Margaret Lowman,
Life in the Treetops:
Adventures of a Woman
in Field Biology

(Yale University Press, 1999)

This unique memoir is about Margaret Lowman's life as a self-described "arbonaut" -- a field biologist who studies the mysteries of forest canopies, one of the last biotic frontiers on Earth, for tree crowns present an accessibility challenge. In Life in the Treetops, written in clear, drily witty (if sometimes technical) prose, pioneer canopy scientist Lowman describes the little known worlds of the treetops -- their inhabitants, flowers and fruits, growth and mortality, patterns of diversity, and plant and animal interactions. The author writes about how, in conjunction with the scientific hypothesis she was addressing, a different canopy access technique was used. She's particularly good at portraying the life of a field biologist from a woman's perspective, what it was like to cope: with the demands of a challenging career; with marriage to an Australian sheep farmer; with housewifery; with motherhood to two young sons; with irreconcilable cultural differences about gender roles; and with divorce and single parenthood.

The chronologically organized chapters start with Lowman's early days with ropes in Australia and progress to the use of a cherry picker to gain access to canopies of eucalyptus trees while she was pregnant, then going on to describe research by hot air balloon in Africa, and by building treetop walkways in the temperate forests of Massachusetts and in tropical rainforests of Belize.

Lowman's descriptions of her various arboreal ecological projects are always fascinating -- a perfect example of fact as enthralling as fiction -- as the author emphasizes the pleasures and intellectual rewards of studying the natural world without ignoring the inevitable vicissitudes of researching in wilderness settings. The narrative ends with Lowman ensconced as the director of research and conservation at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Fla. -- an inspiring story for all, not just for women or those interested in careers in science.

Life in the Treetops is simultaneously very entertaining, informative and enlightening even as it makes an eloquent plea for the desperate need to conserve all types of forests, vanishing rapidly and stupidly to the greed of global corporate exploitation. A lovely array of photos and line drawings, the last by Barbara Harrison, enhance the text which I can't recommend too highly. The one thing that would have made this superb natural science reading experience even better would be a bibliography.

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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