Finding hope in localized environmental action

Hannah Mae Henry is a self-taught filmmaker and storyteller working as a conservation educator at A Rocha Brooksdale Environmental Centre in British Columbia. She enjoys weaving together stories of wild creatures, Canadian landscapes, and the human experience through the medium of film. Through advocacy and artistry, she works to cultivate a love for the natural world, care for people and places, and hope for our earth. 

What’s a day in the life of a conservation filmmaker like?

Conservation filmmaking starts with an awareness of place and a love of place. So knowing my place is going for walks, and chatting with the different teams at A Rocha about the projects they’re working on, whether it’s a conservation survey or a harvest day on the farm. We often think of conservation as going and planting a tree, but it’s also teaching others how to care for their place and pay attention to the ecosystem around them. And then as for the filmmaking part of it, that looks like having conversations with people and being open to receiving what stories are out there.

I picture your studio being anywhere—like a swamp. Where was the weirdest place you filmed in?

It’s exactly like you say—your studio is nature. It’s all around you. I’ve been able to go on some pretty cool excursions and surveys, like putting fish traps at the bottom of a river and then holding the fish trap in one hand and with the other, trying to get my camera out so then I can take a picture or a video. I’ve also gotten to do some underwater film work and some drone work.

Environmental action can seem daunting and huge, yet in my reading I see you emphasize beautifully telling stories that inspire others. Sometimes, can it start as simply as prompting others to care more deeply about the places, animals, and people around them? 

Definitely. When you think of the world’s problems, when you think of earthkeeping, the food system, or social justice—people are suffering all over the place all the time. That’s really hard to hold. And so, yes, one thing is to just pay attention to your place. It brings the scope down in a way that allows you to care about the things around you and do something. Because we can’t save the world. But if you’re paying attention to the issues and problems that are in your place and the ways that you can participate in solutions—that is really special.

[When it comes to environmental action] there’s a lot of noise out there telling you what the right thing to do is. My question is always, Well, what things are actually going on in my backyard? If my river is being polluted by the company up the street, maybe that’s where I put my attention.

Most of us can live lives very disconnected from the earthy reality of the land we live on. Is this something you’ve experienced? What are some things that keep you rooted in the place you live? 

I think most of the systems around us disconnect us from each other and from place—I think of phones, cars, the way cities sprawl.

One of the easiest ways to become “placed” is to actually know and name the things around you—learning the names of plants and animals you’re sharing space with.

When I can go outside and walk down a path and look up at the Douglas fir or the redwood around me, or name the fish I see swimming in the stream, that makes my place knowable. And therefore connects me to it.

I would also say things like buying locally rather than going to a big chain store where you can just get everything and pay anonymously at the self-serve checkout. Maybe I go get my bread from the baker and my veggies from the market on a Saturday. And I have a human interaction with the people who are growing those goods, selling those goods, baking, making those goods.

A Rocha Canada supports creation care through conservation, environmental education, and sustainable agriculture. Could you share a bit about this work?  

A Rocha does three main things: conservation, education, and farming. The conservation team works to restore ecosystems—monitoring species at risk or taking out invasive species, putting in native plants, and gathering information about things like water quality.

And then in terms of education, A Rocha brings in people—kids all the way to senior citizens—to teach them how to love the earth and care for it.

When it comes to farming, we grow using organic methods—just like every veggie you can think of. I think last year they donated 5,000 pounds worth of produce to [newcomers, refugees, and food banks].

The thread that weaves through all the things A Rocha does is relationship and community. That manifests itself in community rhythms of sharing meals around the table, cooking together, harvesting together, and everybody sharing communal needs.

Why is a hopeful outlook so important when it comes to environmental action? What do you personally find hopeful? 

Last Christmas, I was feeling pretty dejected and overwhelmed by all the sadness, suffering, and injustice in the world. And I started asking people, What do you do to stay joyful in a world of sorrows, in a world of wounds?

One of the most helpful answers was while I was walking over a bridge with my friend Laura. We were watching the ducks feeding on the bottom of the stream. She said, “Sometimes you just have to look out over the water and delight in duck butts.” It was a silly thing at the time, but I had this profound realization that nature is just nature, and it does its nature thing. And it’s beautiful to remember there’s goodness in that.

When the earth was created, our Creator loved it into being and created the material world with goodness and beauty. And the most that we can do for the things around us is to create space for others to flourish—in the same way that our Creator created space for us. And when we’re doing that, we’re honouring the creation. And so, for me to just delight in a duck being its ducky self is a good thing and a hopeful thing.

The beauty (unnecessary, lavish) of the natural world is one of its most striking features, and your job is to notice and document that beauty. How has that attention to creation informed your faith and your understanding of God?

There’s no reason it should be so beautiful or that it should taste so good. And yet our God has given us these gifts simply to delight in. This definitely informed my understanding of faith and God, because it paints a picture of a God who cares about our delight, who cares about creating a space for us that is enjoyable.

He wants everything to flourish in the way it’s been made to flourish. When I think about how to live well in the world, I think ultimately I want to be a loving, good presence as much as I can be and act in ways that support that. And so when I think about the material world being beautifully designed by a loving Creator, it makes me want to care about it. It informs the way I live my life and the choices I make. So really, it comes down to creation care as a human vocation in the sense I want to love the creatures, land, and people around me in the same way God loved them into being when He created them.

Here’s a big closing question. Conversations around environmental action are often heavily politicized and divisive. How can we begin bridging those divisions to form solutions instead of talking over one another? Can storytelling help? 

I think breaking those divisions is crucial. If we are loving people, then we are people who seek understanding. There’s a poet, Pádraig Ó Tuama, who talks about seeking understanding and how that is actually the route to deeper knowing and care of one another. To ask questions and actually seek understanding and perspective and be open and hold space for the other. And that’s really important in these polarizing conversations. I’m just one person, and this is my take on things. But what is your take? And let me learn from you and you learn from me.

And I think storytelling is part of that. Hearing your story, hearing my story, hearing the story of a land that is troubled—it’s only by knowing the stories and the names and the real people and plants and animals that we can care about them and carry those into conversations that are productive. Storytelling is a humble but powerful way to transform perspectives and bridge the gaps between people who don’t understand each other.