Last summer the Educator Academy in the Amazon was fortunate to be featured in the Place-based Education edition of Green Teacher.  As we prepare for our 2017 program, we can’t wait to introduce the Amazon to a new group of teachers and help them create deeper global and local connections for themselves and their students. 

Think Locally; Explore Globally                                                                                                              by Christa Dillabaugh, Terri Hebert and Kelly Keena                                                                             Originally published in Green Teacher 110, Summer 2016

As the sun sinks below the treetops, the hum of an outboard motor becomes audible over the cacophony of jungle sounds that signal nightfall in the Amazon. Moments later, a small boat pulls into view and 28 educators from the United States clamber into the humid twilight at river’s edge. Gazing up at the rainforest, most are unaware they are about to be transformed – personally and professionally – through their deep exchange with this place called the Amazon.


For the next nine days, the Amazon will serve as teacher, mentor, and guide – equipping these educators to return to their classrooms with new perspectives on how to help their students make sense of their world. Learning in the Amazon favors inquiry, personal discovery, and the ability to ask good questions. It requires a holistic, multi-disciplinary lens to understand its complex past, present, and future. Its preservation calls for local engagement and global collaboration.

But is it really necessary to travel thousands of miles by plane and boat to reach a remote field station in the rainforest to accomplish this? After all, one of the most basic tenants of place-based education is to focus on the local rather than on distant places like the jungles of South America. This article will explore how an experience in the Amazon serves as a touchstone to better understand one’s place in the world.

The mere mention of the word Amazon conjures up images of snaking rivers and strange wildlife or “Save the Rainforest” t-shirts and fundraisers. The Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, shelters more than 10 per cent of the planet’s known biodiversity, with new species still being discovered at the rate of one every three days. Its rivers and tributaries account for more than 15 per cent of the world’s fresh water and its forests store more than 90 billion metric tons of carbon. To say that the Amazon is a critical global resource is simply an understatement. These facts are brought to life for educators as they explore and experience this vital ecosystem for themselves.

But is that enough? One still might question how this first person experience with the Amazon translates into changes in instruction once the educators are back home. How does it provide educators with the transferable skills and new understandings needed to successfully forge global connections for their students?

terri-hebertFor the last four years, we have been seeking answers to these questions via the Educator Academy in the Amazon, a unique place-based professional development experience for K-12 educators set in a remote corner of Northeastern Peru. As we hike along rainforest trails, engage with local communities, and traverse the rainforest canopy, we use the principles of place-based education to explore, engage, and understand the Amazon and its connection to our home place. Through this intensive, coming-to-know experience, we uncover universal understandings about the complexity and vulnerability of ecosystems and how they connect to one another…

To access the full article, please go tohttp://greenteacher.com/think-locally-explore-globally/ and enter the password 109sped

To learn more about the 2017 Educator Academy and register please go to: http://www.amazonworkshops.com/educator-academy.html

or contact Academy Director, Christa Dillabaugh at christa@amazonworkshops.com

We are so pleased to include Project Learning Tree and their Forests of the World and EE Activity Guide activities as part of our Annual Educator Academy in the Amazon.

Here’s an inside look on how our faculty and past participants are using PLT to make connections!

AL STENSTRUP – former Director of Education for Project Learning Tree and current Co-director of the Educator Academy in the Amazon

DSC_0244For any PLT fans that have met or worked with Al, you know he epitomizes what it means to be an experiential learner – embracing every day, every activity, and every global adventure with endless energy, enthusiasm, and curiosity.  Now that he has ‘retired’ from PLT, he hasn’t slowed down one bit.  He travels the world promoting environmental education, green schools, and school gardens.  To say he is inspiring is an understatement!

We caught up with Al in between his travels and asked him to share his take on place-based learning, Project Learning Tree (PLT), and his experience in the Amazon these last few summers.

It seems that place-based learning is all about forging connections. We all have different ways of forging connections to people and places. How do YOU connect with a new place? What things do you do that help you get a sense of things? Do you have “touchstones” that you seek out that help you make connections and gain perspective?

 “Hmmmm…I’ve never really thought about that. Good question! When I think about all the places I’ve been around the world, the memories that are most vivid are those of the schools I’ve visited. I guess this would be my touchstone. I seek out opportunities to visit schools where ever I go. Schools give me a window into a community. These visits give me insights into a community’s history, its organization, its values…I guess this is my way of understanding and making connections to a place. Now you’ve got me thinking. I wonder what other people use as touchstones when visiting a new place.”


