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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Insights from the Forest Canopy, Bruises from the Glass Ceiling: Meg Lowman, Arbornaut.

One of the first things that we teach high school students about statistics is the relative worthlessness of convenience-type surveying - the sort where, instead of carefully selecting your subjects to eliminate bias, you just grab the first thirty people you happen to stumble across, ask them a few questions, and call it a day. It’s an easy way to do a survey, but not a great way to get at the truth, and so you might be surprised to learn that, for generations, this was precisely how scientists approached forests, gaining the vast majority of their information about trees from what they found on the ground or at eye-level, and extrapolating from there to what they imagined must be the case for the rest of the tree above.


Scientifically, this was the equivalent of guessing what somebody is wearing by only looking at their socks, but until Margaret Lowman (b. 1953) arrived in Australia in 1978, such methods represented the extent of the forest researcher’s bag of tricks. While they worked somewhat decently for trees that only stood some twenty feet tall, they were woefully inadequate for studying the life cycle of the giants to be found in tropical rainforests, as Lowman discovered when she first drove to an Australian tree stand and found that she could not make out the tops of the hundred and fifty foot behemoths surrounding her even with the aid of binoculars.


Lowman’s solution to the problem of forestry’s glaring sampling problems was daring and revolutionary, and quite simply changed how we view, study, and describe forest life, and if ever there was a person destined from youth to bring humans to a closer understanding of our cousins the trees, it was she. Born Margaret Dalzell Lowman in Elmira, New York, her childhood world was wrapped up entirely in the nature around her, and from a young age she made it her business to learn as much as she could about the flowers and wildlife around her, spending her hard-earned money to buy mail-order scientific measuring devices so that she could accurately identify bird eggs, and filling books with her phenological observations about what species came to life at what points during the year. She was the youngest member of her local bird-watching enthusiasts group, and only found friends her own age who shared her love of natural research when her parents generously paid a sizable amount of money for her to attend the Burgundy Wildlife Camp, one of the first of its kind to focus on fostering an enthusiasm for naturalism that treated all campers equally as budding young researchers, regardless of gender.


Lowman was so taken with the camp that she would return the next six summers, as a junior teacher and counselor, crawling out of her wallflower shell to teach her only slightly younger charges about trees, leaves, insects, and birds, in accordance with the the camp’s philosophy that the best way to inspire a child to love nature is to have them follow in the footsteps of a motivated individual close to their own age. When it came time to select a college, Lowman already had extensive experience studying nature, and teaching others about it, and she chose Williams as her number one pick on the strength of its neighboring forest regions, which she had read undergraduates were allowed to conduct their own research in.


Arriving at Williams, Lowman was in for a series of rude awakenings. Firstly, she had applied to the biology department expecting that, logically, biology was the area of study most applicable to her interest in botanical field research, but she soon found that the biology program at Williams was tooled to meet the needs of the overwhelmingly pre-med inclined students within it, with a hefty focus on human biology, and not so much on the structure of tree leaves. She briefly considered geology, but as the only woman in the department, she felt actively excluded by the macho ethos of both the students and professors, who drank hard, made sport of trying to kill whatever wildlife they found, swore profusely to prove their manly chops, and made it abundantly clear to Lowman that she did not belong among their number.


So, she had little choice but to return to the biology department again as a junior, where she put together a research program in plant ecology that focused on studying the relationship between season change and trunk growth, investigating the question of whether trees lay down new trunk constantly throughout the year, or do it in spurts when the time seems propitious. She found interesting correlations between a tree’s ultimate life strategy and its approach to growing new trunk wood, with ring porous trees like the elm laying down large wood cells quickly with the onset of spring, and smaller ones later, as part of their general plan to inhabit cleared areas and grow as quickly as possible within them before weightier competition arrived, and diffuse porous trees like maple producing uniformly sized wood cells over time, again perfectly in line with their overall strategy of growing slowly but solidly. Elms might be the first to the party, but maples stick around.



Her time at Williams, exciting as it was from a research point of view, also brought her into contact with the darker realities of a woman trying to survive in overwhelmingly male spaces. While working for the biology department in the herbarium, she was regularly molested by the taxidermist who worked there, until she complained to the department head who, rather than fire the taxidermist for unprofessional behavior, simply moved Lowman to a different part of the department to fix the problem. Later, after moving to Duke on a fellowship, she was attacked while out on a run by a rapist that police had been trying to apprehend for three months, and only escaped by deftly running into the nearby forest, and losing her hotly pursuing attacker in the brush.


The incident was the wake up call Lowman needed to leave the overwhelmingly male world of American forestry studies and seek opportunities elsewhere, ultimately heading to the University of Aberdeen to pursue her Master’s degree studying the phenology of Scotland’s birch trees. It was long known that birch trees that stood on hilltops, subjected to greater extremes of weather, achieved significantly lower mature heights than their brethren in the warmer valleys, and Lowman was interested in what other differences might exist between trees in different locations in terms of how they timed their yearly budding. Her most important result from the point of view of her career’s trajectory was the discovery that the taller trees in the valley had a differential schedule for leaf budding, with the lower leaves emerging two to three weeks before those in the canopy. The discrepancy between canopy and under-story behavior in trees even twenty-five feet tall motivated the natural realization that the old way of studying trees, by just surveying the behavior of the leaves close at hand and assuming that they accurately reflected what was happening above, might need substantial revision, and the taller the tree, the more dramatic the inadequacy of the old ways might be.


