No Child Left Inside
Author and biologist Margaret Lowman raised her sons in the treetops.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008 12:12 PM EDT
By Adam Grybowski
“IT’S up to parents to take their children outside,” says Margaret Lowman, director of environmental initiatives and professor of biology and environmental studies at New College of Florida.
For most parents, “outside” means the backyard. For Ms. Lowman, outside means the tropical rain forests of Samoa, West Africa, Peru. She is a forest ecologist who specializes in tropical treetops and their biodiversity. She is also the mother of two sons, Edward Burgess, 22, and James Burgess, 21.
When the boys were toddlers the family lived on a sheep and cattle ranch in rural Australia. While the men raised livestock, Ms. Lowman raised her boys, escorting them to the woods to have adventures in nature. When she became a single parent, her perspective on bringing them on professional field expeditions began to evolve, mostly by necessity.
”In order to succeed in my career, I couldn’t give up the fieldwork,” she says. “Data collection is too important.” Unlike a scientist who works in a lab, Ms. Lowman couldn’t plan her working hours around the schedule of a babysitter. “I had to figure out something different.”
Ms. Lowman first brought Edward on an expedition, in Australia, when he was six months old, to measure seedlings and mark their growth. Most of her colleagues were men. Ms. Lowman prayed that Edward wouldn’t cry at night and disturb her sleeping peers, whom were separated by paper-thin walls. During lunch breaks she would rush off to change his diaper. She hoped his presence would be no louder than a fallen leaf. She hoped he would be invisible to her colleagues.
Such trips established an early rapport with her son, Ms. Lowman says, adding that he and his brother were eventually able to get a sense of his mother’s work. “Maybe more of a sense than they wanted.”
Their participation began by necessity but continued by choice. Accompanying their mother, Edward and James lived in huts, ate crickets, and developed and explored their own scientific hypotheses and conclusions.
Ms. Lowman’s new book, It’s a Jungle Up There: More Tales from the Treetops (Yale University Press, $30) written with Edward and James, recounts the family’s adventures. The book focuses on field biology questions and includes stories and reflections on their experiences. Edward graduated from Princeton University in June 2007. James is scheduled to graduate from Princeton in 2009.
In terms of nature-loving parents, Ms. Lowman did not grow up in anything like the environment she provided for her sons. And the experiences she shared with James and Edward are not easy to replicate with her own mother. “My mother always asks me if I can start going to places with flush toilets,” Ms. Lowman says.
Still, growing up in Elmira, N.Y. (“a small town in the middle of nowhere”), Ms. Lowman spent her time playing in backyard tree forts with her best friend, Betsy Hilfiger, the sister of world-famous fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger. There were no theaters, no malls, and nothing to do except play in the backyard, she says. “Mother Nature was our entertainment.”
Ms. Lowman hopes the book will inspire families to experience nature together. “Families who share nature together tend to have good relationships, and kids can’t always get there by themselves,” she says. “Parents with teenagers find it bonds them, that it inspires a different level of communication. Maybe it’s the way family life is supposed to be.”
Experiencing the natural world with children inspires storytelling and using all fives senses, she says, features of life that may often be lost in the suburbs.
What else is lost when such experiences are not had?
”We lose special values,” Ms. Lowman says. “Maybe we don’t appreciate our time together or share intrinsic things like sunsets or smells.”
And if the migration from the forest canopy to the couch continues, our conservation ethic may decline further, a matter of grave concern to Ms. Lowman.
”The future is quite grim in the world of conservation,” she says. And it is not brightened by a culture that encourages life that revolves around technology. Ensconced, people can overlook exciting possibilities. On your way to Florida? You don’t have to go to Disney World. There are experiences to be had in the Everglades.
Still, Ms. Lowman retains a sense of optimism, looking to the new generation. “They are incredibly creative and well-educated and can lead us in the right direction,” she says.
The new generation includes her two sons. Edward works as a research associate for Environmental Defense in New York City. He majored in environmental chemistry and wrote his thesis on climate change. James is an applied math major, working on modeling forests as global carbon sinks.
”I was convinced, as a mom, that they would grow up and do anything but science,” Ms. Lowman says, adding that after their “science careers” as toddlers, she thought they would go on to be bankers or lawyers. “I didn’t take into account the imprinting.”
As a result of their experience they understand the concept of a scientific meeting and how scientific papers are put together, Ms. Lowman says. “They have an understanding, a sixth sense.”
Edward recently presented a paper to the Ecological Society of America, for whom Ms. Lowman serves as vice president.
”In some ways his science supercedes mine,” Ms. Lowman says of her eldest son.
While she still conducts field research, Ms. Lowman has assumed a leadership role to help mentor the next generation. “Those of us who have done it have to create models,” she says.
It’s a Jungle Up There: More Tales from the Treetops by Margaret D. Lowman, Edward Burgess and James Burgess, is available in bookstores