Project Learning Tree (PLT) uses forests as a window for understanding larger environmental issues and aims to actively engage students in solving problems and making a difference. How do PLT activities help students move beyond factual awareness and into the realm of appreciation, wonder, and action?

img_8698“One of our goals at PLT is to help students learn HOW to think, not what to think. Certainly having factual background is important, but when you give students the chance to identify issues, look at other perspectives, conduct investigations, and find their own solutions – this is where the magic happens. Students feel empowered when their voices are heard and this leads to action. PLT strongly encourages students to propose solutions, but our ultimate goal is to have them take action. Teachers use PLT’s Forests of the World and our Environmental Education Activity Guide to help students gain perspective and propose solutions.  Our GreenWorks and Green Schools  take things to an even more active level and are great programs for actively engaging students in service-learning.”

You recently wrote a book about forests and included a chapter on the Amazon. Last summer you finally got to visit the Amazon in person. It was obvious that you were in a perpetual state of wonder. Did you gain any new perspectives?

 “Well since I spent most of my career working  for PLT, I am kind of a forest guy. You might be surprised to know that what struck me most was the water – the vastness, the flow – it was everywhere! We literally couldn’t take 50 steps without getting wet. Water drives everything, not only how the Amazon system works, but daily life for all the people that live there. The river is their highway. It’s their grocery. It’s interesting…I wrote a book about forests, and how they are a diminishing natural resource, so on my first visit to the Amazon, I went into the experience thinking about forests and trees and how they are being exploited. What I came away with was a new perspective on how the Amazon functions as a system – especially the connection between the forest and the water. I’m looking forward to getting back down there in July and expanding my perspective again.  It might be time to write another book or at least a new chapter!”

We were so excited when Al joined our faculty in 2013 and thrilled that he has been with us ever since!

JENNIFER RICHARDSON – Class of 2013, Presidential Award Finalist, and Next Generation PLT Advisory Committee Member

philippines-2013-2364Jennifer Richardson is a champion of environmental education in Arkansas. As a classroom teacher, she used PLT with her fifth graders and led many school-wide greening efforts, including recycling, composting, and developing a nature trail. Jennifer joined us in the Amazon in 2013 and did an amazing job of using PLT and the Amazon to bring a global perspective to her classroom!

In 2013 I traveled to Peru to participate in an Educator Academy in the Amazon Rainforest. It was a life-changing adventure that provided me with a global perspective that really enhanced my teaching.   The experience helped me create awareness amongst my students about the connections between our local environment and the rainforest, and the effects of deforestation in the Amazon both locally and globally. 

Here are just a few examples of how I am used activities from PLT’s PreK-8 Guide to connect my students to my personal experience in the Amazon:

• Activity 21, Adopt a Tree – Students have adopted a tree on our nature trail which they will compare to trees in the Amazon.

• Activity 10, Charting Diversity – Students compare Arkansas’ native plants and animals to those found in the rainforest.

• Activity 15, A Few of My Favorite Things – Students investigate what things they use every day that come from the rainforest.

• Activity 17, People of the Forest – Students learn how forests provide local people with their basic needs, and they also learn about the Yagua tribe we visited with in the Amazon.

• Activity 22, Trees as Habitats – Students learn how plants and animals depend on trees, and I share my pictures from the Amazon to illustrate examples of how trees provide homes for the animals in the rainforest.

• Activity 28, Air Plants – Students connect the importance of the trees of the rainforest to oxygen production for the whole world.

As a result of these lessons and sharing my firsthand experiences, my students wanted to learn about actions they can take to help save the rainforest and ways to support the local people who depend on the rainforest for their livelihood.   They were so excited when I announced they would get to participate in EcoFest, an annual community outreach event in Conway, Arkansas that educates people in our community about ways they can live a more sustainable life. Students in the 4th and 5th grade Environmental Science Club conducted research and prepared facts cards for a booth that showed the global effects of deforestation in the Amazon. They created pledge sheets and a collection jar to raise money to help support a local rainforest school!


Now that’s the kind of transferable learning and teaching we like to see when participants return from the Amazon!

KIRSTEN FRANKLIN – Class of 2015/2016, Science Teacher, Instructional Coach, and PLT Facilitator

kirsten-2Kirsten has joined us in the Amazon not once but twice and has been a real advocate for the transformational impact of the Educator Academy in the Amazon!

