Anglers Driving Change: Rene Henery – Trout Unlimited

Presented by BUFF

In this series, Flylords had the chance to partner with BUFF to highlight some outstanding members of the fly-angling community who are taking action to drive change in their communities and the world. Through the lens of struggle, perseverance, and a passion for bettering the world; we aim to share the stories of these anglers and their corresponding organizations to inspire future generations.

From deep behind the battle lines of conservation Dr. Rene Henery invites us to consider what it is that divides us and how we can come together; Rene’s work to rediscover our “belonging” recasts both the challenge and the opportunity of conservation as primarily one of personal healing and reconciliation among people. Here, we had a chance to sit down with Rene to walk us through how, alongside Trout Unlimited, he aims to drive change.


FL: Who is Rene Henery? What is your background (education, area grown up in)

Rene: I was born in San Francisco, the son of a Guyanese father of African, South American, European, and Chinese ancestry (that I know of), and an American mother of western and eastern European ancestry. For the last almost 20 years Mount Shasta, CA. has been my home.  My undergraduate education was in African American and Colonial literature and art.  My Ph.D. is in Eco-geography with a focus on the opportunities for salmon conservation in the mending of connections on the landscape and in ecosystems.

FL: What work do you do alongside TU?

My work with TU weaves together science, policy, relationship building, facilitation, equity and an orientation towards care to move from oppositional politics and transactional collaboration to belonging-oriented reconnection, healing, and tending of ourselves and the landscapes and life systems of which we are a part.  In that spirit, I work extensively in the Sierra Nevadas and Cascades on the restoration of mountain meadows and streams, in California’s Central Valley on the science and policy of river and floodplain reconnection, and in the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary on the reconciliation and integration of environmental and human water use and management.

FL: As an angler, and more importantly a steward and active participant in outdoor endeavors; what first drew you to the outdoors? Where is your foundation rooted?

During the years of his life in which I knew him, my grandfather, a Unitarian Minister, and Nature writer always lived close to nature in remote places, splitting his time between the high desert of central Arizona and the Brooks Range in Alaska.  Spending time with him was one of the great pleasures of my childhood. My mother and father each, also, in their own ways, imbued a love and reverence for nature in me.  My mother first put a fishing pole in my hands; my grandfather taught me to fish.

FL: When did fly-fishing come into your life, and why was it important?

At age 11 a dear friend’s family who were affiliated with the Sierra Club began bringing me with them on their summer backpacking and fly-fishing trips in the high Sierra’s.  Wanting me to feel comfortable among the group, my father brought me down to the local fly shop and they outfitted me with a rod, reel, selection of tippet, and tiny box of hand tied flies. I caught my first fish on a fly that summer – a California Golden Trout in the upper reaches of King’s Canyon – on that little four-piece Sage backpacking rod. I still fish with it to this day.

FL: Tell us a little bit about your career before your current role. What caused you to pursue that career path? What caused you to leave?

Prior to graduate school I worked for in the early stages of its existence and the evolution of the internet. I landed there because working for a bookstore felt close to my roots in literature and, having been isolated in private academic spaces, I wanted to learn about the culture of commerce.  When I left Amazon, (which by that point had grown and changed in ways I never envisioned) I felt conflicted about the mechanism for consumption it was becoming and my role in its trajectory.  In response, I resolved to dedicate my life to service. I wrote an email (Subject: “My Tenebrous Future”) to all of the people close to me (family, friends, professors, mentors) and asked what they thought the biggest issues/ challenges on the planet were, what they would focus on to make change around them, and what I should read in order to get my head around those topics.

I received an amazing suite of responses from which I drew guidance and crafted a reading list. I spent a year and a half working through their thoughts and recommendations.  By the end I concluded that water is the most important thing for life on earth and that it is in need of greater protection and care; that in order to contribute to a system, to make change within a system, I need to be part of that system; that information and education are less corrupting pathways to change than money and power; and that in my home, the western pacific region of North America, the condition of Salmon is an expression of and perhaps the most effective indicator of the related conditions of water and people.

FL: How do you feel the activity of fly-fishing allows you to express yourself? What’s the draw to fly-fishing?

Fly fishing is part of my practice for nurturing and deepening my connection with the whole… my belonging orientation.

FL: What is it about steelhead fishing that drives you? What’s the appeal to YOU?

