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My time in Armila was made possible through the La Wayaka Current artist residency. 

Even though it was the most oppressive place to be in Armila, I really loved tromping into the jungle. One of our first days there, our guides showed us the path out of the village on the east side that led into the jungle, following a nice creek. This is where I got my nature fix, and I'll share some of the nature with you now. 

First, the path out of the village passed by these "tourist" huts. Run-of-the-mill tourists cannot stay inside the village ... the village leaders will grant permits for people to camp on the beach. Although near the end of our stay, they permitted a large group to spend the night inside one of the community ceremonial huts. But these cute little huts here are for visiting researchers or journalists, people working in the community. 

Huts for visitors at the edge of the village. Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

The path begins with low growth. So there's actually a little bit of a barrier between the village houses and the true, deep jungle. A lot of villagers follow this main path into the jungle to reach their fincas. Baby pineapples growing along the path. 

Path leading from the village into the jungle. Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.Baby pineapple along the path into the jungle. Armila, Panama.Growing pineapple along the path leading from the village into the jungle. Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.And of course, my canine pal, Buddy! Accompanying me into the jungle, always waiting for me if I stopped to take pictures. Not only man's best friend, but a girl's, too. 

My dog pal, Buddy, accompanying me into the jungle, waiting for me on the path. Armila, Panama.

After following a small creek that babbles through a rocky bed choked with dead leaves, you soon come to a delightful spot where rocks have been placed to make a small dam holding the water into a pool. It usually made for a nice, stil mirror reflecting the mass of trees surrounding it. 

Small man-made pool in the creek that runs through jungle outside the village of Armila, Panama. Reflection of trees on the very still water.

If you sit in it with bare feet, little fish come and nibble on your toes. I didn't find this particularly pleasant and wore shoes in the pool instead. But whoa Nelly, did it feel deliciously cool and refreshing in the muggy heat of the jungle. One of the banks is made of a red clay that some of the artists collected, took back to their hut and dried some of it to powder to use as a color for drawing, and used some to fashion sculptures. It ended up being too brittle to fire in the "kiln" they built into the dirt under a fire, and broke apart.  Red clay on the bank of a pool in the creek in the jungle, Armila, Panama.

The first day we visited this place, a whole bunch of tiny yellow flowers had fallen into the creek and among the rocks. It was dazzling, like the creek was covered by a sheet of gold. When I looked closer, leaf-cutter ants were carrying the tiny blossoms away. I wanted to try to capture them with my camera, but it was the first day and I was with the whole group and needed to head back to the village with them. 

Creek full of tiny yellow flowers in the jungle, Armila, Panama.Leaf cutter ants carrying away tiny yellow flowers in the jungle, Armila, Panama.Leaf cutter ants carrying away tiny yellow flowers in the jungle, Armila, Panama.

So I determined to come back soon and spend more time with the ants. I've tromped through rainforests in various places around the world, but I had never just hung out or sat down and absorbed one. When I was in Costa Rica, one of the most exciting things I saw, second only to the sloths, was the leaf-cutter ants. I'd only seen them on TV nature shows, and running into them in person thilled me to an unexpected degree. So ... I basically couldn't wait to come back to this spot. I believe it was two days later that I first came back. 

But well before I reached the little pool of paradise, I started running into butterflies. Well. I can't resist a butterfly. But here's the crazy thing, I did not have a camera with a macro lens. My options were (1) my wide angle lens, for which I'd have to be practically on top of a butterfly to adequately get it in the frame, (2) my phone camera which simply wasn't fast enough most of the time, and I wanted better quality pics, (3) my favorite lens, but it's a 70-200 mm, and its *minimum* focus distance is about four feet. So that means I have to be four feet away from any object I want to focus on. Although option (3) is completely ridiculous to try to use in a suffocatingly dense forest, it was really my best option. 

So there's me, in the equatorial rainforest, where you can't walk one foot off the path without being choked by leaves and vines and branches, chasing butterflies. But to get a photo of one, I must first chase it until it stops on a leaf or flower. Then I must figure out how to back away four feet through the strangling jungle while keeping it in my sights and hope it doesn't fly away while I'm backing up crashing through branches and leaves. So try to appreciate the effort I went through for each butterfly shot that came out. Nine times out of ten, it flew away before I got backed up four feet, and so the chase continued. 

But I thought of them as my jungle muses because in chasing them around like a very silly person, they led me to places and sights I probably wouldn't have seen otherwise, so I did not mind their elusiveness. I'll share with you now some of the shots I got over several different trips into the jungle ... so imagine that I'm standing four feet away from each of these butterflies, completely enveloped in jungle material, pointing my big lens at them. I just tried not to think about the spiderwebs I was probably running into and all the bugs that might be jumping onto me. Also, by being so far away, the subjects are a pretty small portion of the frame, so these are all heavily cropped.Black butterfly with orange stripes on wings. Jungle of Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

In between chasing the butterflies, I spent time noticing the delicate flowers of the jungle. 

