In the face of ecological disasters, art and science together can lead to hope and resilience.
“I CAUGHT THE DREAM OF THE ORCA,” Robin June Hood tells me in Demitasse Café during Fall’s first rainy period, “and it was so full in meaning that I knew something had been transmitted. I had to do something about it.”
Coming from a cultural geographer, a consultant for community-based research and development projects who holds a PhD in global education, this might sound like an odd thing to say. But Hood is anything but ordinary. She focuses her attention on protecting the natural world, but also on how the cycle of life and death make us the temporally-bound creatures we are. It’s this attention to deeper meanings—shaped by her learning, but also by her own experience—that makes her work so important today.
Born in Quebec but a longtime resident of BC, Hood took a degree in geography and then began an activist career in Guatemala, where she was sent by an international aid agency. She arrived ten days before a major earthquake, and instead of fleeing, she stayed, travelling back and forth from Vancouver to Guatemala for years while working in war zones and refugee camps, setting up schools and “listening to people.” The experience cemented her respect for indigenous knowledge, community-based learning and grassroots initiatives.
Two years ago, orca whales cried to her for help, Hood explains, a dream that occurred far before the recent and tragic events in the Salish Sea pod’s history. In August, a member of J Pod carried her dead baby for 17 days through the Salish Sea, capturing the world’s attention and bringing many to tears. In September, J-50, a four-year-old female in the pod died, bringing the population down to 74. All three pods—J, K and L—converged in a superpod off Race Rocks soon after she disappeared, some say to mourn her loss.
Hood and colleagues from Salt Spring Island set about creating and carving wooden orcas, one to represent each member of the pods. They have been shown and circulated in events in Vancouver, Victoria, and Salt Spring, acting as a visual reminder of the orcas’ plight and endangered status. In September they fund-raised for RAVEN Trust, an Indigenous legal defense fund that supports First Nations’ constitutional rights. “We do education around acoustic noise, traffic and salmon habitat,” she tells me. “It’s been a dream and a heart project” that has Hood dipping again into art as a method of informing and impacting citizens through grassroots efforts—a track she’s been on for nearly a half century. “Art keeps me hopeful,” she explains.
Hood put the knowledge she gained from Mayan communities to use after her return to Canada, consulting in education, community and international development, and teaching at Royal Roads University. For several years, she was director of the Community Based Research Institute at Vancouver Island University (before the university shut the program down). She has worked as a filmmaker, was part of the negotiation team for the creation of the Great Bear Rainforest, and has worked extensively with Indigenous peoples both here and in Latin America. “I tend to be a seeder,” she explains, “I like to get things started.” Hood’s doctorate work examined how to revitalize traditional ecological knowledge in Guatemala, a skill she has applied on the island with the Cowichan Nation. A book, For the Love of Nature: Solutions for Biodiversity, co-authored with writer and naturalist Briony Penn, appeared in 2010.
Until last year, Hood was involved with the Xwaaqw’um project in Burgoyne Bay on Salt Spring Island. Xwaaqw’um is a historic Cowichan settlement that existed in the bay’s provincial park. The resurgence project is now a cultural learning hub for First Nations and settlers. “It’s an amazing project, where elders have put together a series of workshops, like ‘Cowichan 101,’ which are open to settlers and indigenous,” she says. The program recently received funding from the Vancouver Foundation to take the model to five other First Nations communities in BC.
A year ago, Hood lost her husband, the social justice activist and The Land Conservancy director John Shields, to a rare blood disease. In 2015, they had survived a serious car accident only to learn he was terminally ill.
A traumatic life event can be a catalyst—for refocus or for introspection. Many turn inward, eschewing community and work to heal on their own. The unexpected loss catapulted Hood into a period of flux. “I realized I needed a couple of years to be quiet and think about next steps.” But though she downplays her achievements when we talk, Hood has continued to be a force for positive change, mostly on a volunteer basis. Part of that work has been acknowledging the importance of slowing down, recognizing our bonds with the Earth, learning how to age and die well, and realizing that grieving, in the age of the Anthropocene, is an essential act. “I think we’re in the middle of a big [ecological] collapse. So I’m holding at the same time the grief and upset of this time.”
Hood is a board member and facilitator for the Centre for Earth and Spirit, which offers workshops and programs on aging well, death and dying, community conversations and the importance of story-telling, and thus the importance of elder involvement in our society. “We are asking older people to step up, and to be mentors and create opportunities for younger people,” she says.
She does not shy away from taking a hard look at her community. “There are very few mature, nurturing, regenerative adults out there.” The solution, she argues, is acknowledging our lack of deep environmental awareness. “We are in an age of education for global survival. We need to make sure people have knowledge of the Earth.” This education, she argues, is also tied in with grieving. “It is our belief systems and our philosophy that we need to change and align with the Earth’s carrying capacity…When I look at the lurch to the right, globally, the last gasp of capitalism…” she trails off, she looks grief-stricken, but recovers quickly, saying, “If we settle into touching how we’re feeling, then we become more whole, more mature, balanced, and resilient.”
Resilience, for Hood, is about reconciliation—with nature, with First Nations, and with ourselves and our consumerist society. Hood is also a special advisor to the Greater Victoria Greenbelt Society, which has galvanized support across the region to save Mary Lake and its surrounding 67 acres of forest in the municipality of the Highlands. The Coastal Douglas-fir and related endangered ecosystems are increasingly imperiled by encroaching development in Langford (and recently, by a proposed gravel-mining operation in Highlands itself). The lake’s former residence, Highlands Nature House, will serve as a meeting space, artist-in-residence space, and environmental education facility.
It’s that kind of mixing of art and science that makes so much sense to Hood. “Art has been a deep underground river that I’ve dipped into a few times. Now the river is turning into a waterfall.” When art and conservation is combined with Indigenous knowledge, like the learning she’s facilitating at the Centre for Earth and Spirit, or that’s taking place through Cowichan’s Xwaaqw’um project, her work becomes a way of not “discounting our time of dreaming, which is another way of knowing.”
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star, 2012). She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.