Tortuga Escondida Fellowship || Akumal, Mexico by kelly heaton

I’m back from a transformative five weeks in the Yucatán peninsula. This blog entry has been difficult for me to write because I’ve got so much material and it’s not easy to articulate. I will try to present my impressions of living in Mexico, the quirks of electrical engineering in a tropical jungle, my work with the people of Akumal pueblo, and how this experience has changed my life —at least, in a preliminary view.

The story and accomplishments that I describe were thanks to many supporters: the staff of Tortuga Escondida for inviting me to be a resident; GoFundMe donors and Creative Capital for making my work financially possible; the Akumal Arts Festival for supplying me with paint, a blank wall, and so much more; the Centro Comunitario de Akumal Pueblo for accepting my electronics donation and empowering the community to learn new skills; and to my new friends in Mexico who received me with open arms and showed me a fluid world of magic. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone who made this giant, messy “ball of happiness” possible. You have given me a life-changing experience that continues to unfold with powerful momentum.

Jaguar spirit holding the fire during a Mayan cacao ceremony, November 2018. Yucatán Mayans say that there are as many portals in the universe as there are spots on a jaguar.

Jaguar spirit holding the fire during a Mayan cacao ceremony, November 2018. Yucatán Mayans say that there are as many portals in the universe as there are spots on a jaguar.

My original intention for traveling to Mexico was to study the sounds of nature in a tropical jungle, feel the local energy, and build electrified works of art based on my experience. I also wanted to teach local residents about electricity and circuit design, hopefully inspiring some new “makers” in the small town of Akumal, Mexico, where tourism is the predominant industry and other educational opportunities are sparse. I am pleased to report that I achieved these goals and much more, but my path was not straightforward.

Tortuga Escondida residency center is located in a tropical jungle several pot-hole-dirt-road kilometers outside of Akumal pueblo. If not for the occasional outing, you would never know that Akumal is nearby, much less the overdeveloped Mayan Riveria coastline. Isolation in the jungle gave me plenty of natural inspiration and afforded me headspace to tackle a new challenge: circuits that sing like birds. I created three new works of electronic art thanks to and despite the wonderfully weird circumstances down there. Electrical engineering in a tropical jungle is challenging for many reasons, some of which I predicted (wildlife, limited supplies, high humidity) and some surprises (power fluctuations, mischievous house spirits, no package delivery, unreliable connectivity). I forgot a few supplies and inadvertently damaged others that were thankfully replenished by friends of friends visiting from the States —bless them, because it can take weeks or months via a “mule” to acquire something that isn’t locally available. Still, my oscilloscope abruptly died at the end of week two, even though it was unplugged and stored in a sheltered location with air conditioning. Locals claimed it was the work of an "Alux," pronounced "Aloosh", a Mayan nature spirit similar to an elf or house goblin. Apparently, the Alux that lives on the grounds of Tortuga Escondida likes to sabotage electronic devices and has killed so many hot water heaters that they’ve given up on replacements. They’ve even consulted an Alux removal specialist (a real vocation in this part of the world). Anyway, I managed without an oscilloscope and hot showers, and below are images of the works that I produced with my make-shift electronics bench at Tortuga Escondida.

Above: three electrified watercolor studies of birds in the Yucatán Peninsula. Tortuga Escondida’s caretaker generously built three wooden frames to protect my work (one frame not shown). Near Akumal, Mexico, 2018

Thanks to supporters of my GoFundMe project, “Hacking Nature’s Musicians | Mexico,” I donated the electronics bench that I used to create these bird studies to the Akumal Community Center, where several high school students and professors have been appointed as “electrical engineering champions.” Until now, there hasn’t been any sort of electronics hacking equipment in Akumal for students to learn about circuit design and safely experiment with electricity. Local educators determined that the pueblo’s community center was the best location for an electronics bench because the school cycles through three different age groups in a day, and it’s a pretty chaotic environment.

Fortunately, another electronic artist (Jackie Neon) came to town for the Akumal Arts Festival, and she helped me to lay a crucial foundation of interest and understanding. Jackie hosted several all-age, all-skill-level workshops called Sense Circuits, in which participants learned how to connect an LED or motor to a battery using conductive (and resistive) thread. I was really impressed by her workshop design because it’s not easy to teach total beginners about electronics without the risk of breaking components. Based on community response to Jackie’s Sense Circuit workshops, I was able to identify members of the community who have the interest and discipline to go further with electrical engineering. I hosted a two-hour workshop in mediocre Spanish to explain the equipment that I donated to the community. I offered tips for independent study, including how to search for schematics on the Internet, and the importance of studying data sheets. One participant was so enthusiastic in his desire to learn electrical engineering that he bamboozled me with hard questions. I was thrilled to know that this equipment will be appreciated and used.

