Canopy Meg, as Meg Lowman likes to call herself, led the way into the treetops. We climbed a tower 74 feet into the air and emerged above the canopy. We traversed a walkway, a suspended bridge made of rope and wood in the high branches of the live oaks and cabbage palms of Florida’s Myakka River State Park. From that height, we looked out across miles of forest and waterways, where alligators held perfectly still, waiting.
As exploration goes, my visit with Meg in 2006 paled in comparison with her forays into the jungles of the Amazon, the forests of Africa and the eucalyptus groves of Australia. As a botanist and canopy explorer, she had clutched nets lifted from helicopters, hot air balloons and construction cranes and then dropped into the treetops; she had swung from ropes hundreds of feet in the air in those hidden worlds.
At this moment, though, it was hard to imagine Meg being more excited. “This is the only public treetop walk in North America,” she said.
Other canopy walks and suspension bridge parks exist in Canada, Costa Rica, Ghana, and Peru; and, in the U.S., at private facilities or for scientific studies. But the Myakka walkway was among the first available to grandmothers, kids, and anyone else who showed up.
Meg’s work helped inspire this walkway. “We need many more of these around the country,” she said.
When I first described this adventure with Meg in my newspaper column, she was an environmental studies professor at Sarasota’s New College. Today, she’s Chief of Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Science in San Francisco. She’s been featured in the National Geographic documentary “Heroes of the High Frontier,” filmed in the treetops of French Guyana. She has also published two books about her adventures: “Life in the Treetops: Adventures of a Woman in Field Biology” and “It’s a Jungle Up There,” which she authored with her home-schooled sons, James and Eddie Burgess.
Her home-schooled (or treetop-schooled) sons went with her on many of her adventures. And they were with us now.
James pointed to the holes in certain leaves, explaining the precise species of worm that cut them; Eddie named the epiphytes–air plants, some with little funnels that capture water from which birds drink. They exhibited none of the been-there-done-that ennui exhibited by so many young people their age.These days, camping is what people do while waiting in line for the next generation of iPhones. Between 1995 and 2005, tent camping dropped 23 percent; even RV camping was down 31 percent. Around the country, national and state parks may seem overcrowded, but that crush is mainly on the roads. The vast number of visitors to national and state parks never venture farther than a few yards from their cars. After a long decline, National Park attendance seems to be perking up, but this is still an urgent issue.
It’s difficult to love what you’ve never experienced. Declining attendance could reduce future political support for parks. Treetop walks may be one way to attract more families to parks. At the time of my visit with Meg, Myakka River State Park staff credited the treetop walk with doubling public attendance in six years.
Granted, there’s an intrusive, theme park feel to some canopy walks. But they do tap a generational desire for more extreme experiences in nature. Zip-lining and rope-and-harness tree-climbing do that, too. For people with disabilities, those methods are probably more inclusive than canopy walks that require climbing flights of stairs into the treetops. One canopy walk, in Taiwan, does feature a motorized ascent. Everyone, whatever their ability, deserves to have this experience.
So what is it about being in the treetops that attracts so many people? Why the fascination with tree houses, at least the ones that don’t get torn down by adults, or the fancy ones built by adults for adults? “Why do we feel so different up here?” I asked.
She peered at the murky light below. “Maybe it has to do with the fact that decay happens on the forest floor. You find the most photosynthesis, the highest oxygen production, in the treetops,” she said. “The cleanest air on Earth is in the canopies.”
Something else is at work here, another mystery: our evolutionary history, so close to the surface of our skin.
“In Papua New Guinea, a tribe called the Korowai still live in trees, erecting amazing aerial houses accessible by twig ladders,” Lowman once wrote. “It is speculated that their unusual habit of community tree houses evolved as a mechanism to escape enemies on the forest floor, and provide a healthy environment above the dank, dark understory.” We’re all still tree dwellers seeking sanctuary above the earth. “As children, many famous people have escaped to tree houses — John Lennon, Winston Churchill….and Queen Victoria when she was a young princess,” she said.
While some park officials, hoping to compete with video games and iPods, recommend fighting electronics with electronics, Canopy Meg offers a different approach, a more direct route to our roots–or, rather, to our branches.
Top photo by Carlton Ward, bottom photo by Meg Lowman
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