After my first visit to the Amazon with the Educator Academy in 2015, I was inspired to take a PLT Facilitator’s training because, as a Teacher On Special Assignment for science and common core support, I wanted to be able to offer the training to teachers back in my district. So far, I have provided training to TK/K teachers on the Environmental Experiences for Early Childhood, which was received very well. Teachers felt it would support their FOSS unit on Trees and they loved all of child-centered, integrated activities.  I have a lot more trainings in mind and can’t wait to continue to share PLT with my school and district colleagues.

But there’s more!  I was so inspired by my personal experience in the Amazon in 2015, that I decided I needed my colleagues to share just how powerful this PD experience was.  I put together a group of four K-5 educators from our school district and together we joined the 2016 Educator Academy! 

This year, I am back in the classroom as a fourth grade teacher and I am incorporating PLT lessons to support science inquiry and outdoor learning for my grade level.  Some activities we have done so far are “Sounds Around” and “Schoolyard Safari” as part of some initial explorations of the schoolyard habitat. The activity “Then and Now” will help us with an up-coming school-wide “Elders’ Day” project where all of the classrooms interact with elders in the community in some way.  We will interview our elders about how the environment in our community has changed. As we go deeper into our watershed studies, Activity 48, “Field, Forest, and Stream”, and Activity 61, “The Closer You Look”, will help us collect some baseline data on a creek that runs along the backside of our campus. This baseline data will be important as we work with environmental education partners to develop better access to the creek for all students at our school.  Finally, Activity 96, ” Improve Your Local Place” will be part of our efforts to enhance and create wildlife habitat on our campus.

I am continuing to work on my site’s and our district’s K-12 Environmental Literacy plan, so PLT guides are part of the resources that will be listed for teachers to consider.

We are thrilled to have Kirsten as an adjunct faculty member of Educator Academy in the Amazon.  Her new passion for PLT, combined with her extensive knowledge about NGSS, and in-classroom experience will be a real asset to the program!kirsten

If you’d like to experience PLT in the Amazon and transform your teaching, we’d love to have you join us!  

The Educator Academy is held in the Peruvian Amazon July 1-11 each year.

Program Details   


Scholarships & Funding

Or call / email Academy Director, Christa Dillabaugh





Did you know that this week marked the FIRST EVER celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science?   It’s about time because today, more than ever, the world needs science and science needs women.

When we started digging into the statistics of women in science and hearing their stories, we decided to scrutinize our data to see just how many women and girls participate in our Amazon Rainforest Workshops.


81% of ALL of our Amazon Explorers are women and girls! 
71% of our Amazon Teacher Leaders are women! 
63% of our Student Participants are girls!  

So here’s to all the wild and wonderful women we have the privilege to work with!  Cheers to you who have resisted society’s norm, have pulled on your boots, put on your explorer hat, and jumped on a plane to go claim your place in the world of science, exploration, and discovery!

We want to hear your story!

  • What led you to be a scientist, a science teacher, an explorer?
  • Do you have a vivid memory of when first knew that you loved science?
  • Was there a significant mentor?
  • What words of advice do you have for other girl explorers and future scientists?
  • If you could ask women ‘jungle scientists’ a question what would it be?

Please share your thoughts in the comment box below and/or email Amazon Workshops Director, Christa Dillabaugh with your stories!  christa@amazonworkshops.com

2015 Amazon Workshops Student Field Reporter Project:  We’ve enlisted the help of several students to share their 2015 Amazon experiences with us. Over the coming months we will regularly feature their posts, photos, and reflections – letting them tell their amazing stories of the Amazon and its impact on their lives!  

Reporter: Kailani C. (High School Student, The Gunston School, Maryland) 

The TSA official pawed through my luggage, sifting around dirty T-shirts and Ziplokced clothing so far beyond smelly it didn’t bear thinking about. I prayed desperately she didn’t break or confiscate the seed bracelets and colorful pottery for which I had traded with the Yagua. It would be too ironic for them to survive the journey only to be taken when we reached America again. It was somewhere around one in the morning. Exhaustion tugged at my shoulders and eyelids, and I struggled to remain alert as the official went through my gear. I had declared my baggage when we went through security because I was carrying an apple and an orange in my backpack, which doesn’t really count as agricultural products. But a traumatizing event at the airport when I was ten that resulted in the confiscation of my favorite second grade scissors has instilled in me a deep fear of customs officials. I declared just to fully ensure they wouldn’t arrest me.

I was regretting it now, though. I was tired, on the ground and missing my parents, and it was time to be home.