Besides my interactions with Jackie Neon and her Sense Circuits workshops, I was only vaguely aware that the inaugural Akumal Arts Festival would happen during my residency because painting a mural wasn’t part of my fellowship proposal. So much for plans. About the time that my oscilloscope died, after two intense weeks of studying birds and building circuits in the shady jungle (like a pasty, hunchbacked golem), a friend drove me to Akumal to see the first mural in progress. It was a sunny day and the athletic, tan, happy street artist was covered in sweat, bright colors, and grime. The impression hit me like a ton of bricks: this artist is having way more fun than I am. Painting a street mural seemed like the perfect way to balance out my endless hours of cerebral circuit bending. Plus, what an opportunity for me to make a difference in the landscape of Akumal pueblo —a dirty, unattractive town at the time of my arrival in mid-October. And so it happened: I befriended an Akumal resident who offered to assist me, selected a wall (actually two walls that join in a corner), quickly sketched a design, ordered house paint, and put myself to the task of creating my first-ever work of street art, “Dos Dioses de la Electricidad.” The next five days were filthy and exhausting to an extreme, especially given my lack of physical fitness and reconstructive hip surgery two months prior, and painting on a ladder in tropical heat is not trivial. But —wow— what an incredible experience to work in the streets, meet curious strangers, talk to the police, witness someone be put in jail, hear a noisy Mexican town, and explain the meaning of my art in a foreign language. More than anything, truly beyond what I can put into words, I was blown away by the utter transformation that took place in Akumal. More than 80 artists came from all over the world to paint the town, and the energy rose in a palpable crescendo. Cinderblock buildings, an empty square, and trash-filled streets were transformed into an outdoor art exhibition with clean sidewalks, a new playground, and the beginnings of a proper Zócalo. At the closing ceremony —scented with sacred copal, high on sugary churros, and drunk on a feeling of civic love— we were all laughing and crying and gasping in disbelief at our good fortune to be part of an experience so uncommonly beautiful. I am convinced of the power of art to change lives because I’ve seen it happen beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Above, left to right: corner of the Akumal Delegacion Building as I first found it; a concrete pillar painted by my friend and helper, Patricia Delfin (Mayan long calendar date format for “November 9, 2018”); a dirty and triumphant me at the conclusion of the mural.

As far as I can tell, Mexico is a place where things don’t usually go according to plan. “Expect the unexpected” should be the country’s motto —and I say this with the greatest admiration— for while Mexico’s surprises were initially frightening or aggravating to me, I came to accept the steady drip of unexpected events as medicine for my generalized anxiety disorder —more therapeutic than any treatment I’ve encountered in my decades-long journey through the western medical system. Living in Mexico forced me to find freedom and humor in my loss of control, an enduring lesson that far outweighs whatever discomfort I may have experienced in the short-term. I’m not saying that it’s easy for me to flow with my environment. I’m saying that resisting a strong current feels worse, and flowing offers the added benefit of inner peace. Apparently some visitors won’t let go of their desire for control and become chronically pissed off (I met several expats in this toxic state), but we won’t go there except to say that hating reality is futile. One must accept reality or work for change. Where struggle is concerned, I like the wisdom that Don Juan imparts to Carlos Castenda in “A Separate Reality,”

The spirit of a warrior is not geared to indulging and complaining, nor is it geared to winning or losing. The spirit of a warrior is geared only to struggle, and every struggle is a warrior’s last battle on earth. Thus the outcome matters very little to him. In his last battle on earth a warrior lets his spirit flow free and clear. And as he wages his battle, knowing that his intent is impeccable, a warrior laughs and laughs.