Delicate blue flower in the jungle, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.Blue and black butterfly in the jungle, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.Tiny purple flowers fallen onto a leaf in the rain, in the jungle, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.Black and orange butterly in the jungle, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.Dead leaf fallen on tiny white flowers in the jungle, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.Black, orange, white butterfly drinking from yellow flowers in the jungle, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.Moth on a leaf in the jungle, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

As if they weren't freaky enough roaming all over the village and infiltrating our hut the first week we were there, I also had to watch out for crabs while crashing through the jungle! Always scuttling about, in and out of their holes. I just never think about crabs being on land, I did not expect them to be all over the jungle! Ants, butterflies, spiders, grasshoppers, snakes, birds ... yes. Crabs? No. 

A blue crab scuttling across the jungle floor. Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Lots of interesting fungus everywhere, too.

Small white fungus growing on a fallen tree in the jungle, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

I thought about a fascinating Radiolab episode, "Plant Parade," about how trees in a forest are all connected to each other underground through a crazy fungal freeway system. Tiny fungi connect tens of trees together, and they're not even the same species. In the forest these researchers were studying, they found one tree could be connected to as many as 47 others around it through this underground network. (This was a forest somewhere in the USA.) Apparently, according to the researchers, tree roots are not actually all that good at absorbing minerals which are crucial to their growth from the soil. So the way they get them is from the underground fungi in a trade ... the tree, which converts carbon to sugar, gives the fungi sugar it needs in exchange for the fungi's minerals they have collected.  The fungi have a variety of methods for acquiring minerals from the soil and from a tiny insect called the springtail, the latter of which is rather gruesome. They found that when a tree is dying, it dumps its carbon into the fungal network for other trees around it to absorb and grow stronger. According to the researchers, this underground fungal structure looks physically like a brain. I don't know how they arrive at that, so I retain some skepticism, but what is clear is that the forest itself acts like a superorganism, like a bee or ant colony. It's not just alive with individual plants, but as a whole organism. 

The Guna tribe's mythology is all about going underground, that's where the magic worlds are. If they thought about life, where it comes from, maybe their observations of the jungle, of seeds sprouting up and roots growing down gave them their mythologies. Why did the Maya who lived in similar jungle look up to the stars like so many other cultures? It's interesting how, it seems to me, the sky dictates the majority of ancient folklore around the world and forms the territory of the gods who give life and destiny, even though life, the sacred, really does come from underneath the ground like the Guna seem to perceive. 

So when I looked at the jungle floor, the chaos of death and life on the surface, and then thought about the magnitude of what is going on underneath the surface ... I felt completely overwhelmed at times, like almost dizzy trying to sense and feel and acknowledge everything going on around me. 

Dead leaves on the floor of the jungle. Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.Jumble of dead leaves in a creek bed in the jungle. Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

I stopped to take a wee nap one day. I laid down here with my camera, with the tree in the second pic across from me. I did not see any bugs swarming on the ground or on the log, so I thought it looked like a pretty good napping spot. I laid down pretty unconcerned.

Set my camera down to take a nap in the jungle. Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

As I lay there, looking up for awhile before my eyelids fell down, I sort of communed with the movement of the jungle. Because it's so hot and humid and oppressive, at first it seems like the air is too heavy to move, as if all is still except for the butterflies and ants and the babbling brook. But once I myself stopped moving, I realized there was movement on every plane around me -- visual, audio, horizontal, vertical. Leaves are perpetually falling, some floating effortlessly and some having to force their way through the interlaced branches of the jungle, always a downward current from the sky to the ground. Ants are perpetually moving across the ground, leaf-cutter ants like rivers crossing the forest floor -- a sideways current along the plane of the earth. Dappled light is always moving and shifting, chaotic -- it's impossible to take the same photo twice because the light is always different, so many leaves in the jungle canopy are filtering the sun and always subtly moving. The light moves in eddies and swirls in the space in between the lateral movement of the insects and the vertical movement of the leaves. The air feels stiff and still, but it’s clearly always moving, shifting the trees ever so slightly, encouraging, promoting, beckoning them to shed their leaves. Always rustling noises from the leaves falling through other layers of leaves, from lizards always scampering through the floor of death the piled up leaves create, which then becomes a floor of regrowth, really. Plus the occasional crab scuttling through the dead leaves. Sound comes in waves from the insects, swelling like waves on the ocean, sometimes so loud as to be distracting, sometimes so soft as to be a background noise, like white noise.