The official closed up my bags, removing the fruit from my pack. “These stay with me,” she said, before chucking them into the large trash can next to her checking table. She said I could leave, and as I pulled on my backpack, I looked at the can into which the perfectly good produce had disappeared. “I know some kids who would have liked those,” I murmured to myself, before setting my rolling bag on the ground and continuing my journey.

In Llachapa, back on the Amazon that was now so far away, the schoolchildren with whom we’d painted signs and built gardens would have enjoyed that apple and orange. When we ate a lunch there provided by Explorama, the apples we did not eat were given to the students. I thought about them as I walked toward the airport’s exit where the rest of the Gunston kids were waiting, and realized how different things would feel once we returned to our toilet-flushing, hot water-providing, well-fed first-world lives.

As I write this, it has been almost a week since that last day of travel, since the last day of Spanish voices and wide, wise rivers, and I am once again left to marvel at the passage of time. Already the Peru trip feels like it happened months ago. As the stress of review week, followed by exams, takes the forefront of my daily thought, I can only really go back when inhaling the scent of Guillermo’s orchid extract, and feeling again the stickiness of sweaty skin and the wild, steaming life force of the rainforest. There are parts of it I definitely do not miss–the bugs, the heat, the homesickness. But I close my eyes and remember the parts I do wish for again. The cool breeze that comes with a tropical thunderstorm and rattles the palm fronds. Lucio and Raul, with their endless stories and knowledge of the ways of the jungle. Standing on top of Platform 6 at the canopy walkway and looking over the vastness of the rainforest, surging over every horizon beneath the cathedral clouds. The ancient river and its tributaries, giving life to it all.

The River of Life.  photo credit:  A. Vooris

The River of Life. photo credit: A. Vooris

I have traveled since the age of eight, and have been to many glorious places that I even now long for. Wanderlust is like a fine wine; time just makes it stronger. When we got home at almost four on Sunday morning there was nowhere else on earth I wanted to be. But when I woke up the next morning my first thought was of the Amazon, and the fact that I was no longer there. Of course, the next day or two consisted of me trying to get back into my American high-schooler mindset than that of the bugbitten, eco-reporting, exhausted-but-high-on-life-and-loving-it traveler I had been for almost ten days prior. Homework and exams, when compared with saddle-backed tamarins and rainbow boas and documenting it all, now seemed pretty mundane. But I reminded myself that the work I put into my studies now would send me back there one day.

a. vooris 2015 IMG_9123

I could fill a book with all of what I learned in the Amazon; maybe someday I will. It’s certainly too much for one small blog. But the most important thing I discovered, or maybe remembered, on this trip, is that the fight for the conservation of places like the Amazon rainforest is not just one battle, fought by just one group of professionals. It is a war, fought by thousands of people all over the world who choose to make a difference one way or another. You don’t have to have a degree in botany to care about the jungle, or in anthropology to rally behind indigenous peoples, or in marine biology to love the ocean more than life itself, and recognize that these places and people are threatened and that something needs to be done. I think a lot of people do not believe they can change things because they do not know enough about the state of deforestation in the Amazon basin or the rapid depletion of the fisheries to do something about it. “I’m not a scientist, what can I do about anything,” right? But that’s not true. Buying shade-grown coffee or sustainably grown and harvested fish would make a huge difference if just half of America’s population did it, or even one person. The little changes people make are the atoms that make up the body of conservation. It’s the innovative scientists and teachers that we read the articles about, and surely, where would be without people like Rachel Carson and Sylvia Earle? But it’s the silent masses of people who do care about the environment and change the way they live accordingly that also help ensure there’s a world left to fight for.

a. vooris 2015 IMG_9410

I am immensely grateful I was able to go on this trip and learn about so much, from the awareness of the state of the rainforest to the lives of the people there, who struggle to survive as their world develops around them. For my entire life I thought I would be a marine scientist, focusing on improving the health of the ocean I love. On this trip I realized and accepted the fact that wars are not fought with a single weapon, and switching arms is not abandoning a cause. I can fight for change by raising awareness, by learning about peoples in threatened areas and how they live in and view their local ecosystem, and through my words and my writing and my stories. I can spread the word about the value of the rainforest and its people through tales of multicolored birds lighting up against the sky, the dances of the Yagua that seemed to reverberate to the very core of being, and the lessons learned on the shores of a goddess river, the greatest on earth, that will inspire me to teach others about the importance of our home, this colorful, wild, miraculous planet Earth.

