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Art and/as Process – Biodiversity residencies (part8)

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    Woke up with first day light. There was one fat mosquito trapped inside with me inside the net that surrounded my bed. The owner of the surf shop across from the hostel was already busy waxwing boards for rent as I walked barefoot and in my swimming trunks to the beach. Less than a block later I reached the 30 meter or so stretch of sand pummelled relentlessly by the surf. The beach was already bustling with people who arrived on the early morning buses so I made my way towards a stream outlet that cut through the sand and into the Ocean to get away from the crowd.

Surf shop at night watercolour

     After a mush up stretch routine I started to run north towards the cliffs. Depending on where the tide was at the time, I could make my way around the bend to a hidden beach and circle back. The depth of the water was a fun variant.  Running back and past the town I would zigzag through families setting up on the sand. Within two minutes the town was behind me with only individual vacant resorts dotting the beach. I liked running by them, each with its own private setup disheveled by the elements and frequented only by the maintenance staff. Aiming at a distant land mark like a washed up tree log or a fishing boat I would then try to push past it, ending the run by diving into the ocean. After a fun but futile attempt at swimming against its current, which only pushed me further south, getting out invigorated and salty I would briefly stretch, meditate and slowly make my way back to take a shower.

Canoa river outlet, (looking south) Photo by: Jana Van Hoof

     About an hour would have passed by now and it was time for breakfast as the rumbling in my stomach emphasized. Having not shopped yet for food I decided to treat myself to a light meal at the El Jardin hostel (two eggs, toast, salad and coffee.)  Sitting at a table in front I ate while watching the early morning pedestrian traffic of suffers and beach goers dotted by the occasional local person delivering goods or going to work.

     Now that I was here in Canoa I was especially looking forward to finally sinking my teeth into Naomi Klein’s new book “This changes everything” as much as the local ceviche. I have been a big fan of her research and writing since reading “No Logo” way back in high school. It was the perfect book at the time to provide perspective on the insane level of materialism and advertising I found myself surrounded by as teenage immigrant from Poland searching for an identity.  It introduced me to globalism, and just how manipulative and corrupt a lot of the companies I looked up to at the time really were. Even more importantly it made me think about how things were interconnected. It made me think about where materials were extracted, how/who benefited and who got exploited. Suddenly the world was a lot more complex and I wanted to know more about it.

    Having spent 2014/15 reading scientific journals and books related to environmental issues I was out here trying to put things in context and find a way to fit my interests within these broad set of issues. While at Un poco del Chocó I was distracted by the stimulating atmosphere and the unique content of its own library and the books other researchers brought with them, like “Do Hummingbirds Hum?” by George C. West and Carol A. Butler, so I didn’t get a chance to read “This Changes Everything.” Now that I had a clearer idea where I was going to be focusing on with my art work I was ready to sink my teeth into how Naomi Klein laid out the broad spectrum of issues related to human caused climate change.  Thirteen pages into the book I came across a prediction that a “Four degrees of warming could raise global sea levels by 1 or possibly even 2 meters” overwhelming many coastal areas.  It felt a bit surreal as I was then having breakfast in a place that within a few decades might be underwater. I tried to imagine the place with only the cliffs remaining, lower in stature and eroding quicker.  It got me thinking about their relationship to the town and the town’s relationship to them, to the surrounding area and country. The juxtaposition of nature and human settlement, both existing in the same space yet on a much different tempo, changing at different rates; the tortes and the hare.

