Scientist, Author, Educator, Tree Canopy Biologist

The Joy of Unplugging: Turning Off Technology in the Amazon Jungle

“To me a lush carpet of pine needles or spongy grass is more welcome than the most luxurious Persian rug.”–Helen Keller

Twenty-eight citizen scientists from the California Academy of Sciences traveled to the Amazon jungle for eight days this summer. Their mission: to document their observations of the forest canopy for science, and to contribute knowledge of insect biodiversity for conservation. But the overarching, and unexpected benefit for all participants, including me, was the pure joy of unplugging from 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; and 4. turning off those over-stressed circuits in our brains accustomed to responding 24/7 to bells, lights, and email requests; and 5. an absence of anxiety attacks caused by multi-tasking in our technology-driven world.

Our home-away-from-home on this trip, the complex tropical rainforest, already provides those of us who live in America with enormous creature comforts: fresh water, oxygen, fruits, carbon storage, medicines, fabrics, construction materials, and climate control, to name a few. But for our unsuspecting group of American community leaders and students who ventured away from their daily lives to the Amazon, the absolute absence of technology was one of the jungle’s unexpected gifts. In our material world of trappings that constantly nag at our pocketbooks and neuro-circuits, we often forget about the spiritual power of Mother Nature to inspire our sense of wonder. In the Amazon jungles, we ate healthy foods and rekindled our five senses.

Five years ago, Richard Louv wrote a best-selling book, 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 a lower tendency toward attention deficit disorder. Perhaps the same is true for adults? In the Amazon, we observed local families quietly paddling their canoes at sunrise, knowing exactly where to catch piranha for breakfast. Women laughed as they creatively wove thatch for their roofs and carry-bags. These practices, sometimes labeled “primitive” by our developed world, were conducted out in one of Earth’s most beautiful settings–no automobile 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 limited career advancement and access to WiFi; for better or for worse, Diet Coke and potato chips were non-existent. But all of us felt privileged to learn from the locals about how to live better. If one were to apply a Happiness Index to different cultures, the families in the Amazon jungle would win out over many suburban households in America.

Our citizen science trip accomplished a great deal for science and conservation. First and foremost, ecotourism in this region provides respected employment for more than 100 families in the Amazon. The locals now recognize that their economy can be sustained by keeping the forest intact, instead of cashing in on a short-term profit from logging. In addition, we all collected data–information about insects living in the treetops, whose leaf-chewing activities may lead to new medicines produced from chemicals in the plants; pollinators of orchids and other tropical plants; food chains that keep this complex forest healthy and facilitate the most important climate-control system on our planet, and a source of foods and fibers found nowhere else on Earth. But perhaps most important, yet hard to quantify, our sojourn in the tropical jungle provided a spiritual sanctuary that rekindled our appreciation for nature. As Ike Kwon, COO at the California Academy of Sciences, admitted with joy, “We hugged a tree unashamedly!”

Rebecca Tripp, a biology student from Maine studying waterbears in the forest canopy, achieved her lifetime bucket list travel destination: the Amazon jungle. Mobility-limited from an accident earlier in life, Rebecca and her wheelchair accompanied the team on every bird walk, and boarded a small boat for piranha fishing! Another student with health challenges along the autistic spectrum commented, “This was the happiest week of my life!” Berkeley graduate student Misha Leong, summed it up by saying, “Perhaps it’s the moisture in the humid air, perhaps it’s fewer distractions, but I love how my sense of smell in the tropical rainforest is heightened. It’s a complex fragrance of freshness, decay, sweetness, and chemical signals being sent between all the different organisms. This smell changes with the rains, time of day, and different parts of the forest, leading to ever-constant, lovely surprises.”

Disconnected from the electronic devices that tend to eat up so much of our time and energy back home, our team of 28 citizen scientist volunteers reconnected with nature while in the Amazon–experiencing the various sights, sounds, textures, smells, and flavors of the forest and rivers and incredibly delicious local food with a newfound awareness and appreciation. 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.

Article by Dr. Meg Lowman (aka CanopyMeg) in the Huff Post Science Blog. Lowman is a contributor for the Huffington Post — watch for Meg Lowman on Huff Post!