There is nowhere in the universe I would rather be.

a. vooris 2015 IMG_9404

2015 Amazon Workshops Student Field Reporter Project:  We’ve enlisted the help of several students to share their 2015 Amazon experiences with us. Over the coming months we will regularly feature their posts, photos, and reflections – letting them tell their amazing stories of the Amazon and its impact on their lives!  

Reporter: Kailani C. (High School Student, The Gunston School, Maryland) 

They really do make it look easy, I thought, as the wrinkled but wiry Yagua man handily cleared a patch of ground with his machete, slicing vertically just above the thick dirt and shearing away the grass. I have seen it done many times, but the technique and apparent effortlessness of lawnmowing via very sharp knife never ceases to amaze me.

It was our last full day in Peru, and we were back where we had started, at Explorama. We had spent the previous two days at ACTS, on the walkways or in the lodge working on research projects. We presented the evening we got to Explorama, demonstrating our findings to all travelers present. They went really well, considering we’d had less than a week to gather data and write up a report. Now that our scientific forays were more or less complete, we could focus on the other big aspect of the Amazon rainforest: indigenous culture. The tribe in our area is the Yagua, a people who have adapted well to modern society but still preserve their traditions. On the day they came to the Lodge to show us their old ways, bare-chested men with palm fiber hanging to their ankles and women wearing red skirts and palm fiber halters, all of whom wear modern clothes now with the exception of a few elders, paddled up in their dugout canoes. They set up stations around the lodge to show us how they had thrived in the rainforest for so long. Our school group split into two, one following Raul and the other with Lucio. For the whole morning we saw glimpses of the Yagua way of life.

The first station we visited was machete use. Two older men, withered with age but their strength apparent, were fashioning tools a blade. One showed us how to clear land with a machete, his movements practiced and sure. Raul invited us to try, and though those of us who had a go didn’t suck too badly, I felt clumsy and amateurish in comparison. Two other men then showed us how to make thatch for the junction of a roof, weaving two fronds of a certain palm together in an interlocking pattern to keep out rainwater. Another kind of palm was used for the rest of the roof, the weaving of which a Yagua woman showed us later on.

Learning to weave.  photo credit:  A.Vooris, 2015

Learning to weave. photo credit: A.Vooris, 2015

The pattern of a roof junction after weaving.  photo credit:  A. Vooris

The pattern of a roof junction after weaving. photo credit: A. Vooris

  The rest of the walk included learning how traditional blowguns are made and fired (which we tried too), eating guava, the candy of the jungle, watching Yagua women weave beautiful purses and bags from palm fiber, and the natural dyes of the jungle, fingerpaintings of which we put into our journals. Raul then took us to the dining room, where we ate samples of Yagua food. Tamales, manioc and a peanut-candy melted on my tongue. We went next to the porch, where, Raul claimed, he had saved the best for last. Four Yagua men in modern clothing sat on the benches, instruments perched on their laps. One gripped a flute, two had drums, and one was on maracas. Across from them sat a few Yagua women and one man, all in traditional dress. An open space had been cleared in the center of the porch. Nerves and excitement sparked at my heels. The Yagua were going to teach us to dance.

Raul explained that down here, music is very local, with not many outside styles coming to the jungle. I had read that dance was a common occurrence amongst the Yagua, and the band here would be live. Raul asked us to please be polite and not refuse if we were asked to dance, and the four players started up. Their song was instrumental and with a fast, foot-stomping beat. The man and one of the woman dancers demonstrated the first dance, one of friendship. The band stopped, they took their seats, and Raul asked us to dance next. The players began again, and after a handful of awkward seconds Jack, Hanna and I hopped up and had at it. Pack instinct kicked in. The rest of the Americans stood and tried to mimic the Yagua’s fluid movements, and we grouped together, catching the rhythm. They showed us a few dances, and I got into it as best I could. I was no local dancer, but it felt great to move my body other than just walking. After five minutes of it I was drenched in sweat. When we finished, we thanked the dancers and musicians and took the hours before lunch off. We headed back to our rooms to pack our backpacks for this afternoon. It was time to trade.

Around 2:00, Raul led us along the short path between Explorama and the Yagua post that had been set up for trading. We came into a huge tapered hut whose roofing went all that way to the ground. Inside it was dark, the only illumination coming when the clouds rolled off the sun outside. Yagua, young and old, gathered on the benches inside. Raul told some of the history of ExplorAma, when Peter Jenson, an anthropologist, came over fifty years ago and saw a vision of an ecotourism lodge that interacted positively with the indigenous people. Explorama has expanded over the years, but the Yagua still come to show the tourists their ways and to trade or sell. When Raul finished, the Yagua stood up and invited us to dance as a group.

Dancing with the Yagua.  photo credit:  A. Vooris, 2015

Dancing with the Yagua. photo credit: A. Vooris, 2015

They led us through several dances, including the King of the Forest dance, which honored their highest god. We formed an undulating line, with our right hands on the shoulder of the person in front of us. Those in the front of the line set the beat, thumping the ends of their staffs into the hard-packed dirt. As the dance started, the Yagua began to sing. I could not understand the words, but their voices rose harmoniously in the darkness, calling on some ancient communal spirit that flowed through our ranks as we circled the center of the hut. I could feel the old power of the ritual, rising and falling with our movements and their words, and I knew these people understood things about this part of the world more than we scientists may ever grasp. We traded for the rest of the afternoon, bartering common American goods for seed bracelets and small blowguns, before running through a cool rain back to the lodge.

A group of Yagua children at the trading post.  photo credit:  A. Vooris, 2015

A group of Yagua children at the trading post. photo credit: A. Vooris, 2015

The Yagua have been in the Amazon for years beyond my knowledge, and they know the moods of the rainforest, its twists of fate and little nooks of gods. The tribe here is fading as elders die and young people leave to seek a change in the modern world, but the stories are not all forgotten, nor the old ways of doing things. The Yagua hold a jungle-taught wisdom, and they have reinforced my conviction that despite the perks of so-called “development” and the many allures of the modern world, sometimes the old ways really are the best. Even if it involves cutting grass with a machete.

2015 Amazon Workshops Student Field Reporter Project:  We’ve enlisted the help of several students to share their 2015 Amazon experiences with us. Over the coming months we will regularly feature their posts, photos, and reflections – letting them tell their amazing stories of the Amazon and its impact on their lives!  

Reporter: Kailani C. (High School Student, The Gunston School, Maryland) 

A rainbow. It was almost too sweet to be true.

I looked toward the east, over the endless green canopy of the rainforest, reveling in the upper air on my face. For the first time in days I felt I could spread my arms again and not feel so closed in between the trees. Now I stood atop them, next to my brother and one of my best friends, savoring one of nature’s most beautiful displays of color, light and joy.

We had reached our last new Lodge, the research station at the Amazon Conservatory for Tropical Studies. After a morning of birding by boat, followed by lunch, we hiked through the jungle to the field station. ACTS is a slightly more rustic lodge, smaller than the previous two at which we had stayed, but it has one major feature that has made it the part of the trip I have most looked forward to: the canopy walkway. ACTS canopy walkway is several hundred feet of single-file planks rigged with netting and steel cable, linking the forest floor and several emergent trees high above the canopy. It was on Platform 6, the highest point of the walkway at nearly one-hundred twenty feet off the forest floor, that I now stood with Kaeo and Jack.

We were at ACTS to take advantage of being in the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet and execute the research projects we planned before our departure.  Several of our projects involved variation in the levels of the rainforest, and we would spend all of the next day  working on them. But for now, Raul and Lucio were taking us to the canopy walkway, to watch the sunset from the top of the world. We drew names out of a hat to see who would be on Platform 6, and mine, my brother’s, and Jack’s names came out. I tried to contain my excitement. I have been in or above the forest canopy thrice before–once on a similar walkway in Guatemala and twice on top of Mayan temples in the ancient city of Tikal. This one was different. I was in the rainforest, and this time I understood what that really meant.

photo credit:  A. Vooris, 2015

photo credit: A. Vooris, 2015

Lucio and Raul took us to the initial platform, a thatched floor on stilts about twelve feet off the ground. They invited us onto the first walkway, a narrow bridge with safety nets on either side rising to head-height. I hopped on and started walking. At first, the wobbling and slight rocking of the walkway made me nervous; I am not naturally inclined to heights unless there is a firm, preferably flat surface beneath my feet. But pretty soon I got the method down. Slowly we ascended, rising past the leaf-cloaked trees, their branches laden with the iconic epiphytes, or air plants, whose roots, depending on the species, sometimes stretch dozen of feet down. Most birdcalls only Lucio knew, but I did recognize one from my days in Guatemala. When we reached the canopy the Screaming Piha, a diminutive bird but the loudest one in the forest, threw its wolf-whistle call over the treetops, and I felt the aura of the upper rainforest settle over me like a gentle wind.

