Christa Dillabaugh Director, The Educator Academy in the Amazon
Next month will mark the 26th anniversary of the first time I set foot in the Amazon as a middle school science teacher – a teacher who had never been out of the country but secretly harbored a dream of being an explorer.
Twenty-five years ago, a teaching colleague and I made the spontaneous decision to join a group of US educators heading to the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. In less than a month and with only the vaguest idea of what we were getting ourselves into, we to jumped on a plane and settled into our seats for the flight from Miami to Iquitos, Peru. The only indication that we were approaching our destination was an announcement from the captain – there were no lights that we could see until we hit the ground. It was as if the jungle had opened up and swallowed us whole.
As we stepped off the plane into the humid tropical night we were hastily transported to our thatch covered boats and told we had a change of plans – we needed to leave Iquitos immediately to avoid being detained by the annual census taking place the next day.
The next thing we knew we were on a boat in the middle of the Amazon River with a HUGE full moon overhead and the sounds of the jungle audible even over the hum of the out board motor. Four hours later we reached our destination, switched on our flashlights and clambered up the muddy steps carved into the bank of the river and hiked back to the lodge. It was everything I imagined a jungle field station should be – no windows, no electricity – just thatched roofs, mosquito netting and kerosene lanterns. I was in heaven or at least my romantic National Geographic explorer kind of heaven!
The days that followed were incredible. Night hikes into the jungle with expert entomologist from the Cincinnati Zoo, Randy Morgan, introduced me to the wonder of arthropods – from web throwing spiders to spiny devil katydids, to sleeping owl butterflies to leaf cutter ants by the millions. You name it, Randy found it and explained it. Exploring the rainforest canopy on one of the world’s first canopy walkway systems and seeing an unbroken rainforest disappear into the horizon is to this day the most humbling and awe-inspiring view I’ve had the privilege to experience and it connected me to my planet in a way I had never experienced before. “Working hard” for our wildlife spottings from monkeys to toucans made me appreciate the challenges and rewards of field biology and keeping a field journal. Gasping in awe as iridescent blue morpho butterflies flitted through the dappled sunlight along the trails. I felt like I was living the dream I had had since I was a child.
But perhaps the moment that stands out the most is hiking back to a small clearing in a remote part of the forest where we spent the afternoon learning about medicinal plants from the local shaman. Here was this tiny little man surrounded by array of leaves, stems, roots, and fruits from the rainforest conjured from the surrounding jungle. As he patiently told us about each plant and its ability to heal, his translator, the world renowned Dr. Jim Duke, an ethnobotanist from the USDA and the National cancer institute, interjected potential applications being investigated for use in “modern medicine.”
It was one of those moments when I felt my life change course. The collision of modern medicine and research with ancient traditions in the middle of nowhere in the Amazon made the world shrink into that one small space. It pulled everything,and I mean everything, into alignment – my love for adventure, my love for exploration, my love for science, my love for teaching – I knew that I was not going to be the same again. It was a physical sensation as much as a mental one. It was AWE in its purest, most transformative form.
That moment put me on a path I never could have imagined when I first stepped off the boat into that inky Amazon night twenty five years ago. The rest, as they say, is history – a history filled with dozens of rainforest expeditions for students and teachers and an eventual return to where it all began. In 2013, I was given the gift of a lifetime when the founder of Environmental Expeditions, Dr. Frances Gatz, handed the Amazon Rainforest Workshop programs and the wonderful blue morpho mascot over to me.
For the last seven years, I have had the immense privilege of working with exceptional educators, fantastic students, and some amazing colleagues and partners. Together we have built upon the legacy of Dr. Gatz and have created a new model for field -based tranformational professional development. This year, the Educator Academy in the Amazon will celebrate its 7th anniversary of engaging K-12 educators in the exploration of inquiry, conservation, and sustainability with direct connections back to the classroom.
In a few short weeks, I will join another group of amazing educators in the Peruvian Amazon. As I follow them down the trail, I know my thoughts will return, as they always do, to my own transformational moment so many years ago. I can’t help but wonder what their moment will be and where it will take them.
For me, the path is much clearer and I know exactly where I am headed. I am grateful to be accompanied on this journey by an incredible team of colleagues and friends in the US and in Peru.
As we look to the future together, we want to put the words ‘Conservation through Education’ into action in authentic and tangible ways.
I am excited to announce that beginning in 2020, The Morpho Institute will be the new non-profit home of the Educator Academy in the Amazon and our beloved blue morpho mascot.
The Morpho Institute will allow us to expand our reach, access funding, create curriculum, and build deep and lasting relationships with the Peruvian Amazon and the people who call it home. There is so much good work to do and we invite you to lend a hand. If you are interested in getting involved and sharing your time and talents with us, we would love to be in touch.
Christa Dillabaugh, Director Educator Academy in the Amazon