by Caitlin Zera                                                                     March 15, 2016

“Far Afield: A Conservation Love Story” is a charming character study of conservationist Bert Raynes whose wit and passion fostered a community’s love for citizen science. 

Far Afield: A Conservation Love Story

Directed by Jennifer Tennican @JenTen_JH

Runtime: 35 minutes, 2015

“Far Afield” is full of funny moments, a quality many may feel is lost on environmental documentaries. Our lead subject, conservationist Bert Raynes, is a spunky 91-year-old whose incredible depth of knowledge about the native habitat of his home Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is complemented by his audacity and cleverness. Bert’s humorous nature columns for the local paper Jackson Hole News & Guide – which he still writes by hand and faxes into paper’s newsroom – carry headlines like “Ravens and romance: It’s time to get it on and Birds best humans in chorus line behavior” to prove that nature writing is anything but boring.

“Far Afield” is billed as a “conservation love story” because it parallels Bert’s romance with his late wife, Meg and their shared love for the Jackson Hole bioregion, which prompted their extensive conservation efforts there. Meg, who introduced Bert to many of the conservation causes he became so passionate about, is unfortunately not a focus of the film. As explained by the director in a post-film Q&A, Meg’s passing was still a difficult subject for Bert to approach  during the time of filming. The glimpses into their relationship offered in the film are enough to drive home the point that Meg was – and still is – an integral part of the story. One can tell that Bert carries Meg’s legacy with him everyday, though audiences are sure to be left wanting more of the story about her and their relationship.

The film chronicles the history of Bert’s involvement in conservation efforts in Jackson Hole in addition to his nature publications. His efforts included habitat restoration around the region and leading birding expeditions to track the region’s bird populations. Eventually he focused his efforts on funding research through the establishment of the Meg and Bert Raynes Wildlife Fund and became even more active in advocating for a long-term citizen science project to track wildlife in the region. The project, Nature Mapping and the public outreach about the data collected, is truly visionary. This is arguably the most endearing part of the film – we get to see new generations of residents, students, and even a few visitors getting out in the field to collect wildlife data. We see how the science of data collection has been made accessible through trainings and workshops, and we hear from participants who give spirited testimonials about why they believe this work is critical.

And it’s true: this work is critical. To sustain data collection about wildlife populations in a region over a long period of time reveals important changes in the environment that cannot possibly be detected in a period of only a couple months or years. Engaging residents as citizen scientists not only helps them to become more connected and appreciative of their bioregion, it also increases the amount of data available to study.

At time when many people feel disconnected from nature and wildlife, citizen science projects like Nature Mapping, provide a meaningful way to foster environmental stewardship and awareness. At time when it seems like environmental heroism must focus on sobering realities, champions like Bert Raynes remind us that we can’t forget to find beauty and humor in our environments – and also a little faith in our citizens.