We spent that sunset on the highest walkways and platforms, a blazing ball of orange sinking beneath the horizon and setting the clouds aglow. Swallow-tailed Kites wheeled on thermals to the south. There was magic up there on Platform 6, a solitude but a connection to the forest around us. I think we all felt some of it as the sun went down.

Sun behind the Epiphytes photo credit:  A.Vooris, 2015

Sun behind the Epiphytes photo credit: A.Vooris, 2015

On the way back, we visited the patch of forest hosting bioluminescent fungi. Raul took us a little off the trail next to a big emergent tree and asked us to shine our lights upward before turning them off. After a few seconds, we looked down. The floor was covered with glowing nodules of bioluminescence, like someone had taken stardust and shaken it amongst the roots. This place had more than one kind of magic, it seemed.

The next day, the rainforest lived up to its name. Up until now there had been little precipitation, but shaggy gray clouds rolled in on Wednesday and a locally-named “female rain,” short-lived but with something to say, soaked the field station. We still went birding on the walkway at 6:00, a few of us rejecting ponchos and letting the clean water wash off some of our stink, but most projects scheduled for being out in the morning holed up until lunchtime, hoping the rain would stop. It let up some, and most of us got solid data in to work on our projects. Kaeo poured sugar water on the floor to call in his ants. The butterfly groups compounded pictures and identified several species. I, with the help of Jesse, started to work with the birdcalls, using his recorder. Jesse has been with us the whole trip, and I haven’t talked about him yet simply because there hasn’t been enough room. He works with the Rainforest Trust, a Washington D.C. based group dedicated to creating parks and preserving the rainforest, and is with our group as a teacher and occasional guide. We met up with him in Miami, when he was wearing a T-shirt with the classic “evolution of man” silhouettes leading to a man hunched over a computer, with a caption reading “Something, somewhere went terribly wrong.” I liked him instantly. He showed me how to use his handheld recorder, which I took into the treetops to capture birdcalls so I could measure the frequency at different heights. Though my research project has evolved into a more “sounds of the rainforest” endeavor, with the local stories and lore of the environment my greater focus, I still wanted birdcalls in my hand. I loved taking five-minute chunks of sound and playing it back, hearing again the parrots and the oropendolas and the pihas. I would put it into Mrs. Vooris’s computer the next day, when we would be presenting our completed presentations.

Jack, Kaeo and Claire on a walkway - photo credit: A.Vooris, 2015

Jack, Kaeo and Claire on a walkway – photo credit: A.Vooris, 2015

At the end of our only full day at ACTS, we went back up for a sunset on the canopy. This time though, we were quiet, curbing our excitement and adrenaline, taking it all in with reverence. The rainforest was singing under the orange light of the sun, and a fine mist started to rise from the trees, lacing the green with gossamer clouds of white. We are so lucky, I thought, to live in a world so beautiful and powerful and wild. Sometimes when I go to certain places I get a brush of the force of nature, of all the beings contained within this garden of gods, and feel a deep sense of peace and purpose. When tired from schoolwork, or later, work-work, I will remember Platform 6 and the rainbow, the majesty of the rainforest, and the wonder and importance of the world I am trying to help save. And I will remember then too that it is worth it all.

2015 Student Field Reporter Project:  We’ve enlisted the help of several students to share their 2015 Amazon experiences with us. Over the coming months we will regularly feature their posts, photos, and reflections – letting them tell their amazing stories of the Amazon and it’s impact on their lives!  

Reporter: Kailani C. (High School Student, The Gunston School, Maryland) 

I looked critically at the golf ball-like golden fruits attached to the branch I was holding, weighing my options. The local girls were watching me expectantly, and I thought, If I refuse, they’ll judge me, or worse, be offended. That little kid just climbed a frigging tree to get these things. If I eat them, I might catch some obscure bacterial disease and die. But one of the girls had just eaten a fruit, so I shrugged and decided to indulge in my riskier side. Copying her, I tore off the rind with my front teeth, sucked out the inside, and spat out the seeds. The fruit had a dry, sharp taste that was vaguely sweet, and I grinned. The girls grinned back.

We had spent the last two days immersed in the jungle and the river, and it had come time to reach out more directly with the local people of the Amazon. After an early morning birding trip and breakfast, we left ExplorNapo by boat, heading for the nearby village of Llachapa. A day of community service and cultural interaction with the locals had been blocked into our schedule, and despite the non-Spanish speakers’ nerves, we were excited. On the short ride over, I thought about other times I’ve interacted with native peoples. I was younger, but I clearly remember fishing and playing futbol with Guatemalan kids and punting volleyball and visiting the homes of my Kuna friends in Panama. I have learned that language isn’t everything. If you can hit a ball and crack a smile, you’re in good shape.

