So, what’s your transformation story?

Field Notes From the Amazon

by Dr. Kelly Keena, Board President.

I was sitting in the dark movie theatre watching Frozen 2 with my almost-adult daughter. The end scene is Olaf, a snowman made of two girls’ imaginations. And then, he articulated something I spend a lot of time thinking about. Perfectly.

While I still don’t know what transformation means, I feel like this forest has really changed us all.” 

Huh. We find things in the most peculiar places. 

Birding-by-Boat Meets Birding-by-Board. My Transformation Story.
Dawn on the Napo River, Peru. Photo Credit: Kelly Keena

Each year, thirty educators from the US enter the Peruvian Amazon rainforest by way of Iquitos. A small island in the middle of the river that is home to nearly one million people. Small is relative when we’re talking about the largest river in the world. A three-hour boat ride up-river, nearly one hundred miles, takes us into the heart of the forest. 

And it changes us all.

Each morning of the Educator Academy in the Amazon, we wake up before the sun, gather with our instant coffee and have our good mornings in the screened in dining room/classroom at the Explorama ExplorNapo Lodge. Then we walk in single file down the wooden boards to the boat dock. A gentle floating barge of wooden planks lined with benched boats. We file quietly into the boats as the chorus begins. We say good morning to the unbelievably skilled drivers and guides, and we set off for birding by boat. 

2016 Educator Academy in the Amazon. Photo Credit: Christa Dillabaugh

Don’t be fooled. If birding is not a sexy activity for you, it will be once you have this experience each morning. And maybe it’s about the 30-75 species of birds you’ll see that morning. Or maybe it’s because being on the Napo River as the sun breaks through the mist and the canopy of trees along the banks. Well, that’s just spectacular. 

So spectacular, in fact, that I crave it when I’m home. I crave the smell of the river (and yes, even the stiff and bulky life jackets). I crave the sound of the water. I crave the chorus of the rainforest. I have found a different, yet native chorus around my home. I have a renewed love of birding that I had lost with a job that is inside. I crave the sensations that accompany full immersion into one of this world’s crown jewels. It’s a sensation like no other.

When I came home from my first trip in 2015, I knew that was a sensation that would continue to nourish me if I could find it again. And so began my adventures with birding by board.  

Early morning paddle board oustside of Denver, CO. Photo Credit: Kelly Keena

For the past five springs/summers/falls, I wake up before the sun, make my instant coffee, and drive eight minutes to the nearest body of water – a reservoir south of Denver surrounded by its own sort of prairie/riparian jungle. I launch my paddleboard into the smooth-like-butter water and I pause, listening to the chorus begin to fill the air. I miss my friends who call out the birds as I listen and spot. But it forced me to rediscover the birds I used to be so familiar with. I keep my list, juggling the notebook, my binoculars, and my paddle. 

I watch the raccoons come down to the water. The mule deer. The white pelicans with creamy faces fish as they glide along parallel to me, seemingly unnerved by my presence. Fisherwo/men stand along the shores with portable camp chairs rather than in wooden dugout canoes. There’s a small nod instead of a wave. I relish the lake before it fills with people. 

Transformation is difficult to capture.

We want to measure things. To wrap our arms around phenomena. So, in 2016 we set out to define educators’ experiences because of time in the Amazon and the Educator Academy. And the predominant theme that emerged was transformation. Thanks to Olaf, we can begin to understand what that means.

Where will your Amazon transformation journey take you? Photo Credit: Christa Dillabaugh

My story is not unique. The stories of alumni include skydiving as a result of holding a tarantula. Taking over a university study-abroad program as a result of newfound confidence in travel to remote places. In a series of long retrospective interviews, we discovered that many of us have been changed by the forest in ways that are equally important – the continuum along big and subtle. Many of us return to the jungle, some of us multiple times a year. Some of us for extended times as volunteers or coordinators of new programs. The list of impacts is long and interesting.

If I had to point to a reason for transformation, I would say full immersion in the natural world and being in community with the people who live there. We are embodied creatures. We embody a range of sensations that often go ignored. We know that in the natural world we rediscover our bodies, our senses, and ourselves. We crave connection and belonging, to places and to other people.

My transformation since my first boat ride on the Amazon River is often indescribable. It slips out of my ability to wrap words around it. But what I know is that my habits have grown to match what I found there. Birding by boat became birding by board.

Is it critical to understand what it is about the rainforest that sparks transformation?

Yes and no. Yes, because we want others to come and experience this. To have that full immersion that floods open our sensory channels and snaps our awareness into full working order. Because we yearn to define and name things. But also no, because it does not really matter what the impetus for transformation is. It’s more important to understand that transformation has occurred. And what happens as a result.

And so we’d love to know…. What have you done since your time in the rainforest? What is your transformation story?

Learn how you can join us in the Amazon for the next Educator Academy in the Amazon.

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