     The next ten days would prove to be very relaxing and fruitful in terms of experiences and ideas. By looking closer at human settlements I added a new category of interest to my artistic pursuit of looking at change and what is happening with climate.

untitled (still) life, part of ongoing series

Art and/as Process – Biodiversity residencies (part6)

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Oshaughnessy’s Dwarf Iguana (Enyalioides o’shaughnessy)

The nights were full of sounds and the thick soothing smell of the jungle. If the moon was out, she wasn’t prying her gaze through the clouds. The rain at the moment was light, dampening my hair and shoulders within a few steps.  Looking at darker silhouettes of plants, I listened to hundreds of voices imagining which animals were producing them. A twig breaking made me think of the large brown tarantula I caught a glimpse off a few days before, or maybe it was a fat snake that was carelessly zigzagging through the bush. A boastful loud grumbling dominated the conversation coming from a tiny cattle tree frog. If I listened long enough I could hear crackling as some animal’s paws moved up or down the hill, perhaps it was the ocelot whose paw tracks I would almost walk over days later.

Rainfrog (Pristimantis sp.) also know as mutable rainfrog

     At this point in the story I have been in the Chocó region for three weeks.  I had a few spots I would paint in regularly while making special trips seeking out new vistas. In the beginning I respected the ‘no trespassing’ signs.  My curiosity though pushed me over to the other side of the barbwire fences and onto the bulgy mounds of clay and grass carved by countless hove marks. Looking around from a high vintage point you could see hills stretching out past your vision, imagining the jungle that use to cover them as it still does in the Poco del Chocó biological reserve.  It’s even more mind blowing to think about this back in Toronto now, walking around concreate and pavement where once a forest was.

Leafcutter ants of the genus Atta

     Close to a milking station, where a truck would come every morning[1] to pick up gallons of hand pumped cow juice, was a stretch off land that suddenly dropped off. You noticed it every time you were walking away from the biological reserve because suddenly there were no trees obstructing your view. The first time I crossed the barbwire fence to see what it held I knew I found something special. The second time I took lots of photos with a cell phone camera I had on loan, since my own equipment succumbed to moisture. A week would pass before returning with watercolours. As I was painting using larger swaths of colour, wanting to capture more of an impression of what I was looking at as whole, it suddenly hit me. The landscape was like the flowing river rushing through the valley. It, like the river connected to a point beyond my vision and moved well past it, containing its essence in every section. I looked at my painting and saw it as something like a photograph in a time-lapse of a movement which traces back into millennia while moving forward, a reality in process.

Poco del Chocó biological reserve

     With the valley stretching out in front of me I saw the streams of growth bulging in the landscaped, scars covered in different, newer foliage. The view contained many different examples of processes or flows…and then I remembered a phrase I came across in Liquid Modernity by Zygmund Bauman over a year before: space of flows. The term itself was coined by sociologist Manuel Castells and it refers to the global network of connectivity which has created a new relationship between space and time for us to contend with. Global network of connectivity, well nature is that I thought.  It all started to fit beautify, this new way of looking at my surroundings.  What I was looking at connected to the work I have already done, and the work I have been thinking about getting into.

Chocó region, Ecuador. Watercolour studies

     So here I was, looking at the hillside, connecting the things that I have been painting and documenting so far like the landslides, roads, deforestation and preservation, grazing cattle, a piece of garbage in a remote natural area, root system, etc., a natural network of processes.  The cicadas were vibrating, sounding like living electricity, and I was smiling. I found the conceptual framework for my work in the idea of nature as a space of flows.


[1] The first time I took a ride on the back of the truck we only got half way when the axel dropped dragging 20 meters before we stopped.

Art and/as Process – Biodiversity residencies (part5)

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Living in a cloud forest fluctuated from looking at the clouds above to looking through the cloud you were in. Opportunely, on my second day of having the whole reserve to myself Ra came out in full regalia. Out of the two weeks I have been here at Un poco del Chocó this was the second day of seeing the sun for more than a few minutes. After feeding the chickens, dogs, and fish and having completed other chores I set out on a long walk of exploration and documentation.

     I got back early in the afternoon, and decided to try out making green banana pancakes (aka. placki, aka. ladkas.) It took me about forty five minutes to grate six large green bananas to a pulp. I added some pepper, salt and oil, mixed it up and started frying.  They stuck to the pan more than I would have liked and took much longer to fry then their potato version but in the end they came out quite tasty and vegan to boot.   While struggling a bit with frying the pancakes I already had all the ingredients simmering in a pot for a Borscht.

     Satiated, I climbed the stairs to the second level of the volunteer house where our bedrooms wore located. Sitting on the deck with my watercolour setup beside me work resumed on one of the paintings started early on in the week. The balcony looked down at where a relatively small tree fell having been pulled down by lianas a few nights before. It brought down other small trees with it, creating a rich mangled crash site of branches, leaves, vines and ground plants. A fairly complex landscape perfect for practicing controlling my brush work.

     There was a second location which I considered painting from that day. It was from a veranda of what seemed to be an abandoned and decrepit house about five minute walk from the reserve. It had a roof so rain wasn’t an issue and the patina on the wood added to the vibe of the structure which I found stimulating for painting.  The view offered was a road which divided the land into the reserve (on the right) and a farm (left) contrasting two very different states of what the land can be: on the one hand managed for specifically human use and on the other left mostly to itself so that it and many life forms could thrive. It was a great place to contemplate change but today I opted out for no more trips outside.

    After an hour or so on the balcony I took the opportunity to work on a quicker painting from Willo and Nicol’s front porch. The dogs were there, a comfortable bench and a view of a green rolling valley. Halfway through my paint session, the clouds began to envelop the area. Their bosom was trimmed in darkness, signalling impending rain. Slowly but surely they approached, cascading over the treeline, spilling into the curvy hills and garden, crawling across the road and stones like a mist from a magical forest. The rain came as Chocó fused with the cloud yet again. Everything softened becoming mysterious and damp. The world, yet again, contained in the breath of the jungle.

     I led the dogs back into their pen. Yoga loved to herd us through the trails and swim in the river while Klecks preferred to keep watch at main base. He had a tendency to jump in excitement a good half meter into the air when food was being brought over. Both weren’t too crazy about going in for the night but did so without protest. Having packed up my gear I moved back to the volunteer’s house.  By the time I warmed up some green banana pancakes and borscht soup the rain was drumming a dull steady beat on the wooden roof. The night shrouded everything in darkness and it wasn’t even eight o’clock yet.

     After reading and writing under the flowing candle light, having opted not to use the solar powered lights, I decided to retire thinking about the images I took and what was it about them that interested me…what connections could I make between them? Could they be used to comment on the relationship between humans and the planet? There were lots of questions which eventually dissolved as I entered the dream world.

Art and/as Process – Biodiversity residencies (part3)

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I am still wrapping my mind around the fact that one of the most diverse and dynamic systems of life, with thousands of species of plants, animals, insects and fungi rises from an average of 8cm (3”) of soil in the Chocó region.

Exposed roots after a landslide

Exposed roots after a landslide

     The jungle floor is a carpet of roots, rotting leaves, fallen branches, vines, lianas, dormant seeds and nuts as well as sprouting plants. Under this skin of life lay layers of loose rock, clay and sand. Unlike the temperate forests of the northern hemisphere where nutrients, from decomposing matter, soak into the top and subsoil for gradual recovery by the root systems, in the jungle the cycle is a lot more dynamic.  Humidity, high levels of rainfall and a steady, year round sun cycle ensure that life thrives and with it death and decomposition.  The roots of almost all the plants and epiphytes have a symbiotic relationship with a fungus (mycorrhiza) which lives in them. The fungus helps the plants decompose bio matter and recover most of the nutrients almost entirely by themselves. With the amount of rain fall and mostly clay under the thin layer of slanted soil, most nutrients would be washed into the river system if it wasn’t for the carpet of roots which like a sponge suck them up perpetuating the cycle of growth-death-decay-rebirth.

     The diversity and sheer number of species feels like a crowded TTC* streetcar, if everyone was OK with multiple people sitting on top of one another during rush-hour. The dense forest makes it work. Each plant, animal and insect species has a place or rather a niche of their own. A great example of this is the variety of species of humming birds found in the area. There are over 40 species in the Chocó region alone, over 100 in Ecuador. Each species varies in size, beak shape/length, plumage, etc. and has a unique ability to access a food source while sharing others.  It is this kind of complex balancing act which permeates through the ecosystem.