Pretty soon we came to a cleared area on the banks, where dugouts and motored canoes were pulled against the shore. A brightly-painted bus-type thing, long decommissioned, perched near the water, adding more color to the land. Wooden-slat houses with thatched roofs rose on stilts above the thick crabgrass, and over the knolls a large group of medium-height people with black hair and warm brown skin came walking. A sign in Spanish announced the village as Llachapa. A spike of nerves surprised me as I saw the local people, most of them children, coming toward us. Oh man, I thought. There’s a lot of them, and they’re all going to be staring at us. And I don’t speak their language. I pushed away the fear as we climbed off the boat onto the grass. The local kids grouped around us, some smiling, others observing carefully. I smiled back, offering greetings of Hola and Buenos Dias.

As they led us over the gently-sloping open space, I looked around. Most of the ground was grass, but some worn-down areas were sticky with mud. Trees were scattered here and there amongst the houses, and chickens, ducks, dogs and cats wandered freely. We crossed a wooden causeway over a lake matted with algal life to a main courtyard in the middle of a group of two-storey, rectangular school buildings. A few circular thatched roofs over cement bases formed meeting areas. We went to the largest one in the middle of the yard, where small wooden chairs were arranged around the perimeter. A string of coil bulbs provided light under the dark thatch. Once we had all settled, introductions, mostly in Spanish, were given from our group and the school administrators. The children who learned here were in school two weeks in, two weeks out at this time of year. At least a hundred kids sat in the chairs. After the greetings, my classmates and I broke ranks, joining groups of the local kids. There was bamboo to be hammered into the ground, slats to be painted, holes to be dug. Swallowing our nerves, we jumped to it.

Jack learning to cut bamboo

Jack learning to cut bamboo

Claire and a few boys digging

Claire and a few boys digging

Over the next several hours, each of us Americans adjusted amongst our coworkers. Emily, despite her earlier apprehension, earned friends by carrying water and a smile. My brother tested his not-inconsiderable Spanish amongst the boys and ended up wandering the village with a few of them, answering questions about the far off Estados Unitos. Momo, an international student, taught a teenager some Chinese. I smiled when a little girl ran up while we were splitting bamboo and attached herself firmly to Kenzie, who had been conversing with some school children earlier. Skin color and language had little significance, after we all got over our initial shyness.

Savannah splitting bamboo with a local girl

Savannah splitting bamboo with a local girl

We broke at 12:30, the local students going inside to eat while we ate lunch. After that it was time for the wildlife scavenger hunt, provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to help share the message of environmental awareness and conservation. My friend Jack and I went with a group of teenage girls. We didn’t have to do much. They read the Spanish names of the target and we took off, ranging all over the village. Once we had gotten most of the boxes checked, they started to show us what laid off the beaten tracks.

Tony, Momo and the rest of the painting crew

Tony, Momo and the rest of the painting crew

The village was small, but big enough to explore. The girls led us behind a row of houses to a small flooded area, where they picked the golden fruits and we shared them. Then a boy in a dugout paddled up. After riding herself, one of the girls invited me into the boat. I nodded excitedly and hopped in. We paddled around the trees, sweeping our hands through the cool water. I tried to keep my body still and steady the boat. We circled back to the shore and continued our walk. We wandered amongst the houses, going briefly inside one for the girls to get some water. When we eventually looped back to our teachers, kids were running for a hill a little ways off. We grabbed water bottles and quickly joined them. It was time for a futbol game to top off the day.

Futbol is soccer, for you Americans who do not travel, and it’s extremely popular in Latin America. I hoped it wouldn’t be Americans versus locals, because we would be slaughtered. We reached the plateau of the hill worn down to red dirt with two goal posts on either end. We scattered into teams, and the game began. For the next fifteen minutes we Americans tried not to get in the way of the lean local boys, who ran and kicked and head-butted the ball like the moves were in their blood. We had a ton of fun playing with them, with Jack scoring the first goal, much to his delight.

When it was time to go they walked us to the rapido and we all yelled thanks and goodbyes, from both sides. A pleased tiredness washed over me in reflection. Their lives were infinitely different from ours. We would never know or understand some aspects of each other’s ways, but that did not exclude friendship. We were all moved by what we had built that day–garden fences, painted signs and a bridge between two worlds, whose crossing we would never forget.