My favorite Amazon memory was when we hiked into the canopy at night; and as we climbed ever higher on the walkways, we saw the stars just starting to peep out from a curtain of blackness.
Claire Hopkins, citizen scientist and fifth-grader at Raleigh’s Ravenscroft School
Twenty-eight citizen scientists from the North Carolina Nature Research Center traveled to the Amazon jungle for eight days in July. Mission: to document defoliation in the canopy for science, and to contribute knowledge of insect biodiversity for conservation. But the overarching, and unexpected, benefit was the inspiration and pure joy of unplugging technology. Absolute bliss was redefined: 1. hearing bird songs without traffic in the background; 2. talking thoughtfully to people without interruptive ringtones; 3. absorbing the smells and sights of a tropical jungle; 4. turning off those over-stressed brain circuits that respond 24/7 to bells, lights and texting; and 5. absence of anxiety attacks caused by multitasking in our technology-driven world.
For our unsuspecting group of community leaders and students, the absolute absence of technology was one of the jungle’s best gifts. In our material world of trappings that constantly nag at our pocketbooks, we often forget about the spiritual power of Mother Nature that inspires a sense of wonder. In the Amazon jungles, we ate healthy and rekindled our five senses.
Seven years ago, Richard Louv wrote a best-seller called “Last Child in the Woods” that decried our American lifestyle of keeping children indoors and depriving them of the natural world. He explained that kids who play outside actually have higher SAT scores and less tendency for attention deficit disorder.
In the Amazon, we observed local boys quietly paddling at sunrise, knowing exactly where to catch piranha for breakfast. Girls creatively wove carry-bags and carved jewelry. These practices, sometimes labeled “primitive” by our developed world, were carried out in one of Earth’s most beautiful settings – no auto pollution or highway rush -hour, no asthma from dirty air-conditioning ducts, no hormones in the chicken, and no insecticides on the fruit. Granted, there are other challenges that include career advancement and access to Wi-Fi. For better or for worse, Diet Coke and potato chips were nonexistent. But all of us felt privileged to learn from the locals about how to live better. If one were to apply a Happiness Index, the families in the Amazon jungle would win out over many suburban households in America.
We came home much wiser – not only with new knowledge about the scientific secrets of the Amazon forest canopy, but also how to live our lives more fully with Mother Nature as our mentor.
Meg Lowman is an N.C. State University professor and forest canopy expert who directs the Nature Research Center, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Online: www.canopymeg.com.