understanding of forests and has much to contribute to the fight against climate change. And she managed to do this despite the systemic roadblocks against her as a woman scientist.

Reading this book in a week when wildfires rage and destroy anew, and when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change released such a dire report, added additional emotional layers. First, there was the tragic sense that much of the biological beauty the writer so vividly describes is on the brink of destruction. And yet, there was also a sense of hope. She refuses to give into despair over our environmental calamity, and makes the case for the major role forests have in humanity’s survival.

Her story in a nutshell, as she describes it:

No one would have guessed that a shy kid from rural upstate New York, a veritable geek who spent her childhood collecting wildflowers along roadsides, could change our view of the planet with a few homemade gadgets.

Sounds pretty grandiose, but that’s exactly what she did. Up until 40 or so years ago, the study of trees and forests focused mostly on the tree trunk and whatever part of the understory was accessible from the ground, which in retrospect seems absurd since only 1% of the trunk is living tissue; the other 99% is dead tissue, otherwise known as ‘wood.’ As she puts it: “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.” If tree canopies were studied at all, it was generally of trees that had been cut down. (Click READ MORE below for the rest of this post!)

Her initial inspiration came while studying birch trees in the hilly Scottish highlands, trying to figure out why trees at different elevations thrived better, and why aphids attacked certain leaves more than others. The answer seemed to lie in whatever was going on at the tops of trees rather than at their base.

When an opportunity came to study the Australian rain forest, she jumped at it. To prepare for ascending to tree canopies, she garnered tips from rock climbers and spelunkers. To adapt climbing equipment to trees, she fashioned a slingshot to get her ropes secured around branches and trunks. And finally, she began her first true ascent. The world changed only two-thirds of the way up:

Beams of light began to flicker on my face as I drew closer to the top of the coachwood. Then mayhem broke loose around me. I had entered the sun-flecked leaves of the upper canopy and encountered a sensory overload: creatures munching, flying, crawling, pollinating, hatching, burrowing, sunning, digesting, singing, mating, and stalking. The life surrounding me was nearly entirely invisible from the forest floor.

She had come face to face with a world that hitherto had been undiscovered. Over the ensuing 40 years 

[T]reetop exploration would lead to the discovery that upward of half of all terrestrial creatures live about one hundred feet above our heads, not at ground level as scientists previously assumed. As I soon discovered, in the upper crowns, the majority of species were new to science. Across more than sixty thousand species of trees, nearly every one hosts unique communities.

Lowman is clear that when she first began her research, the idea of climate change barely registered. But today, it is central to what she does. Trees create oxygen, convert sunlight to sugars, protect the soil, and are home to a huge and interconnected genetic library that could hold countless benefits. Most importantly at this juncture, they absorb carbon dioxide, the greatest (though not only) greenhouse gas driving climate change.

She cites a report from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology that says underutilized land could support an extra 2.2 billion acres of tree cover, which after several decades could remove two-thirds of the carbon humans have sent into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. There are tree planting projects taking place around the globe, such as the 353 million seedlings planted in a 12-hour span in Ethiopia and 220 million in India in a single day.

Still, this is a second-best option. Best would be preserving the primary forests around the globe, but in this we are failing badly. Some countries, such as the Philippines, Ethiopia and Madagascar have virtually no primary forest left. Fires and deforestation in the Amazon continue at an alarming rate. The United States has only an estimated 3% remaining of its original primary forest.

An estimated half of the world’s primary (meaning original or old-growth) forests have been completely destroyed since most baby boomers were born. Not surprisingly, those old-growth stands housed most of the global carbon, significantly more than what is stored by seedlings struggling to survive in the harsh soils of Ethiopia or India. It is not OK to cut down tall trees and then plant a few small ones in exchange. We need to shift our response to climate change away from the quick fix of finding simplistic ways to store carbon to creating long-term solutions that reduce carbon pollution.

Still, trees are Lowman’s thing, and she is a fierce advocate of their role in preserving a world we can live in. Her advocacy is channeled through the organization she founded, the Tree Foundation, with various projects around the world.