To be sure, Mexico is not an easy place to live and work and sometimes it’s downright harsh —hardly a laughing matter. But in my recent experience, most Mexican nuisances were harmless: enormous tarantulas crawling peacefully through in my dormitory in the evening, to disappear by next morning; a voracious combination of humidity and voltage spikes that ate away my soldering iron, leaving me to weld with a tip as blunt as my index finger; and the giant pile of sand in front of the police station, with no obvious owner or purpose, which tripped me repeatedly during the week that I painted my Akumal mural (despite polite requests for removal), and was suddenly shoveled away by an incarcerated drunk the day after I finished work. And then there was the negative energy oozing through the wall opposite the jail cell which caused half of my mural to peel until I performed an impromptu healing ceremony that stopped the peeling but gave me a roaring head cold. (I followed the advice of a local healer and tried to expel my flu with a temezcal ceremony, but suffered a panic attack and was compelled to crawl over the bodies of multiple acquaintances on my premature exit from the sweat lodge.) To ensure that I wouldn’t lose my temper over daily challenges, I was fortified each night with cold showers, scorpions in my sink, and friendly but dutiful guard dogs who barked at 3am, or 5am, and maybe both times and then some. Barking dogs were mitigated with ear plugs, but waking to thousands of ants migrating across my room, bed, and body —that required a new level of personal zen.

Some triggers of fear in Mexico (above left to right): large hand-sized tarantula near the entrance to Tortuga Escondida; the Akumal jail cell; an entrance to Xibalba; the tree of life deep inside Balankanche cave near Chichen Itza

Surprises are not always hard to stomach. Oftentimes, Mexico is downright magical in the happiest sense of the word. I achieved fascinating results in my jungle-improvised electronics studio, and I even witnessed multiple species of birds singing in response to my chirping circuits. I gave my first electronics class in Spanish and had the distinct impression that I changed a man’s life. I made several life-long friends in less time than I spent maintaining distant, unsatisfying contact through social media. I managed to paint a large portion of my first street mural using a cheap roller that fell into the dirt repeatedly (i.e., once or twice a minute). I witnessed strangers open their hearts and give freely in a multi-cultural exchange that overcame grudges, judgement, and hierarchy. I used a paper map to navigate poetic roads across remote areas of the Yucatán peninsula. I met people who unabashedly believe in the existence of spirits, and I participated in five Mayan ceremonies. I climbed ancient pyramids and wondered why great civilizations were abandoned at least five hundred years before the Spanish arrived. I saw Morpho butterflies, Motmot birds, Tucans, Chacalacas, Flamingos, Howler monkeys, and giant Iguanas. I swam with sea turtles, heard strange owls, watched millions of bats fly in a vortex, and felt the presence of a jaguar. I stayed up all night in the jungle, sang a mixture of Mayan prayers, Christmas carols, and southern spirituals, confronted my fears in multiple sweat lodges, and descended into Xibalba four times. I left with the distinct impression that hardship is not something to be avoided, but embraced as a practice of spiritual growth, perhaps as the only way to cultivate openness to the truly good stuff in life —the stuff that money and convenience simply cannot buy.

Below are a few of my photographic impressions, although most of the magic I witnessed could not be easily captured. I will have to create works of art for that which words and cameras could not record.

Thank you again to everyone who made this amazing experience possible! Yum bo’otik.

Dos dioses de la electricidad by kelly heaton

“Dos Dioses de la Electricidad,” 2018. Mural in Akumal, Mexico as part of the 2018 Akumal Arts Festival and Residency.

This weekend marks the inaugural Akumal Arts Festival (11/9-11) and the energy here is just incredible. 80+ muralists have traveled from all over the world to paint the pueblo. With such excitement all around, there was no way that I could hide in my electronics studio… and so I have joined the merriment and painted my very first outdoor mural (!) on Akumal’s Delegacion building, aka the police station. I witnessed two people be temporarily incarcerated while I was painting (for public drunkenness)… washing my brushes next to them was a socially awkward and lifetime memory for sure.

My mural spans two walls joined by a corner, so I painted the two gods of electricity in dialogue: K’awiil, the Mayan God of lightning and a modern God of electricity. In front of the murals there is a concrete pillar for electricity, so we are painting the date there in Mayan Long Calendar format (Nov 9 2018). A colleague was kind enough to translate my first name into Mayan, so I signed the K’awiil side with my hieroglyphic “Ix-Ke-li-i,” where the “Ix” is pronounced “ish” and indicates that I am female. Note that the blue and green border beneath the Gods is perforated with cenotes, the holes in the earth that grant access to the world's largest river (entirely underground and spanning hundreds of miles across the Yucatan peninsula).