Steelhead are among the most potent animal archetypes in my personal cosmology.  They remind me that all parts shape the system just as the system is shaping the parts; they are fed by and feed the systems they occupy, they are both the building blocks (as ocean nitrogen-bearing vectors that make their way into the mountains and make them fertile) and the expressions (shaped over millions of years by the dynamism diversity of the landscapes they navigate) of the life systems to which they belong.

They also remind me that my experience of tension or conflict with different parts in the system does not mean I am not connected with those parts, that we don’t belong, or that we could survive without one another; the same river currents that thwart and challenges adult steelhead during their upstream migration bear their young to the ocean.

Steelhead are also my favorite pacific salmon to eat, and in eating them I am reminded that all of the vast land and water-based ecosystems around the globe they travel through and are nourished by are also nourishing me, are part of me.

FL: If you had to label it, what kind of change do you most commonly aim to drive? 

My work is the change that occurs at the individual level through healing, through the expansion of expression, through myself and other human beings being less constrained by our wounds and our fears, and realizing our most whole selves.  At the interpersonal level, it is the change of reconnection and reconciliation, of the repair and deepening of relationships, of cultivating love and trust, embracing difference, and recovering belonging. At the systemic level, it is the cultivation of resilience and coherence and the change expressed in a system whose parts and networks are healthy and functional.  It is not work that seeks a particular end but instead seeks to create space, capacity, presence and possibility, by catalyzing, nurturing, and embodying.

FL: What fuels your desire to create change?

Rene and Chuck admiring a beautiful specimen of a Steelhead.

It comes from a place of care.  I am a sensitive being. When I, or other living things, are in pain and suffering it affects me.  I recognize wounds and want to tend to them. It’s primarily (though not entirely) instinctual at this point in my life; the same instinct that would compel me to aid a child who has fallen and broken their arm compels me to tend to someone who has been wounded by the trauma of oppression, or someone who is experiencing isolation and disconnection from family, community, or nature. That same instinct also compels me to tend to those things most core to our capacity to heal and to be healthy.  Water is essential for life; it makes up most of our bodies; its condition affects all living things. By tending to water I seek to be of service to all life.

FL: What is an initiative you’ve taken, alongside TU, recently that you’re really proud of?

For the last two years, I have been working with a (growing) group of other TU staff, board, and grassroots members on cultivating a more equitable and inclusive organizational culture within TU.  I believe the condition of my internal world (physical, mental, emotional) also defines the seeds I sew in the world around me.  Similarly, I see TU’s capacity to affect positive change in the world as an expression of our internal organizational condition. TU is an organization that is rooted in certain types of diversity, with a vast membership that falls equally on both “sides” of the political fence for example.  That inherent diversity and the inclination to work across differences towards a shared vision is one of the things that initially drew me to work with TU.  Supporting the organization continuing to diversify in other ways, to become more inclusive, and to heal and grow so that we might be of even greater service to the world around us has been one of the most compelling initiatives of my life to date.

FL: For someone who feels they’re falling out of touch with the environment, or just wants to do a better job in getting involved with conservation – what advice would you give them? 

For someone who is feeling out of touch with nature or “the environment” my counsel would be that they spend some time (as much time as possible really) in a lush forest, a wild river, a sun etched desert, a windswept mountain range… I find nature itself to be the best medicine for many things, and especially for disconnection.  I might also, humbly, offer the perspective that they (we all) are nature and so are never truly disconnected from it, it only feels that way at times.  So often, when I feel disconnected from nature, what I am really feeling is disconnection from myself, my needs, my sense of inherent self-worth, my self-love, my belonging…

FL: What’s next on the docket for you? Any exciting projects coming up?

I am part of a team-leading a new effort in CA in which NGOs and water users in the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary, many of whom have historically been on opposite sides of contentious political and legal battles are coming together, along with state and federal agencies and other stakeholders from across California’s Central Valley, to co-create a shared understanding of what Salmon recovery looks like, explore our own and each other’s values, and advance a suite of actions that recover salmon in an equitable way, honoring and balancing the range of values and interests in the state. The project is just in its infancy, but independent of where it ends, the feeling of working together and cultivating a non-transactional more equitable, and inclusive experience of collaboration has already been profound and inspiring.

We would like to greatly thank Dr. Henery for sharing his story and perspective with us. We would also like to thank Chuck Volckhausen of Wild Waters Fly Fishing, who played a large role in helping us capture Rene’s story.  For more information on getting involved with TU, and to learn more about Rene’s Story CLICK HERE.

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