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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Treetop Adventures

Air Date: Week of

Eddie and James trade for blowguns in the Amazon. (Photo: Margaret Lowman)

Professor Meg Lowman has studied insect plant relationships in rainforest canopies all over the world. So when she became a mom, there was really no question that her two sons would join her, becoming her best research assistants. Lowman and her son James tell host Steve Curwood about home life high above ground.


CURWOOD: When biologist Meg Lowman would welcome her two sons home after school, they didn’t get the usual peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a glass of milk, and a chat around the kitchen table. And her boys didn’t sit around watching TV or playing video games. No, James and Eddie spent their younger days helping their mom research the interactions between plants and insects in rainforest canopies from the Pacific Northwest to Cameroon.

Margaret Lowman and her younger son, James, have come down from great heights to talk about their newest book: “It's a Jungle Up There: More Tales from the Treetops.” Hello, Professor Lowman.

LOWMAN: Hey, hello.

CURWOOD: And James Burgess is her son. Hello.


CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. Now, you’ve lived in rainforest canopies all over the world, right?

LOWMAN: That’s correct. I suppose as a young mom my biggest dilemma was should I leave the kids at the bottom of the tree with all the poisonous snakes, or take them into the canopy which seemed a little dangerous. But they did like to climb, so we went from Australia to Panama and Peru, and they did in the end become my best research assistants ever.

Eddie and James trade for blowguns in the Amazon. (Photo: Margaret Lowman)

CURWOOD: So, James, tell me about life in the canopy. Take me through a day there.

BURGESS: Well, a lot of times we would maybe get up before the bust of dawn so we could get out. And usually most of the birds are around in the rainforest before the sun comes up. But we would eventually make our way up to the tops of the trees, and maybe look for insects or birds, or maybe just leaves that had been chewed on by animals, for most of the day, maybe into the night.

CURWOOD: Now, what about spending the night in the canopy itself?

LOWMAN: Oohh, well that’s extra fun. And believe it or not, my work, which specializes in insects and plants, requires a lot of night work because most insects seem to prefer to feed at night. Because then they can avoid being eaten by the birds of the daytime. So we did spend a lot of time up in walkways and tree platforms at night. And the sounds are just amazing – all the bugs are munching at once, and it really can get quite noisy up there.

CURWOOD: Okay. Now what’s the advantage for a plant biologist and entomologist – that is, someone who studies insects – to take two young boys with her into the rainforest?

LOWMAN: Most of my colleagues would probably tell me there’s no advantage to having children in the forest. In fact, they would look askance when I explained to them what I was doing sometimes. But in the end there were lots of great advantages, and that’s partly why I wrote about it.

For one, having a family in other countries and other cultures is a really wonderful, precious communication mode. And I did find in most other cultures they value family so highly that they were always full of trust and enthusiasm and kindness when they knew that I had brought my kids along.

And secondly, the boys really do have better senses than us older people, so they could see things and hear things, and it provided me, essentially, with three man-hours of work for every one woman-hour out in the field. So in a funny way I probably got to see and measure more things than perhaps some of my counterparts.

CURWOOD: Now, James, what’s it like growing up with a scientist mom?

BURGESS: Well, it has some pros and cons, I guess. It was really great, you know, to be able to go to these exotic places and come back with exciting stories to tell all our friends. At the same time, it might have been rough sometimes, especially when we were much younger, sometimes she would go away by herself and we would be at home with the babysitter or grandparents or something. We had some interesting experiences. Just to be around dozens and dozens of other scientists all excitedly discussing the newest variety of mite that lives under someone’s armpit or something.

LOWMAN: (Laughs)

CURWOOD: (Laughs)

BURGESS: It was always interesting to see how other scientists interacted. It maybe showed us what the world of science was really like.

LOWMAN: And James, didn’t you love all those insect recipes?

BURGESS: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, we got a good key into the world of entomophagy, which is eating insects.

CURWOOD: How about butter worms? You go for those? Or are you into like those really crunchy beetles?

BURGESS: Oh. Well, you know, there’s always the honey-seared tarantulas. A classic, I think. There’s just an incredible variety, actually, of recipes for different insects and other arthropods.

CURWOOD: So, I mean, how jealous did you feel of kids that had, what, you know, cars, television, rock and roll, electric guitars?

BURGESS: Well, you know, maybe a little jealous sometimes. But I felt like we might have come out with the better end of the deal.

LOWMAN: But James, you had a blowgun, remember?

BURGESS: I did have a blowgun. (Laughs) You can pick up a lot of girls with a blowgun. (Laughs)

CURWOOD: (Laughs)

LOWMAN: (Laughs) You never told me these stories.

CURWOOD: You’re not supposed to hear them, Mom. (Laughs) Hey, tell me about some of the scary moments you had with your kids there.

LOWMAN: The scary moments? For me, the scary moments might be different than they felt for Eddie or James. But one moment was flying in a very flimsy old plane in the very mountainous parts of Belize. As a matter of fact, we heard six months after our trip that the pilot and some other scientists were actually killed slamming into a cliff edge. So the use of technology in tropical areas can sometimes leave moms a little bit nervous. And after that, not too much worried me. To be honest, I’m much more worried when my kids tell me they’re going to New York City on the subway then when we would spend months at a time working and living in the Amazon. So I guess that’s just my funny bias.

CURWOOD: Now James, as I understand it you have continued this line of research even without going with mom now to the rainforests because, what, you’re off in college now at Princeton. What kind of things are you doing on your own?

BURGESS: Well, I have been to Antarctica recently, and when I was there I was actually looking for some microorganisms that live in mosses and lichens. And hopefully, if I get a chance, I’ll be able to do some more research along this line looking for other microorganisms, perhaps in the Arctic, as well. And who knows where else.

CURWOOD: So Professor Lowman, you’ve got a problem.


CURWOOD: You’ve lost your two big-time assistants.

LOWMAN: I have a problem, you’re absolutely right. And that is a real shame. In fact, writing the book was perhaps the last hurrah, a project we could share together. But I’m looking forward to becoming their research assistants now, with Eddie majoring in environmental chemistry and James, hopefully, going off somewhere in the tropics with his good knowledge of Spanish and engineering. Perhaps I can help them carry the screwdriver or the hammer or something.

CURWOOD: And if they have children is it going to be granny and the kids in the treetops?

BURGESS: (Laughs)

LOWMAN: I think so. I’m not rushing them by any means, but someday I hope to train a few more young naturalists. And, in fact, that’s one thing the boys really did for me, is get my research passion kind of misdirected or newly-aligned to become a person who does a lot of science education. I’ve become really fascinated with the problem of science literacy, and through the boys’ eyes I now try hard to think of ways that I can involve youth education in all of my research.

CURWOOD: Margaret Lowman is a professor of biology and environmental studies at the New College of Florida. Her son, James Burgess, is a freshman at Princeton University. And their new book is called “It's a Jungle Up There: More Tales from the Treetops.” Margaret and James, thanks so much for sharing your stories.

BURGESS: Thanks so much for having us.

LOWMAN: Thank you. I hope you’ll come up to the canopy some time.



“It’s a Jungle Up There”

Margaret Lowman’s website


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