Archive for March, 2016
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Art and/as Process – Biodiversity residencies (part2)

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One of the key responsibilities of a volunteer at Un poco del Chocó is the maintenance of trails which meander fluidly through the terrain. Unlike roads, they do not divide land in such a way as to prevent certain animals or birds from crossing over them, since certain species avoid open areas due to fear of predators, leading to habitat fragmentation.

     The jungle being a dynamic system of life-death-decay-rebirth creates and sheds life matter at an impressive rate. There is always a demand for raking and trimming of foliage on the trails in order to minimize the risk of stepping on a snake, slipping or tripping. The more physical tasks involve building and repairing stairs as well as cutting and removing trees and bamboo that happen to fall onto the trail. In case of occasional landslides there is digging, moving dirt and struggling with gooey to rock hard clay.

2016 01 25 Un Poco del Choco Snake

A section of a trail collapsed onto a lower section. Landslides are relatively common during the rain season.


     The 15 hectare biological reserve is “in the transition zone between two biodiversity-hotspots, the Chocó and the Tropical Andes” ( Five kilometers of trails cover a portion leaving most of it to the fauna and flora, undisturbed by humans. This piece of paradise is located on a side of a ravine with the base camp at 1200m and the Pachijal River acting as a boarder 250 meters below. The yellow trail weaves for half a kilometre almost directly down before abruptly turning towards the base, once reaching the river. An average walk up takes about 45 minutes. “Racing” could shave it down to a breathless and near fainting 15 minutes, after a few weeks of trail walking.  The other three trails zigzag lengthwise along the side of the valley, each with its own character. The difference of elevation allows for access to various levels of the canopy, a key feature of the area. I had the opportunity to observe birds and plants that otherwise would be invisible up high in the dense foliage of the cloud forest.

     Hundreds of stairs snake around trees, down steep slopes and over roots with a gentle, sculptural presence. A braced piece of wood with packed clay forms each step ranging roughly between 12cm (6”) and 30cm (12”) in height.  Palm wood is used here do to its ability to withstand rot (up to 10 years as opposed to the average of 3 months for other tree species). Building or repairing stairs is a challenging physical task. First, the 1 meter (3’) long palm pieces are brought down to where they are needed 1-3 pieces at a time, each weighing about 10kg (20 pounds). After splitting certain pieces to make spikes on site, a hoe is used to dig out a straight line into the earth. A piece of palm is then placed on the line with two spikes bracing it from the front. Clay fills the gaps, rammed with a piece of flat wood to compact it.

2016 01 15 Un Poco del Choco Snake

A small section of the yellow trail leading up to the base


     There was something to discover with every walk through the jungle. Bamboo shoots ruptured silently through the earth and orchid flowers hung heavy with water. Dozens of types of insects and birds filled the forest with sounds. Trespassing on an adjacent valley farm to paint the opposite side, I listened to a cicada begin its call. The next one fallowed with in a second, so did the third, forth,… by now the first finishing. And so it went, a shimmering suggestion of a wave that appeared at the edge of perception became a sound tsunami as it passed my area, moving well past the other edge through the valley like a human wave in a stadium. The warm air seemed to vibrate with the sound of the cicada.

     Elsewhere orange and brown tarantula spiders lazily moved in the shadows. I saw an armadillo race into the forest faster than I could ever imagine an armadillo move.  One morning, as a small group of us were making our way towards where a set of stairs needed repair, we stumbled onto ocelot tracks close to a cuckoo watch station. I would have missed them but luckily Wilo, one of the founders, was with us and he has an extra sense about these things. (Latest update about the ocelot Click Here)

     During a clandestine evening, walking the trails in a heavy downpour Bothrops punctatus, a sister of the very dangerous fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper) slipped down in front of me to our mutual surprise. She coiled with raddle shaking, looking straight into my eyes. Grateful for the warning I took a step back, crouched and took a photo. Paying attention not to slip or make sudden movements I admired her stone mosaic like skin while she slid away in the opposite direction.

     A week later, on the green trail, a small leathery black and yellow snake darted out of nowhere towards me lunching into the air. Moving to the side just in time for it to fly by my legs I watched it disappear into the bush letting the adrenaline flow through my body, big smile on my face.

     On my way for a swim, walking around a large mahogany tree I surprised a group of Rufous-fronted wood quails. The group split in two opposite directions leaving one thoroughly confused as to which way to run. It was a great opportunity to have a good look at him, its red breast plumage seemed to shimmer amongst the warm greens of the jungle. Its’ confusion, as it paced this way and that was amusing and it took him a good thirty seconds to make up its mind as to which way to run.

2016 01 Un Poco del Choco Snake

Bothriopsis punctata is a venomous pitviper species found in South America and Panama.


  Walking the trails stimulated my imagination and put me in direct touch with a level of biodiversity I have not experienced before. One thing that was becoming clear to me about my tentative way of framing my research under the title “The shape of loss”, was that it was to limiting, to narrow a view to try to fit all the impressions the environment was making on me. There was something much more interesting happening here and loss was only a part of the equation…