Reviewed by John Lloyd
Publisher – Allen & Unwin, 5 August 2021
ISBN – 978-1911630494 HB
- They’ve often said that if the world contains a natural cure for cancer, or for this or that, it would possibly be found in the least likely place, somewhere up a tree in the Amazon. Well, Margaret or Meg Lowman is the person most to thank for the chance to even get to it, if that is where it should be. This forensically detailed autobiography turned popular science book shows the young girl as a lover of nature, and managing to turn that love into a degree, then many years of post-grad research work. After checking over specific trees in Scotland for how they expanded and retracted on a much less than annual scale, she ended up in Australia’s patches of remaining rainforest, with the quandary of how to even check over their leaf growth when that happens so far above our heads. The first stage in that was a handmade slingshot and some equipment more familiar to abseilers, but when volunteer observers became a part of her programme the next step was built – the aerial walkway, passing between and around the trees, where so much wildlife we had forever been oblivious to carries on with no thought to the scientist.
OK, so there is no cure for cancer in these pages as of yet, but there have been copious new observations about leaf growth and consumption, the insects doing the consuming, and so much more. And a lot of this might well be a stumbling block for some readers – whereas this is thoroughly readable, and never gets too technical, it does factor in a heck of a lot of scientific thought, research ideas and new enquiries at every turn. And while some key details seem repeated to fix them in our minds, a lot similarly might be in one ear and out the other if we find tree canopy ecosystems don’t quite have the same appeal with us.
This is certainly not a book that I could recommend to everyone, therefore. That said, the subject is clearly a notable scientist. Starting her career in days when the thought of female biologists, geologists and frankly any scientist was anathema to the old sods in academic circles, she’s had a life to live and has told it well. Working on dieback in eucalyptus trees gave her a husband and two sons, although the naivety involved in that career misstep is writ large. She sailed through the Cameroonian forests on inflatables, but there were several glass ceilings and bigots too willing to cut her down due to her success in the classroom and boardroom. And, of course, now she has much to say about climate change and deforestation – which is done very well here, compared to books that just depress the reader with their message.
Ultimately, then, these are well-delivered lessons from a life in the leaves, and a book that belongs equally on the autobiography shelf as much as it does those for biology and ecology. I still think that for every fascinating event, conclusion or sight, the author has produced too much, and her scientific mind has demanded she cover all possible ground in telling the whole story. But she was at her best more than interesting to meet here.