Oct/Nov 2021  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Great Forest and The Arbornaut and The Arbornaut

Review by Ann Skea

The Great Forest.
David Lindenmayer.
Allen & Unwin. 2021. 192 pp.
ISBN 978 1 76087 982 2.

The Arbornaut.
Meg Lowman.
Allen & Unwin. 2021. 368 pp.
ISBN 978 1 76087 679 1.

These two books are very different, but the purpose of both is the same: to immerse us in the fascinating world of trees and convince us of their importance, especially in old-growth forests, for our health, wellbeing, and ultimately, our survival.

The Great Forest is a beautiful book, handsomely bound and full of stunning photographs. These, interspersed with occasional pages of explanatory text, show us the land, trees, plants, and animals of the Central Highlands rimming the city of Melbourne in Victoria. Here, some of the tallest forests in the world, which have been some 600 million years in the making, provide the people of Melbourne with nearly all their drinking water. Sadly, they have been targeted for extensive logging for over a hundred years.

The photographs show the rolling landscape of mountain ranges, ancient crags and rocky outcrops; the waterfalls, streams, and fens; the unique shapes, colors, and heights of the trees; and the rich and strange understory of tree-ferns, wattles, fungi, mosses, and lichens. They also show some of the unusual animals living in the forests, many nocturnal so rarely seen.

The contorted shapes of Snow Gums in sun and snow display the rich olive, salmon, and white colors of their bark. The tallest moss in the world grows on the forest floor; the eerie iridescent green of the Ghost Fungus lights up the night; and Mountain Brushtail Possums eat the hallucinogenic fungi growing on the trunks of Mountain Ash. The huge, soaring Mountain Ash, "the tallest flowering plant in the world," can reach 90-100 meters in height, and one archival photograph from 1933 shows all the inhabitants of the village of Fernshaw gathered around by the great girth (measured at 19.5 meters) of one of these giants, where they look like little elves in a fairy tale.

The amazing variety of these photographs leads, at the end of the book, to scenes of destruction and devastation caused by logging, clear-felling, and by bush-fires, which have become fiercer and more frequent in recent years. The contrast is shocking.

David Lindenmayer, who writes the notes in the book, argues for the establishment of a National Park to protect this environment, but he writes, too, of the need to restore the health of the forest after the "brutal catastrophic damage" European colonization of the forest began and "the damaging legacy" that "lasts to this day." Old growth forest generate more water than younger trees and are more resistant to fire, but 98% of the forests are now less than 80 years old, so it is "critical we start now" to protect them. "We must not forget about the people in small towns and regional areas who make a living from logging forests," he writes, but "this is not a contest between jobs and the environment. Rather, well-managed conservation is good for all." He advocates careful, eco-friendly forest management; training full-time, professional, fire-fighters; re-vegetating key areas; and developing eco-tourism. Importantly, he sees the need for consultation with the local Aboriginal people, who have been the Traditional Custodians of these forests "for tens of thousands of years."


Meg Lowman, "the Arbornaut" of her memoir, provides a world-wide perspective on this same subject:

It shouldn't be a surprise (but it still is for some) that planetary health links directly to forests. Their canopies produce oxygen, filter fresh water, transfer sunlight into sugars, clean our air by absorbing carbon dioxide, and provide a home to the extraordinary genetic library of all earthbound creatures, among many other crucial functions.

Meg's passion for studying nature began early when as a child she collected wildflowers, pressed them between the pages of telephone books, tried to identify each specimen, and stored the whole collection under her bed, where to her mother's distress, it attracted mice. At the age of 11, she won second prize for this collection at the New York State Science Fair. She went on to identify old birds eggs her grandfather had collected, and inspired by reading the work of the biologist, Rachel Carson, she conducted her first simple scientific experiment by comparing the shell thickness of one old hen's egg from her grandfather's collection with that of fresh eggs from her mother's refrigerator.

As a shy, nature-obsessed child, she had no one to share this interest with until her parents agreed to let her attend a summer wild-life camp. There, her enthusiasm grew, and she was invited to return the next summer as a junior staff member.

All of these childhood passions, patched together like a quilt, led me to ultimately become one of the world's first arbornauts. I probably would not have pursued field biology as a career without a halcyon childhood of outdoor exploration. Mostly trees. Mostly solitude. Mostly wildflowers, leaves, and curiosity about how nature operates.

Lowman became one of the first scientists to investigate the tops of trees, the canopy of which, as she notes, is home to "upward of half of all terrestrial animals," and which she dubbed "the eighth continent." She has now spent decades as a scientist exploring this "continent," educating others in this pursuit, teaching and mentoring students, and bringing together a global community of arborealists. She designed and helped to construct the first tree-walk in Australia and has gone on work on others around the world. None of this was what she planned to do when she welded together some pipes to make her first sling-shot, fired a weighted fishing line into a tree, hauled up a sturdy rope, and began to climb. Taking hints from caving friends at Sydney University, she refined her climbing gear and climbed higher, experiencing "sensory overload" on her first climb into a tall Australian rain-forest tree:

Beams of light began to flicker on my face as I drew closer to the top of the coachwood. Then mayhem broke loose around me. I had entered the sun-flecked leaves of the official upper canopy... creatures munching, flying, crawling, pollinating, hatching, burrowing, sunning, digesting, singing, mating, and stalking. The life surrounding me was entirely invisible from the forest floor.

Lowman's career, especially as a woman working in a scientific environment dominated by men, has had its ups and downs (no pun intended), but she has been persistent and innovative and very successful in promoting the scientific study of tree-canopies. Ninety-five percent of the forest exists above ground-level, but until quite recently scientific research has taken place in the understory and around the trunks of trees. Lowman likens this to having a doctor diagnose the state of your health by examining only your big toe. Her own exploration of this 95 percent has been laborious and painstaking. In Scotland, in bitter weather, she studied the leafing and flowering pattern of Scottish birch trees and constructed her first rickety platform "to survey the tree crowns about 25' high." In Australia, she climbed higher and over a period of three years numbered and labeled hundreds of branches and leaves on five different species of rain-forest tree to observe seasonal changes and depredation by insects. This including the giant stinging tree, which as hairs with stings 39 times more toxic that the hedgerow stinging nettle.

Lowman writes in a chatty, easygoing way, describing her life, experiments, achievements, and her ongoing aim of sharing her story so others, especially young women, will be inspired to follow their passions and not hesitate "to be smart and strong." Her detailed descriptions of her research were sometimes a little too long for me, but they are balanced by glimpses of her personal life and vivid accounts of her travels and adventures in the Amazon rainforest, in India, and in the Cameroons. Since she began her career, technology has changed the way scientific research is recorded and disseminated, and Lowman has adapted to that, now using it to create innovative and important scientific networks, and to link citizen scientist together to collect and record data.

In many ways, The Arbornaut complements and adds to the arguments presented in The Great Forest. I was happy to read Lowman's clear account of just how forests produce the water Lindenmayer tells us is so important to us, and glad to learn of the initiatives taken, worldwide, to increase awareness of the natural environment. Both books also demonstrate the way climate change is affecting the world's forests, and how essential it is Governments everywhere recognize and address this issue. Careful management of the forests, as Lindenmayer says, "is good for all."


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