A way with words

Jane Gilbert (Photo by Brianna Roye)

Jane Gilbert (Photo by Brianna Roye)

While chasing stories across the country as a broadcast journalist, Jane Gilbert would watch from her airplane window as Canada unfurled below her like a patchwork quilt. She was awed by the colours, the tufts of forests abutting farm fields, the seams of dark blue rivers and grey roads stitching together each section.

But shortly into her role as the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) chief storyteller, she was struck by a new and sobering thought: “I realized that’s what fragmentation looks like. In between those places below me, the species couldn’t communicate anymore.” She saw the need to bring those places and their stories back together. Since 2008, Gilbert has worked to connect NCC supporters, partners and the public with the stories of those natural places.

Along the way, she has shifted NCC’s own narrative from one of earnestly thinking the need for conservation might one day diminish, to one of urgency and ambition, centring each story around the people who make nature conservation possible. And now, as she prepares to leave NCC for what she calls “rewirement,” Gilbert reflects on the challenge of turning the intimidating story of nature loss into one of hope and possibility.

“It struck me that if people can’t see themselves in the picture, they can’t see the opportunity to be part of the solution,” Gilbert says of her early days with NCC.

“The key to it all is the hero. If you don’t have a hero in the story, you don’t have a story.” Flip through the chapters of NCC’s own tale and you will find a swelling cast of characters today.

“We have 500,000-plus heroes who work with us now,” she says, referring to NCC’s supporters. “And more joining every day. That’s in addition to our amazing staff.”

Jane Gilbert (Photo de Brianna Roye)

Jane Gilbert (Photo de Brianna Roye)

It struck me that if people can’t see themselves in the picture, they can’t see the opportunity to be part of the solution. The key to it all is the hero. If you don’t have a hero, you don’t have a story.

The bear tracks stamped into the mud of a trail, the muscle aches felt after a day of clearing invasive garlic mustard from a forest — “to our staff in the field, it is part of the everyday. To us [our team of storytellers], it is phenomenal,” Gilbert says. “And when we know about it, we can celebrate it.”

That’s why Gilbert has spent 15 years repeating a trademark phrase, empowering NCC colleagues to find and sometimes even be) the heroes in their own stories: “Your ordinary is everyone else’s extraordinary.”

Gilbert’s own NCC life has been punctuated with trips to some of NCC’s most impressive vistas — the jagged coasts along the Atlantic, the aromatic sage-swept Prairies, the mountain tops in the Rockies. Closer to home, she has watched the power of nature unfold outside her office window each time a breeding pair of peregrine falcons (a conservation success story in their own right) raised their young outside her window.

But she knows few people will be able to experience those moments first-hand. So instead, Gilbert has seamlessly brought humans and nature together in NCC’s story, encouraging  everyone to see themselves as people who can make a difference — as heroes and as part of nature. NCC’s voice is stronger today as a result of her insight and guidance, which have shaped the stories we share, and the way we understand our connections to nature and  conservation. “It’s really easy, sitting in our concrete canyons and urban centres, to lose sight of that, but we’re here because the rivers and the wetlands on the outskirts of our communities are providing the clean water for us to drink, and the forests are storing carbon and helping cool the climate,” Gilbert says.

“Nature is us,” she says, be it the gardener she watches plant sunflowers on a balcony in the middle of Canada’s largest city or the volunteer pulling invasive plants at an NCC nature reserve. By centring human heroes in NCC’s story, Gilbert has helped stitch together the fates of humans and nature, trying to mend the disparate patchwork quilt of a landscape she saw 15 years ago.

This story originally appeared in the summer 2023 issue of the Nature Conservancy of Canada Magazine. To learn more about how you can receive the magazine, click here.

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