Conservation biologist Margaret "Meg" Lowman, affectionately known around the world as "Canopy Meg," has written a memoir called The Abornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us, which details her career studying the world's treetops.
After earning her Ph.D. in Sydney, Australia, in 1983, Lowman returned to the States (she's originally from upstate New York) and worked at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, ultimately becoming its CEO. An educator and conservation advocate, she went on to lead classes and talks at New College of Florida, North Carolina State University and international schools in Malaysia and Singapore.
In 2019, Lowman returned to Sarasota to focus on her global forest conservation initiatives, TREE Foundation and MISSION GREEN, whose goal is to build 10 canopy walkways in the world's highest bio-diverse forests by 2025.
Lowman will give a talk about her new memoir on Tuesday, Aug. 10, at 7 p.m. via Zoom. The event is hosted by Bookstore1. Ahead of the discussion, we found out more about her book, her work and what's next.
What inspired you to write The Arbornaut?
I graduated with a biology major in undergrad and never met a woman scientist. I jumped over many hurdles being the only woman scientist in many rooms and on most jungle expeditions. I wrote this book for girls—to make their goals a little easier to achieve than mine had been. I learned from my misadventures, and I want the future generation of girls to become better, less-stressed scientists.
Another reason I wrote the book is because I think the study of trees is critical for our kids to have in their lives. We are the voices for trees, and we are currently at a juncture in society where we're losing essential services to keep kids and the planet healthy.
What exactly is an "arbornaut"?
It is someone that deals with canopy work. I traveled to many jungles and saw trees so tall I couldn't see the tops. Foresters in these jungles had been studying trees for hundreds of years, but would have to chop them down to find out what's on top. So, I had some advisors in Australia teach me how to climb trees. We created custom gadgets and sewed harnesses and made slingshots out of metal pieces so I could get to the top.
Fifty percent of Earth's species live in the tops of trees, but we can't see what's healthy and thriving from down here. I helped create walkways and hot air balloons to help explore what I like to call the "eighth continent." So arbornauts are like astronauts, but we explore the trees.
What drew you to Sarasota?
I had my kids in Australia with me years ago. We were studying trees and didn't mind living in an isolated place. I was offered a temporary position as a night school professor in Sydney, and was then recruited by Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in 1991, which focused on what I wanted to research: canopy plants. I became the executive director there, and was fortunate to come in at a time where it was a science garden and we hosted international conferences. I fell in love with all the wonderful things, and nature, that Sarasota had to offer. That's why I returned after all these years.
How has climate change and deforestation affected your work?
When I began experimenting with canopy methods in the '80s, I couldn't believe how many outbreaks of insects there were, and the dry conditions we witnessed. We didn't have the term "climate change" back then; some geoscientists knew it, but the general scientific community didn't bear the phenomenon. Now we are more aware and know forests can combat climate change. They save us from absorbing carbon dioxide and much more. The last chapter of my book discusses the recent efforts in the last 10 years.
Right now, we only know 10 percent of what's living at the tops of trees. Ninety percent is for the next generation to discover.
What is your latest endeavor, Mission Green, about?
Mission Green began in 2020. We hire women in indigenous villages and turn forests in the tropics into genetic libraries for people to explore. I've partnered with fellow ecologist Sylvia Earle to conduct this work. Mission Green will help places like Ethiopia and Madagascar gain back the less than four percent of their forests that remain. We have also helped to install canopy walkways, including the first one ever in North America, at Myakka State Park. We've built one in Malaysia and we are hoping to get one in Mozambique, too.
Another part of Mission Green is speaking to kids in schools and getting them to care about the environment. It is important to reverse the damage being done. We have to save the big trees—not just plant new, small ones. We are even guilty of that in Florida.
You work with corporations as a sustainability consultant. What are you advising them right now?
I've worked with Tommy Hilfiger to help reduce the amount of energy and water it takes to make clothing. Some companies are more interested in getting involved just so they can put our name on their annual report; others are more interested in the details. I am actually teaching a remote class next year with Tommy Hilfiger about sustainable clothing and how the consumer can waste less on clothes. I get to not only educate the public, but also these corporate groups.
How can locals get involved in sustainability efforts?
Go out to the Myakka walkway, climb a tree with your kids and enjoy the Florida nature that we experience 12 months a year.
MacMillan publishers gave me a chance to be a voice for the trees, and everything else pales in comparison. Without forests and our main oxygen supply, we cannot tackle any other world issues. My hope and prayer is that this book can help people value trees and save enough of them to give our earth a chance.