The pile of sand in front of my mural has been there since the very beginning — I didn’t put it there and while many promises of removal were made, it remains. I think it was placed there to be my petty tyrant for the duration of mural painting and I’ve come to quite like it in a weird sort of way. Either that, or painting for days next to a jail cell in the Mexican heat has made me a little bit crazy ;-)

More bird experiments by kelly heaton


I continue to explore circuits for bird song creation. I'm working my way through various schematics found on the Internet, testing them to hear how different parts and configurations sound. So far, most of the bird circuits I've built fall into the "chirping canary" or "depressive parrot" categories. Just prior to this log, I discovered another schematic to try -- and it's accompanied by a really helpful video by Mario Burriel Valencia aka @DJ Mystic

@DJ Mystic confirms what I have long suspected -- it's not only the shape of a waveform (sine, square, triangle, sawtooth, etc), or the component type (resistor, capacitor, transistor, etc), but the *specific make* of a component that can affect pitch, timbre, and loudness. This is especially true for transistors, and I have also seen variation in capacitors. ...Yes... I have read blogs by audiophiles discussing the pros and cons of specific parts for hi-fi equipment, but I didn't fully appreciate the importance of component specificity in low-cost sound generation. For some reason I assumed that since I work with cheap parts, the make wasn't that important. For example, I have thus-far thrown 2N3904 transistors at every problem they will solve. Now I realize the power of expanding my palette. Fortunately, I've got a friend coming down from the US and she's willing to bring a bag of electronics with her... so stay tuned for that excitement.

As for progress in the past few days, I bit the bullet and breadboarded a circuit with op amps. My attitude may seem weird considering that most synthesizer enthusiasts live and breathe op amps... but the dual power supply annoys me (and I've never gotten interesting effects with single supply op amps). Fortunately, some years ago, Bernie Hutchins gave me a useful schematic to convert voltage from a DC supply into a negative voltage of almost (not quite) the same magnitude. So if you have a 12 volt supply, you can produce negative 9-10 volts using a 555 timer and a handful of components. Please see my project files on for this handy "Negative supply" circuit, or read about it on Electronotes.

The bird circuit that I built with op amps is described as "two canaries singing in a cage." You can find the schematic here:

I substituted a bunch of LM741s for the LM324s because I don't like building in tight quarters. You can see the resulting circuit in this video, where the "two canaries" are in the breadboard in the foreground (a previously built "transformer canary" is in the background):

I added some photocell resistors plus a few wires that you'll see me moving around (poor man's patch synth) to get variation in the circuit's behavior. It's pretty interesting, but maybe not worth the effort because there's a fair amount of complexity for sound effects that can be achieved with fewer parts. Still, I might make one of my electronic painting / sound studies with it because I like the aesthetic of crazy-complicated circuits.

Last but not least, here's a short video of a different bird circuit (the transformer one discussed in my previous log and shown in the background of the "two canary" video). I tested various capacitors and it's pretty cool the realistic bird sounds that you can achieve with such a simple component swap.

Still lots of work to be done.

New bird in town by kelly heaton

I've temporarily relocated the physical form of Hacking Nature's Musicians to the other-worldly environment of Tortuga Escondida (near Akumal, Mexico) for a one-month fellowship on los musicos de la selva. Thankfully, my supplies made it through airport security and there's air conditioning to protect my electronic equipment against jungle humidity. Here's a photo of my bench showing a view of the jungle canopy and stairs to a roof deck with an amazing panorama over the electrically-charged ecosystem. (Giant scorpions occasionally grace my window screens but I have spared you that visual discomfort.)

My electronics bench at Tortuga Escondida near Akumal, Mexico. October, 2018

A few observations before I jump into the main content of this log: (1) Tortuga Escondida seriously resembles a research facility from the TV series Lost, so if I disappear you know what happened to me; and (2) the insects here are at least twice the size of their Virginian counterparts. Check out this insane Katydid!

Amazing giant Katydid in the jungle around Tortuga Escondida (greater Akumal, Mexico). October, 2018

Amazing as the insects are, I'm not studying musical bugs because what's most remarkable to me --coming here from Virginia-- are the myriad species of birds. I've decided to see what I can do with the analog electrical engineering of bird song. 

As a starting point, I built a version of the classic, "chirping canary" used in kitschy artificial nature scenes. Check out my files on for an annotated version of this schematic, which is based on audio transformer oscillation. Basically, the surge in DC power that happens when you first turn the circuit on is capacitively coupled across the transformer and continues to fluctuate thanks to a transistor switch. If you change (or remove) certain capacitor values, the circuit stops oscillating and makes an unpleasant tone that can be very loud due to the current gain across the transformer.

