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The Arbornaut | Book Recommendation

October 13, 2021

[Posted by Chuck Almdale]

The Arbornaut, an adventurous autobiography by biologist Meg Lowman, is exactly what her subtitle suggests: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us. The short version of this recommendation is that everyone will find something to love in the book.

Inquisitive—but a little lonely—child. Plucky young woman. Budding scientist. A woman alone among domineering male scholars and the beer-drinking fellow students. The first person to study forestry who didn’t think in terms of board-feet or harvestable timber per acre, but did think about what might be going on in a tree higher than six feet above the ground. How to get safely into the canopy and move around. What was eating those leaves, and what does it do to the tree? Why are leaves in different parts of the canopy very different from one another. The enormous number of unknown insect species living in the forest canopy. Canopy walks, deforestation, sacred trees, fungal and insect pests, bio-blitzes, fire, tree thirst, global warming. She did it all, and much of it—using rock-climbing (or cave-descending) equipment to get into and around the forest canopy, and the creation of canopy trails—she invented and designed.

An interesting quote about coastal redwoods, one of her favorite trees:

And one last factoid discovered by arbornauts relates to the complex crowns of redwoods: the trees sprout new leaders (shoots at the branch tips) in the upper canopy after wind or storms have damaged the existing trunks. Such response to repeated weather conditions results in complicated masses of separate leaders, both living and dead, and massive amounts of detritus in the tree crotches where entire mini communities establish. One individual tree called Ilúvatar, named after a character from J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, contains 220 different trunks branching in the crown, representing regrowth from fire or wind and comprising over 37,000 cubic yards of wood. Measured by Steve Sillett and colleagues, this tree is considered the most complex living organism on the planet, but only by climbing into its upper reaches were such structural wonders discovered.

The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us
Meg, Lowman. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 2021. 337 pages

The publisher’s blurb:

“An eye-opening and enchanting book by one of our major scientist-explorers.” —Diane Ackerman, author of The Zookeeper’s Wife

Nicknamed the “Real-Life Lorax” by National Geographic, the biologist, botanist, and conservationist Meg Lowman—aka “CanopyMeg”—takes us on an adventure into the “eighth continent” of the world’s treetops, along her journey as a tree scientist, and into climate action

Welcome to the eighth continent!

As a graduate student exploring the rain forests of Australia, Meg Lowman realized that she couldn’t monitor her beloved leaves using any of the usual methods. So she put together a climbing kit: she sewed a harness from an old seat belt, gathered hundreds of feet of rope, and found a tool belt for her pencils and rulers. Up she went, into the trees.

Forty years later, Lowman remains one of the world’s foremost arbornauts, known as the “real-life Lorax.” She planned one of the first treetop walkways and helps create more of these bridges through the eighth continent all over the world.

With a voice as infectious in its enthusiasm as it is practical in its optimism, The Arbornaut chronicles Lowman’s irresistible story. From climbing solo hundreds of feet into the air in 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 conducting a BioBlitz in Malaysia to conservation planning in India and collaborating with priests to save Ethiopia’s last forests, Lowman launches us into the life and work of a field scientist, ecologist, and conservationist. She offers hope, specific plans, and recommendations for action; despite devastation across the world, through trees, we can still make an immediate and lasting impact against climate change.

A blend of memoir and fieldwork account, The Arbornaut gives us the chance to live among scientists and travel the world—even in a hot-air balloon! It is the engrossing, uplifting story of a nerdy tree climber—the only girl at the science fair—who becomes a giant inspiration, a groundbreaking, ground-defying field biologist, and a hero for trees everywhere.

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