The last unexplored continent

‘Canopy Meg’ hoists herself into the mysterious mayhem 100 feet overhead

| 27 Jun 2022 | 11:50

Ready, set, fire. My jerry-rigged slingshot propelled its fishing line and lead weight up and over a high, sturdy branch of a coachwood tree (Ceratopetalum apetalum), some seventy-five feet overhead. Gazing up in satisfaction from the humid floor of the Australian rain forest, I hardly felt the infantry of leeches swarming up both legs and the sweat bees invading both eyes, or even spared a thought for the venomous brown snakes lying underfoot.

Believe it or not, I made that shot on the first try. The tree rigging method actually worked! Almost 10,000 miles away from any friends or relatives, teaching myself to scale trees with a homemade harness and slingshot, I was pretty scared. With the fishline catapulted over the sturdy branch almost 30 yards overhead, I next slid the nylon cord along its trajectory, and then the heavier climbing rope. I tied off one end of the climbing rope around the trunk of an adjacent tree, knotting it at least three times, which was totally overkill. I grabbed the free end of the rope and was ready to launch. Double- and triple-checking my harness and foot stirrups, I soon memorized a protocol for checking all my gear, almost like an astronaut before liftoff. After the safety inspection, I clipped my two ascenders onto the rope, making sure that the foot jumar was above the chest jumar, otherwise I would turn upside-down. Squatting, I sat back in my harness and then slid the jumars up the rope, acting out the antics of an inchworm. Slowly, the ground receded and dense leafy foliage surrounded me. The dark-green leaves of the understory swallowed me up. I hardly dared to look sideways let alone down, spinning in midair on a half-inch-thick lifeline, feeling akin to a tiny caterpillar ballooning on a silk strand through a huge expanse of green. I swayed back and forth, a bumbling first-time with little sense of balance, flailed at the tree trunk, and grasped the rope for dear life. But as I climbed higher, moving upward became easier... practice, practice, practice. 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 and encountered a sensory overload: creatures munching, flying, crawling, pollinating, hatching, burrowing, sunning, digesting, singing, mating, and stalking. The life surrounding me was nearly entirely invisible from the forest floor.

The tree extended another 50 feet – I was only 90 feet up! – into the teeming, buzzing hot spot of biodiversity called the upper canopy. I stayed in my aerial perch for at least an hour, which seemed like an eternity, awestruck by all the activities around me. I had ventured into a new world. I could hear the lyrical melodies of crimson rosellas, punctuated by the crack of eastern whipbirds in another treetop, but closer at hand were swarms of buzzing pollinators, colorful beetles crunching with their mouthparts on new leaves, and butterflies flitting in sunspots as they sought flowering-vine nectar for breakfast. I wasn’t an entomologist – and even if I had been, I’d have no idea what most of the creatures were doing there, since no one had ever been up here before! It was humbling to enter their world and think of how unknown all these creatures were to all of science, and more humbling still to realize my presence did not frighten any of them to fly away. I watched. I held my breath in wonder. I twirled on the rope to see in all directions. How would I ever make any sense of all this? I fumbled for my bulky camera, struggling to remove it from my backpack without dropping it or unclipping any safety gear, and snapped some photos, which I later realized were pathetic attempts to capture this new world. I was tempted to pull out a notebook and scribble some observations but couldn’t do justice to everything around me; all I could do was gaze in awe. Eventually, I descended back down to the dark, relatively quiet and empty understory, giddy with amazement and feeling almost intoxicated.

Excerpt from “One Hundred Feet in the Air” and photo from The Arbornaut: A Life Discovering the Eighth Continent in the Trees Above Us by Meg Lowman. Copyright © 2021 by Margaret Lowman. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. All Rights Reserved.