Violet-tailed sylph, photograph by Jonathan Janse

Violet-tailed sylph, photograph by Jonathan Janse

     I arrived at the same time Jonathan Jansen did, a self-described “crazy” birder.  He is there to conduct research into the possible connection between telling a birds age by the quality of its plumage. The research entails catching as many birds as possible so that he could examine them and gather observations, amassing data in order to examine patterns. This gave me the opportunity to see many different species up close. Their size always seemed heavier than it actually was while their heartbeat was ferocious and eyes clear and sharp just like their beaks. The colours found on the feathers, the gradations form one tone to another are amazing. There is one particular bird, the Green Crowned Brilliant, that I can still see when I close my eyes. It was one of the first I got to see up close to admire its green plumage. Looking at the area above the beak the rich olive green shifted to a bright gold as though a beam of light pierced the dense foliage of the jungle. I have never seen something quite like it in nature, the way the feathers shifted from olive green to gold was mesmerizing and truly beautiful.  So beautiful that supposedly the Maya used to make robes out of the feathers of humming birds for their kings.

     As part of the decay, falling debris is a constant. If you raked a trail in a few days it looked as though no one did so for a while. Leaves fall restlessly during the rainy season and I was told by Nicole, co-founder of the biological reserve, that it’s even more intense during the dry season since everything sheds in order to maximize moisture storage.

     Another amazing adaptation to changing conditions is the ability of a palm to move from one location to another with more favorable lighting. Appropriately named the “walking palm”, it can move up to 20cm in a year by growing roots which cascade down covered in sharp spikes. It reminded me of a rocket taking off, its main trunk jutting off in to the sky supported by a plume of roots. Having established a direction it cuts off its connection to the roots facing away from the light growing them towards the location it will better thrive in. The establishment of new roots severs the ones behind as it moves forward towards the light.

A gap in the jungle foliage created by a fallen tree.

A gap in the jungle foliage created by a fallen tree.

     In contrast the large mahogany and golden mahogany trees that grow in the area create thick, gothic buttress like roots to support their stature. Given the terrain, steep valleys of loose gravel layer covered by different types of clay, it’s amazing the height and size a lot of the trees reach. When these giants do fall, they open large swatches of the jungle to secondary succession so that the forest is in a constant state of tearing itself down and rebuilding, allowing for new species to dominate.

     Often the fall of these giants can be attributed to lianas and their more sinister cousins the strangle figs. The strangler figs germinate in the canopy sending down thin, hair like wisps towards the ground. Once on the ground the wisps take root and begin to grow sprouting leaves that will eventually outperform those of the tree while gaining in thickness and weight. The roots coil themselves around the tree eventually totally encasing it. The tree dies as the strangler fig coil fuses itself around its dead, rotting carcass eventually leaving a hallow space where the tree use to be.

     The ancient forest is constantly reborn. A complete system in a constant rebalancing act, adding and subtracting, changing. I realized I was surrounded by the embodiment of becoming, a key idea in the work I have been developing so far in Toronto.  It was obvious that my original tentative framework for the project “The Shape of Loss” represented only a section of a cycle. The roads facilitated the change of the land into farms but it did not end there and the project I am a part off is an example of that. Even without human intervention the landscape constantly reshapes itself so change was the common denominator in what I was observing.  My time here was beginning to gel all that I was seeing and experiencing. I was working on a few watercolours in different locations while continuing my daily walks. Soon it would pay off big time.