This brings us to the pivotal year of 1978, as Lowman arrived in Australia to do her PhD work at the University of Sydney, studying the rapidly dwindling rain forests there. Confronted suddenly with trees some six times taller than any she had dealt with before, and armed with the knowledge that, the larger the tree, the less useful ground collected data will be in describing the towering world above, where some ninety percent of the forest’s animals live, the question became, how to study that world above in a manner that was safe and depended on techniques that were reliable. Lowman found her answer ultimately while in New Zealand for a conference, when she took up a park manager’s offer to join him on a spelunking expedition. The kit that the spelunkers used to safely raise and lower themselves along a guideline struck her as uniquely well suited to studying canopies, which only left the question of how to get the guidelines in the canopy to begin with. She ingeniously solved this problem by designing and constructing a slingshot that could be aimed at a promising branch and fired, its projectile trailing behind it a light thread, which could then be used to haul up a lighter rope over the branch high above, which in turn could be used to haul up the heavy ropes that would support her weight as she ascended into the canopy.


The setup was cheap, efficient, and effective, allowing Lowman to have access to a part of the forest explored by none before her, a vast “eighth continent” where dwelled an uncountable host of new organisms never seen by human eyes before. Soon Lowman was collecting a treasure trove of insect specimens that were the delight of entomologists the world over, and leaf specimens to carry out her studies of the role that insects played in deforestation, carefully measuring the rate at which insects and their larva were able to consume the leaves of Australia’s most prominent tree species. That study translated into Lowman’s joining the critical effort to determine the cause of Australia’s great Eucalyptus die-off of the 1970s and early 1980s. Farmers from all over the country were reporting the deaths of the eucalyptus trees that were crucial sources of shade for their sheep, and in the absence of any other explanation, tended to blame the koalas which they saw feeding on the leaves, going to the extremes of hunting the slow moving fluff-balls in an attempt to salvage what trees they had left.



Lowman applied the techniques that she had developed in the rain forests to the eucalyptus problem, and found that, in addition to larger factors stemming from what we now know to be climate change, the trees were getting hit by a double whammy of insect attack, with larvae in the ground devastating root systems before maturing and devouring the canopy above at a rate that the eucalyptus simply couldn’t outgrow.


At the same time as she was carrying out this work, so important to the agriculture of an entire continent, Lowman became herself a ranch wife, marrying a sheep rancher whose family had been in the trade for generations. Though her husband was supportive of her scientific interests, her in-laws decidedly were not, and railed against her studies at every opportunity they got, particularly after Lowman persisted in her work after giving birth to a first and second child. Traditionally, her role was expected to be that of farm wife, her entire world circumscribed by the needs of feeding her husband and tending to her children, a life that many of the wives Lowman knew found desperately monotonous, but didn’t know how to escape, Australia’s culture being what it was.


Lowman stayed in the marriage as long as she could, but after being offered a research position in the United States, and being reminded there about what a different, less misogynistic, education her children could have there, she decided to divorce her husband, and keep the kids with her in America, where they could indulge their love of books and science without the looming expectation that their entire future would be constrained within the boundaries of the family farm.


The following years represented a frustrating amalgam of triumph and inertia, as globally Lowman’s methods inspired a new generation of researchers to take to the canopies and find there worlds they had never before dreamed, but personally she found herself repeatedly having to leave jobs after administrators took credit for her best ideas, and then exerted the weight of their positions to move her increasingly to the periphery of the structures she had built and nurtured. She felt stymied in her attempts to use established institutions like museums to build educational outreach programs, and so eventually took it upon herself to independently create the sort of change she wanted to see, including using her outreach expertise to employ BioBlitzing to study the forests of Malaysia, advising India’s forestry officials on how to safely and responsibly create canopy skyways that would connect the Indian people with the full measure of the natural beauty around them (India has managed to preserve some 21% of its natural forests, as against 3% in the United States), and working with Orthodox church officials in Ethiopia to engage local communities in the task of preserving the “church forests” (semi-sacred stands of a dozen or so acres that surround churches in the country) that represent the last vestiges of the nation’s original forest growth.


Lowman’s mission to understand and protect the world’s forests, begun nearly half a century ago, continues today through her Tree Foundation, which continues its work preserving native forests by showing local communities how to make more money through eco-tourism than logging and mono-culture cash crops. “Canopy Meg”, “Einstein of the Treetops”, “The Real-Life Lorax”, Lowman has garnered a number of affectionate nicknames from a grateful world whom she has taught how to explore a vast new continent of life just above our heads, and how to protect it against the climate onslaught wrought by our own hands.


FURTHER READING:


Lowman has published a number of books about canopy life and her adventures as an arbornaut over the years, the most recent of which is The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us (2021), a book as charming in its enthusiasm for leaves and bugs as it is disarming in its honesty about the trials she faced throughout the 1970s and 1980s on account of her gender. If you are interested in supporting her work preserving the forests of Ethiopia and constructing canopy skyways to help local populations preserve their dwindling forests, you can donate at the Tree Foundation’s website, located here.


This is the 249th Episode of the Women in Science column, originally published in 2023.


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