Can trees save the world? Exploring the eighth continent with Canopy Meg

As a primary school student, trees were Meg Lowman's closest companions. She eventually became a pioneer of canopy science, and created a system of forest walkways that now extends around the world. Paul Kennedy visited 'Canopy Meg' to ask whether trees can save the world.

Self-described 'arbonaut' created canopy walkways to help preserve forests

Dr. Meg Lowman is a pioneer of tree-top science. She studies the ecology of forest canopies around the world. (Meg Lowman)

** Originally published on May 17, 2019.

Trees and forests may just be key to the survival of life on our planet. As a pioneering scientist and explorer of the world's "eighth continent" — its tree canopy — Dr. Meg Lowman knows that trees can be a lifesaver — both professionally, and personally.

As a painfully shy girl in upstate New York, tree houses were Meg's refuge from hostile primary school classmates, envious of her good marks. Her studies in forest science led to a career as "the Einstein of Trees."

To help others learn, she's created a system of canopy walkways that draw visitors, and preserve forests, around the world. 

Dr. Meg Lowman is the Director of Global Initiatives, Lindsay Chair of Botany and Senior Scientist in Plant Conservation California Academy of Sciences. Paul Kennedy visited this self-described "arbournaut" in Florida's Myakka River State Park.

Dr. Meg Lowman is an “explorer in residence” for the National Geographic Society. The Wall Street Journal, heralds her as an “Einstein of the Treetops”. (Meg Lowman)

Paul Kennedy's report from 48-hour field trip with Canopy Meg 

My flight to Sarasota touched down just as a scarlet sunset exploded over the Gulf of Mexico. I was reminded of how my father — who served in the Navy during WWII — used to repeat "Red Sky in the Morning, Sailors Warning; Red Sky at Night, Sailors Delight," at least twice every day. But I should have listened to the weather report.

The next morning, I set my cell phone to direct me towards Myakka State Park — only fifteen minutes, and a few kilometres away. Almost an hour later, I arrived at the wrong place. By the time I finally arrived, it had started to rain. In fact, it rained — with increasing intensity — for the next 48 hours!

But Dr. Lowman proved to be a consummate professional. She introduced me to her very first treetop walkway, constructed some 20 years ago.

The park now attracts three times more visitors than it did before the walkway, and inspires a new generation to take proprietary interest in the forest canopy.

We toured the canopy walkway backwards, trying to beat the rain and avoid the busloads of visiting school kids. But as the rain was beginning to gain in both force and volume, we agreed to meet for a sit-down interview, at Meg's apartment, early the following morning.

Dr. Meg Lowman has created a system of canopy walkways around the world. (Carlton Ward Jr./Meg Lowman)

I woke to find the lobby floor at my hotel covered with pots collecting water from a leaky ceiling. My rental car did service dual service as a boat. On more than one occasion, I'm sure the bottom of the chassis was completely submerged.

Ultimately, I arrived, and the interview — in her home, surrounded by souvenirs of her many adventures in forest canopies around the world — felt comfortable for both of us.

On the way to find lunch before heading back to Canada, I got lost once again, trying to follow Meg's car, through the blinding rain. Florida is flat, and we had to traverse streets that were flooded, or blocked by fallen branches.

At a mall burger bar attached to a shopping mall, Meg invited me to join one of her public tours to the Amazon next year. Perhaps I can find the time once I leave my role as host of IDEAS this year!

I've got a feeling that I wouldn't be as bothered by the Amazon's weather. There's a rumour that it rains fairly frequently.

Maybe there's a red sky both in the morning, and at night. It's nice to be warned that rain is coming, and delightful to know that's exactly what the forest canopy needs. 

Further reading:

  • Life in the Treetops: Adventures of a Woman in Field Biology by Meg Lowman (Yale University Press) 1999.
  • It's a Jungle Out There: More Tales from the Treetops by Meg Lowman, James Burgess and Edward Burgess, (Yale University Press) 2006.
  • Beza, Who Saved the Forests of Ethiopia, One Church at a Time by Meg Lowman, (Peppertree Press) 2014.   

**This episode was produced by Paul Kennedy.