*(Toronto Transit System)

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…


Art and/as Process – Biodiversity residencies (part1)

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There was nothing unusual about the flight from Toronto to Quito. For a few minutes in line at U.S. Customs I thought I might not make my flight as the line was huge and my flight was leaving in less then an hour. I landed in Quito 12 hrs later. Got into my Hostel at 2 am and crashed. Did not realize it then but the altitude in Quito, combined with jetlag and the flue I have yet to fully recover from left little energy in me. After breakfast I got out my travel itinerary that had details and broad strokes about different sections of my 80-day research trip. Found myself staring at the page section that only had the name of the place I was going to without any other details. The longer I stared the more anxious I began to feel, thinking that somehow the details would fill themselves in.

    Next came the questions: do I have enough money, is my Spanish good enough, what bus do I need to get to the terminal… In my tired state I was forgetting that that section of the trip was left undefined for a reason. I closed the itinerary, took a deep breath. This was something to be resolved later as other pieces of the trip would unfold. I had more pressing concerns now, like buying a new hat since I left mine on the plane, dammit.

    Getting to “Un poco del Chocó” biological reserve took about 4hrs from Quito. 30 min on local transit across the sprawling city, 2hrs on a regional bus and 45min in a 4×4 on the one road that gets to the reserve. A road that become important to me later on.


Un poco del Chocó view from one of the trails

    The reserve is located in the Chocó region of Ecuador and is situated between 950 and 1200 meters above the sea level. It protects a small part of the ecosystem that once covered most of the region. It is a biological hotspot, with a great biodiversity that is in danger of disappearing; 83% of forests in Ecuador have been cut down since the 40s.

    My goal was to observe and learn from the researchers about how biodiversity is studied and understood. Parallel, I conducted my own observations, made watercolour studies and took photos of what interested me.

    Five days into the experience, I hit a wall. With so much stimulus I was having a hard time fitting the pieces with my initial idea for the work that would address the loss of biodiversity. Working with watercolours has proven to be a lot harder than originally expected. The humidity changed the watercolour pencils making them gummy, things took much longer to dry and regular rain and bugs made a lot of the locations I became interested in difficult or impossible to paint in. Then my camera stopped working do to moisture.

    In order not to focus on the negative I focused on what I still could do. Every weekday I worked for the first half of the day helping to maintain the reserve, learning about different plants and ways of working with bamboo or palms. Walking the 5 km of the reserve trails had multiple benefits. They gave access to different levels of the tree canopy, waterfalls, areas of secondary succession and the river.With every walk there was a new discovery and things seen before could be seen during different parts of the day in a new light. The second thing that provided me with a lot if interesting information’s and way of looking at things were the conversations with the student researchers. I was lucky to have arrived when two were just completing their research and another two were arriving to start. Each had their own uniqe perspectives and experiences to share.

    On the second weekend, Jonathan, one of the new arrivals was going to walk to Las Tolas. It is the nearest village, about 12km up the road and it’s about 700 meters higher then the reserve. Up to that point I did not give much consideration to the road as it was outside the reserve. Wanting to break the routine and see more of the area I went along with him and another researcher, Jaimie. They were both starting their research related to different bird species. The walk proved a crucial experience on my way to figuring out how to fit the pieces of what I was experiencing. It was my first sunny day there as it rained for the most part in the weeks prior. I found interesting locations to paint in without the aforementioned problems and the road gave me a much broader perspective on the surrounding area. Jonathan also volunteered to take photos on his phone for me during the walk adding to my already fruitful day.

    The next weekend I was left alone on the reserve. The volunteers and researchers would usually leave on the weekends to see other parts of Ecuador and this time Nicole and Wilo, the owners, left as well for a much deserved break. Nicole left me a phone in case of emergency. On Saturday I went out for what were now my regular walks on the road. I had a few different spots 4 km+ from the reserve where I liked to paint and meditate. They were located at different parts of a hill around 1500 meters above sea level. On my way there I came across a trail of leaf cutter ants which a lot of their soldiers running back and forth. As I was about to voice my usual lament of not having a camera I realized that I actually had one, Nicoles phone. I used the rest of the day to document all the spots I found on my daily trail and road walks that for one reason or other were interesting to me. 143 photos later my situation changed fully. I was content and a pattern was beginning to emerge…