I've made a first informal video showing how the sound changes when different parts of the circuit are modified (apologies in advanced for some unpleasant beeps - don't wear headphones).

Next, I built a few astable multivibrators and connected them to various aspects of the sound-generating circuit in order to make the chirp sound more like a bird song. Some of my tests are documented in a second video that you can watch on Vimeo.

Watch the green LEDs (and follow the white wires) to get a sense for what the astable multivibrators are doing. 

Birds are very clever singer-songwriters, so it's going to take a lot more work on tempo and pitch variation to get interesting songs. I plan to try numerous strategies to generate voice quality because I want to build a jungle of different bird circuits ranging from sparrows to whippoorwills to parrots to owls to a Resplendent Quetzal, relative of the legendary Mayan Plumed Serpent. If you have suggestions for circuits to try, I would be grateful.

So... not only do my bird electronics need work, I could use a new "avian speaker" design. It seems that piezo buzzers are better suited to insects, while 8 ohm speakers have higher bird fidelity. Initially, this observation puzzled me (and I'm still not clear) but I got some useful clues from the ingenious musician, Nicolas Bras. It's material physics: the thin, metal vibrations of a piezo disk have more in common with the chitin instrumentation of an invertebrate than the fleshy air bladder and vocal chords of a squawking bird. Some insects do force air through a membrane, like living kazoos, but crickets rely heavily on the idiophonic effects of leg or wing rubbing. The sound made by an idiophone is quite different than that of an aerophone or membranophone, like hitting a cymbal versus blowing through a reed, the latter of which happens when a bird forces air through its vocal cords. I searched the web for homemade instruments that behave like an aerophone with a membrane and found this cool "membranophone" video by tachionics. 

As I did with my "insect-like" piezo, I'd like to build an electronically actuated speaker that has material properties more in common with a bird. I've got various 8 ohm speakers that are working for now, but I suspect that there's a better design to be made -- or at least some cool insights to discover in the process of trying. Again, your suggestions are greatly appreciated!

Stay tuned.

This tarantula was found dead, but I couldn’t resist photographing its exquisite corpse. Impressive creature!

+ Electrolier Virginia + packing for Mexico by kelly heaton

It’s been a marathon recently… just finished “Electrolier (September night in Virginia),” submitted by files for the 2018 Hackaday Prize, and now I’m packing for Mexico. Stay tuned for updates from the jungle of Quintana Roo!

Electrolier (September night in Virginia) by kelly heaton

I've been working around the clock to finish my Hackaday Prize application and pack for Hacking Nature's Musicians in Mexico. As closure for my recent chapter, the various circuits that I've shown you over the past few weeks have migrated from my bench and into a sculpture titled "Electrolier (September night in Virginia)," 2018. Here is an informal video:

The video quality isn't great... (shot with my iPhone under bad lighting and extremely messy studio)... but hopefully you get the idea. The sculpture contains one instance of my Mother Nature board design, recognizable by the dense tangle of white wires connecting logic gates, and six sound generating "animal circuits" each with its own speaker. The colorful graphics are spray painted cardboard, and everything is hung on a tree structure under a moon (globe pendant bulb). Oh, and that large moth is made out of silk velvet that I dyed and embroidered with an old industrial "Ultramatic" machine. I would have used small molex-style connectors to connect everything, but there was no time.

It's interesting that so many long wires didn't screw up my signals. I credit this to my use of common emitter amplifiers to buffer the signals, and the fact that I'm not drawing much current for anything you see (or hear). The whole sculpture is powered with a 12VDC / 1.5 amp power supply. I also used multiple 0.1 uF ceramic capacitors between power and ground on most of the individual perfboards. It's critical to remember power-ground capacitors when you're dealing with a lot of amplified signals banging on your power rails. I'm careful to avoid really small gauge wire, and I add many pathways to ground ("let ground abound.")

So... now I am packing my electronics bench into a suitcase and praying that security does not detain me at the airport. I'm throwing in packets of desiccant and crossing my fingers that jungle humidity doesn't zap everything. Making analog electronic circuits in the jungle will be interesting to say the least -- stay tuned for the sounds of los músicos de la naturaleza en Quintana Roo!