I'm pretty sure I drifted off for a bit before I opened my eyes again and sat up. I took a long cold drink from my water bottle. Set it down. And then noticed an ant crawling on my leg. I flicked it off. Oh, another ant! Flick. Ack, another ant! Geeze. Flick. Finally my eyes focused properly and I saw to my horror that I was actually covered in ants. They weren't biting me, so I didn't really notice at first. I spazzed out and starting flailing around like mad, suddenly feeling my whole body crawling with ants. I wasn't exactly screaming, but was definitely making some noises of distress, and frantically trying to brush off the ants. Thank goodness, they did not actually get under my clothes, they were just on top of my pants and shirt. Still I was mega wigged out. Then I looked at my camera and saw that it was covered in ants, too! Aaaaack! I tried to blow them off and flick them off. It was quite a little ordeal before I felt that I was finally rid of all the ants. Fortunately they did not decide to infiltrate my daypack. 

However, I now could feel a giant welt on my face. Oh lord! Why on earth did I think it was a good idea to lie down for a nap on the floor of the jungle? Cursing myself now, I tried to assess the welt situation. I had a benadryl in my daypack so I popped that. This is not a selfie for the sake of documenting myself in the jungle. This is me taking a picture of myself so that I can look at it to see if the welt is visible and how bad it looks. OK, this is actually the second picture I took. The first one my expression was pretty bizarre, haha. So I decided if I'm gonna take a pic, even for medical purposes, why not make it possibly worth saving. Amazingly, I couldn't see anything that looked as bad as what I felt, even when I zoomed in. So hooray. I decided to keep the photo because I just find it a humorous reminder now of my brief appearance in a little horror movie. (The handkerchief ... just standard issue accessory in an environment that wrenches sweat out of every pore.) 

How does my face look??

Well. So, I didn't necessarily want to get that intimate with the ants, but I was very pleased with the rest of the time I spent with them. If anything is more ridiculous than trying to photograph butterflies with a lens with a 4-foot minimum focus distance, it's trying to photograph ants from four feet away. But I tried it anyway. In the process of watching and photographing them, although few photos turned out very well, I really got to admire the discipline of these critters, their order, the breadth of their territory. Here are a couple videos showing them en masse, just taken with my phone camera. 

Leaf Cutter Ants on Forest Path

Leaf Cutter Ant Traffic Jam

Some details I noticed about them are that it seemed only some of them have the mandibles to cut through the leaves. I could be wrong about this, but I looked through a lot of pics, and this seemed to be the case. Now, these ant pics are crazy zoomed and cropped in! I'm pretty impressed that the lens got anything so tiny in reasonable focus. So now imagine me sitting on the ground four feet away from a line of ants trying to get one in focus. 

Leaf cutter ant with mandibles for cutting pieces out of leaves, in the jungle, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.Leaf cutter ants cutting pieces out of leaves, in the jungle, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

It was also amusing that some ants hitched a ride on top of leaf bits that other ants were carrying. Slackers!

Leaf cutter ant hitching a ride on a leaf another ant is carrying, in the jungle, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.Swarm of leaf cutter ants carrying leaves through a creek bed, in the jungle, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

Compared to the typical swarms and traffic jams of ants, I thought this guy looked kind of dramatic, alone on the tree carrying his leaf. 

Leaf cutter ant carrying a leaf bit down a tree trunk, in the jungle, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

OK, now we have finally made it to my favorite part of hanging out in this area: the creek. I couldn't decide whether to put it first or last, but I decided to present this post in basically chronological order of my discoveries and activities. So insects and plants came first, then I really got into photographing things on or through the water. So allow me to present to you a gallery of water photos. The first thing that captivated me was the most obvious: the reflections. 

Reflection of plants in a small pool, in the jungle, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.Reflection of tree leaves in the manmade pool, in the jungle, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.Patterns of reflection on a pool in the creek in the jungle, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.Patterns of reflection on a pool in the creek in the jungle, Armila, Guna Yala, Panama.

It was by paying attention to and photographing the reflections that I then noticed all the other details and then actively started looking for interesting shots. Or at least by my idea of interesting. The first one below just kind of shows the general chaos of the jungle floor (which includes the creek bed). In the first pic, it's a jumble of leaves in the water, leaves on top of the water, and light and trees reflected on the water. Almost all the photos revolve in one way or another around leaves. 

I spent a lot of time playing with different shutter speeds on running water to see the different effects. Slow speeds often helped the water look like a kaleidoscope. 

I had a lot of fun trying to capture these bubbles frothing up in a little nook of the creek. These kind of places are perfect for people with very long attention spans, like me. You: "What have you been doing for the last hour?" Me: "Oh, watching bubbles in the creek." I like how in the large bubbles you can pick out pretty well the reflection of patches of sky and trees. 

Various other movements and patterns of water.

Fast shutter speeds produced the white streaks, which looks to me as if someone drew on the photo in photoshop or something, the white lines look almost synthetic rather than organic, which I think is kind of interesting, but it's just the water at high speed.  

And finally, a bug lurking beneath the water. I tried to capture fish and tadpoles, too, but none of those really came out. 

Water bug sitting in a calm spot of the creek, in the jungle, Armila, Panama.

So there is a summary of my time in the jungle, and I think my best attempt at being actually "artistic," as opposed to documentary. 

*

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