Why Morpho?

Field Notes From the Amazon

by Dr. Kelly Keena, Board President

We sat in the green and white wooden Explorama boat nosed into the bank of a small tributary stream. The dense branches had a clearing and the equally dense brown water was still. The perfect place to fish for piraña. It’s a relatively simple process – stab a small piece of raw meat with the metal hook dangling from a stick. Hold the end of the stick, and let the meat lay on the top of the water. Then hit the water with the tip of the stick to mimic an animal struggling along the stream. Wait for the tug on the string. Pull up quickly while the sharp-toothed palm-sized fish is clenched to the meat and bring the stick over the boat. Watch your toes. Get your photo taken. Repeat.

Founding Board Members:
Dr. Nancy Trautmann, Christa Dillabaugh, and Dr. Kelly Keena

That’s where we were when the Morpho Institute was born. Christa and I laid back at the side of the boat near the bank, not fishing. Nancy standing, casually holding the stick dangling meat into the water, nonchalantly fishing. And catching fish, despite her casual efforts, much to the frustration and laughter of the others in the boat who were giving it their full concentration while pulling up empty hooks. We were talking and dreaming. And then a blue Morpho butterfly flitted by, as one does in moments of inspiration. Months of planning from afar and a few moments of brainstorming in the boat, and the name of this new thing became immediate.

logo design by Scott Partridge

The Morpho Institute was born on the river in a boat full of passionate educators and guides. As it should be. Because the Morpho Institute belongs to all of us. It is all of us. In launching the Morpho Institute, we converted what had been run as a business into this new nonprofit organization. This opened up the option to apply for grants, accept donations, promote our work in educator resources, and build out collaborations with other nonprofit groups. It’s a small/not-small thing that opens up a world of new opportunities.

Becoming a non-profit allows us greater capabilities, flexibility, and adaptability.

Greater capabilities. The Educator Academy will remain our keystone program, as will the mission of creating transformational experiences for educators steeped in the wonders of the Amazon rainforest. It is core to who we are.

As The Morpho Institute, we are expanding beyond the summer program to realize more ways to promote conservation through education. Three years ago, with the leadership of Ava Goodale, Mike Hill, and Seth Buddy, we launched the Inquiry, Conservation, and Sustainability Field Program for independent school teachers and their students.

Thanks to an initiative begun by Nancy, we are encouraging teachers to contribute to a growing collection of free curriculum resources that involve students in learning about the Amazon – ranging from scientific investigations to engineering design challenges to sustainability studies that highlight conservation stories of the Maijuna.

Christa leads the charge in championing the Morpho Institute and nurturing collaborations among our alumni and with partner organizations. And we all continue to build new partnerships and raise funds that will enable us to bring a more diverse range of educators to the Amazon. Becoming a nonprofit is making it possible for us to build from where we began, taking the success of the summer Educator Academy and growing in exciting new ways.

Flexibility and adaptability. Aren’t those loaded words these days! Some of us were sitting at Explorama ’s Napo Lodge when the world began to shut down in March. There were nervous laughs as we received texts and emails from family about toilet paper hoarding. It was surreal. We felt distant from what was being reported because we were surrounded by the chorus of laughing frogs and the laps of river water on the bank beneath the deck.

In the months after it became evident that the responsible choice was to postpone the 2020 Educator Academy for a year. And then the news spread of Covid’s devastating impacts on Iquitos. And we heard stories of the impact on our friends and family in the Amazon. The need is now more urgent than ever to build awareness of the Amazon river system, inclusive of the people that live along its banks. Peru is suffering some of Covid’s most severe consequences.

Being a non-profit gave us the ability to jump into action. With the support of this incredible community, we raised over $20,000 that went directly to supporting our beloved Peruvian guides and their families and colleagues in Iquitos and along the river. We didn’t know we would need those abilities as we sat along the river dreaming of what was to come. Who could have imagined the world we are in? The Morpho Institute allows us all to remain connected despite our distance and inabilities to travel. It allows us to adapt. After 107 days in lockdown, the city of Iquitos is beginning to cautiously reopen. There are looming unknowns about when our travel to the rainforest can resume.

Small and mighty. There are a million instances of small things creating big impacts in the rainforest. Hopefully you’ve had the pleasure of hearing Randy Morgan explain the ecology of leaf cutter ants. Or each individual bird song and frog song and cicadas joining up to make the best cacophony on this earth. Or seeing bromeliads whose collective weight can bring down an entire tree. That’s how I see The Morpho Institute. Small and quite mighty.

The Morpho Institute is a community of an organization. It is comprised of the many boats full of educators, faculty, and guides who have been on the river and new participants who look forward traveling to the Amazon for their first time. We all collect and gather around what we know to be critical – rainforest conservation, cultural preservation, teacher empowerment, and community. And we want to fill more boats.

2018 Inquiry, Conservation, & Sustainability Field Course

Earlier in July, when we should have been in the Amazon, we joined alumni in sharing our Amazon stories on social media. Instead of being there, we’re reminiscing, remembering what draws us back to the jungle and this work, and reminding one another how much we treasure the connections we have made with each other and with this incomparable place.

While we’re celebrating some milestones in the first two years of this mighty organization, we’re also newly fledged.

We’re just getting started. There is still so much work yet to do.


Share this with your friends: