From the Amazon Jungle to the Concrete Jungle

    Walking up Manhattan's Park Avenue early on Monday morning is a shock to the system. Just two weeks ago, I was hiking through the Peruvian Amazon in one of the most pristine and remote places on the planet, the Tambopata National Reserve. I'm now in New York City headed to the legendary Explorer's Club, ready to meet my PI who is leading a UN sponsored workshop “Linking Education, Ecotourism, and Human Rights in the Arctic.”

    As I head uptown, I'm struck with a weird thought: the concrete jungle of New York City, ostensibly the polar opposite of the Amazon, is actually... kinda similar. Within just a few hundred square miles, this metropolis is teeming with life - one of the most densely populated places on the planet. Different areas in this borough have their own distinct vibe - just like the diverse habitats of the Amazon rainforest. From the close-knit immigrant heritage of the Lower East Side to the designer boutiques and luxurious real estate of the Upper East Side, each neighborhood has its own unique characteristics. The Amazon is similarly heterogeneous, with bamboo, riverine, and flooded forests; savannas, lowland plains, and terra firme.

    The perpetual hum and buzz of city traffic provides a constant auditory backdrop, just like the insects, birds, and monkeys of the Amazon. Swarming around me are hundreds of workers - head down, marching purposefully like ants to wherever they go. I spy a cockroach scuttling down the sidewalk... and I'm suddenly transported back...


    For Spring Break this year, I finally embarked on a covid-postponed trip to the Peruvian Amazon rainforest. We were supposed to go with a National Geographic entomologist who used to work there, but he and other original party members were no longer available. We instead invited a Cambridge University professor of Forest Ecology who had done field research in the Venezuelan rainforest, as well as PolarTREC Alumna Jillian Worssam to help with curriculum development. We spent 9 days in Peru, learning about rainforest biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and the importance of the Amazon on the overall health of our planet.

    Jillian and I, arriving at the Tambopata National Reserve
    Arriving at the Tambopata National Reserve. Photo: Jillian Worssam

    Of course, one of the most exciting things about being in the Amazon is the incredible diversity of animals.

    The vast majority of fauna (perhaps up to 90%) is small - ants, spiders, beetles, butterflies... so many things that - I'll be honest, if I saw in my house, I'd screech and run away from. But out in the rainforest, they are truly the kings of the jungle and I was absolutely fascinated.

    The cross-shaped pattern woven into the web is perhaps a source of shade for this *Argiope submaronica* (orb-weaver) spider. Or maybe her name is Charlotte and she's sending a message... Photo: Jillian Worssam

    For the most part, the insects we saw weren't scary - they were beautiful and diverse!

    The many colors, textures, and forms of rainforest bugs! Photo: Kathy Ho
    We did see larger animals, like a tapir, two-toed sloth, porcupine, agouti, spectacled caiman, seven species of monkeys, and these capybara:
    Did you know? Capybara spend so much time in the water that the Catholic Church considers them to be fish, so they can be eaten on meatless Lenten days? Photo: Kathy Ho

    I was also completely captivated by the plant-life that we encountered. Traveling with a forest ecologist was a lot of fun - his passion and excitement for the smallest leaf and vine was contagious, and I discovered a newfound appreciation for the subtleties among rainforest flora.

    The towering kapok is one of the tallest trees in the forest, which means they are vulnerable to gusts of wind up above the forest canopy. Because it has a shallow root system, it forms buttresses to help it from toppling over. Photo: David Coomes

    It was a bit of a shock to the system to travel from virtually uninhabited rainforest to New York City, but I was excited to meet the PI for my expedition, Dr Martin Nweeia. He had invited me to help out with their panel discussing an indigenous integrated model of science education. And I was about to get a peek into the famous Explorers Club...

    New York City

    Founded in 1904, the Explorer's Club is an international organization "dedicated to the advancement of field exploration and scientific inquiry." The ultra-exclusive headquarters is an elaborately decorated, wood-paneled manor stuffed to the gills with legend and artifacts.

    The club Lounge and Library. The coffee table was formerly a hatch on the research vessel Explorer that survived the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. Photo: Kathy Ho
    The sled that Peary took to the North Pole hangs above a doorway and the globe used by Thor Heyerdahl to map his Kon Tiki journey is shoved into one corner. There's a narwal tusk and walrus tusks and wooly mammoth tusks and a giant, roaring polar bear. On the walls of our meeting room are flags that have been to the moon and back; another flag has been to the highest point in the world (Everest) AND the lowest (Challenger Deep). Above the entry to the ground floor lobby are a panel of clocks - so you'll know what time it is at the North Pole, South Pole, Everest, Mariana Trench, and on the Moon.
    Polar Bear
    A gift from Rudolph Valentino, who hunted it in the Chukchi Sea in 1969. Photo: Kathy Ho
    Moon flags
    Various flags carried by Apollo astronauts to the moon and back. Photo: Kathy Ho
    I meet my PI Dr. Martin Nweeia and team member Pamela Peeters, who are leading the workshop. We hear from a number of indigenous speakers, including a member of the Zuni tribe in New Mexico, an educator/scholar from Tibet, and several Inuit scholar/advocates from Greenland. The main message is about respecting traditional knowledge and listening to indigenous voices. These are the people who have studied at the "University of Nature," and whose knowledge of the environment is passed down in their DNA - as one Inuit panelist explained, when she asked a hunter how long it takes to be educated, the hunter replied, "It takes seven generations at least, to be a good hunter."
    with Dr. Martin Nweeia
    with Dr. Martin Nweeia, Qaanaaq (Greenland) community member Navarana K'avigak' Sørensen, and Explorers Club Chair of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion JR Harris. Photo: Pamela Peeters
    My whirlwind trip to New York lasted just a little over one day, and I'm now exhausted... but exhilarated, inspired, and eager to continue the mission!

    The Explorers Club



    Kathy - what an opportunity! A true worldwide event with such deep and wide perspective. How does one get to be a member of the "Explorer's Club"? One must earn their way in? Or be personally invited? Are you on the fast track to being part of it? I can only imagine the many people over the years who have sat in that living room and discussed their expeditions... and I can imagine what they were eating and drinking while together. Amazing!

    And, Kathy, because on every zoom meeting we've ever had you've always been wearing a mask... this is the first time I've seen what you look like behind the mask. :-)

    Janet Warburton

    Thanks for sharing your journey! Great journal and to spend time in the Amazon with JILLIAN! So, cool. Glad you also had a great workshop and got to meet your team!! Thanks again,

    Jennifer Johnson

    Kathy, the images from in the club were so fascinating. The note about the origin of the coffee table.

    Deanna Wheeler

    How exciting --- the Amazon and the Explorer's Club!! Interestingly, I read about your PI and his wife's work with the indigenous science education. Looking forward to learning more for your journals.