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David Koetje is Professor of Biology at Calvin University. Dave has been featured as co-host in four previous episodes of the Reufgia Podcast.

To learn more about Dave’s Refugia Gardening project, you can visit his website here.

To participate in Dave’s gardening survey, part of his sabbatical project, visit this link.

In this episode, we refer to garden architect Piet Oudolf. You can visit his website here or view a trailer of the film about him, called Five Seasons.


Dave Koetje:  In the face of climate change and other ecological disturbances, you want to try to enhance biodiversity in your own yard. And as people do this, they can not only experiment to try to find combinations of biodiversity that can actually thrive under new climate conditions, but at the same time, you’re also trying to nurture your own soul, because, as so many people have reported, one way to have hope for the future is to plant gardens.

Debra Rienstra: Welcome to Refugia, a podcast about renewal. Refugia are places of shelter where life endures in times of crisis. From out of these small sanctuaries, life re-emerges and the world is renewed. We’re exploring what it means for people of faith to be people of refugia. How can we create safe spaces of flourishing—“micro-countercultures”—where we gain strength and spiritual capacity to face the challenges ahead? 

I’m Debra Rienstra, professor of English at Calvin University. Today I welcome back my colleague and friend, biologist Dave Koetje. Dave teaches in the biology department at Calvin University, and he has been a faithful supporter of the podcast from the very beginning. I’ve asked Dave to return today as my co-host and help me reflect on season three. 

We focus this season on refugia church and what it looks like to be people of refugia in faith communities. So I hope you’ll reflect along with us on what we’ve learned from our guests this season. 

Debra Rienstra: Hey Dave! Welcome back to the Refugia Podcast. It’s great to have you here today.

Dave Koetje: Hi Debra. Thanks for welcoming me back. It’s always good to talk with you about refugia, and my goodness, what a season this has been.

Debra Rienstra: I know. We’ve been through a lot already, and you’ve had a chance now to listen to the whole season. So what are some impressions? What are some larger themes that seem to be emerging for you?

Dave Koetje: Well, there’s a lot going on, and that’s very exciting, to begin with. And secondly, I’m really impressed with just how people take hold of this idea of refugia and then translate that into the work that they’re doing in these local places. And so you see a lot of common themes around ideas and projects and ministries that function as refugia, but at the same time, there’s all these little local nuances. Everybody’s doing it a little bit differently here and there, and I think, “Wow, that’s just perfect,” because that’s really what refugia are, right? They’re little pockets of localized adaptation and resilience. And, you know, there is no such thing as global refugium, so yeah, this is exciting.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So let’s think about some of the things that stuck out to you—maybe phrases or themes that especially are lingering with you as you look back on the season.

Dave Koetje: Yeah. I’m thinking of the whole thing about church as a refuge; think of, you know, Gerry Koning and the work that they’re doing at the Refuge Church. I think about Ruth Padilla-DeBorst and the community that she’s developing and working with in Central America. And the rituals—I was just imagining listening to her and just thinking about the ritual of gathering compost from people in that community every day and then bringing it to the compost pile, you know? Yeah. There’s ritual associated with this refugia, just as there’s rituals that we associate with our practice of worship and faith.

Debra Rienstra: No surprise that the compost thing stuck out to you, Dave. I think, you know, for me, some of the key phrases that stuck out were the idea of “communal vocation” from Jim Antal. That one’s really been lingering with me and this sense of almost generational purpose.

Dave Koetje: Mm-hmm.

Debra Rienstra: And the sense that the church has a generational purpose as a whole in this time—I find that exhilarating and challenging and a little frightening.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about is the idea of prophetic speech, which we talked about with May Boeve and Leah Schade, and May’s point that prophetic speech has to be coupled with community organizing and relationships, and I think Jim Antal and Ruth Padilla-DeBorst would agree with that too. So that’s another theme I’ve just been thinking about in a kind of unresolved way. And then for me, the idea of connection and hope coming through action—that action can come first and hope and community-building can follow. 

Dave Koetje: Those are good. I think also, Rabbi Shapiro and thinking about this planning for the future, and thinking more holistically about, “Okay, what is going on in this community and how is this community going to be affected by things like climate change?” And then how do we live into that in a way that anticipates future opportunities, even future disasters, and how we might respond to them.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. His experience in Arizona has made him think very practically about what it might mean to be a place of mitigation and adaptation as a faith community. And that, too, is very challenging.

As I think back over the season, I observe this tension between all the things that churches and faith communities are already doing, and then this really deep sense—I think you and I share this and all the guests share this too—this really deep sense of missed opportunities, the work that isn’t getting done, the resources that we have as people of faith that we’re just not using. So maybe we could talk about a few of those. 

Let’s start with community, like the people of faith as a place where community cohesion and networks happen. So what are you thinking about what our guests talked about in the context of community?

Dave Koetje: Two things. Our guests really talked a lot about ways that they are working to build community, and several of them also mentioned the ways that the church, and other faith communities as well, not just Christian communities, but other faith communities all over the world are experiencing division—

Debra Rienstra: Yeah.

Dave Koetje: —and strife. So therein lies, you know, sort of a history of the world right there.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah.

Dave Koetje: There’s so many exciting things that are going on with people working to build relationships with organizations that—they usually aren’t on the list, right? And so new kinds of relationships. That’s really exciting, because that, too, is an important part of what refugia are supposed to accomplish.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. I was impressed with the way Avery Davis Lamb and Karyn Bigelow from Creation Justice Ministries talked about all the connections among these groups—faith groups related to climate, but all kinds of other things, and this kind of network that’s happening. And that, too, is a kind of refugial phenomenon, right? That networking.

Dave Koetje: Oh, absolutely. 

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So that’s really cool. And I think they—Karyn Bigelow and Avery Davis Lamb and also Rabbi Shapiro—were really strong on the idea of faith groups blessing their communities. So not just being insular refugia, but actually becoming nodes or something, I don’t know. What’s the biology there, Dave?  

Dave Koetje: Node is a good word! 

Debra Rienstra: Yeah, that bless the whole ecosystem around them in terms of cultural and spiritual realities. And I thought that was really challenging, too.

Dave Koetje: Yeah, I think it’s challenging, but it’s also very refreshing because, let’s face it: when people think of the church or when they think of faith communities, getting involved in community kinds of projects, they typically are a little hesitant to embrace faith communities because they think, “Well, you folks have an alternative agenda here, and your ulterior motive is that you just want to bring people into your fold.” And you don’t get that sense from the guests that you’ve interviewed this particular season because they’re so involved in such genuine concern and care for people who aren’t part of the fold and might never be part of the fold. And they’re perfectly okay with that, you know? 

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. I’m thinking of Talitha Amadea Aho in her sense that church communities are never going to be the leaders in terms of climate action, but they have such a key role to play. And in fact, that theme of interfaith and community partners seems to me to have spread through the whole season, and that’s something to really listen to, I think, especially for Christian communities that are, as we both know so well, really divided now. 

I was very grateful for Leah Shade’s practical ways of dealing with division within Christian communities, partly for the sake of healing them, just to strengthen those communities, but also for the sake of healing inside the community enough so that they could become partners with people outside that community. And it seems like no growth, no healing is going to happen without that.

Dave Koetje: Yeah. I’m impressed at the different instances where people are really actively listening to people in the community, whether it’s young people like Talitha was talking about, or like Gerry’s talking about people who are typically ignored by the church because of differences in ability—because, you know, for some reason or other being kind of social outcasts, and for these folks to actually reach out and genuinely listen, and not just a one-off kind of a listen, but a deep kind of engagement with a long-range intentionality. That, too, is refugia.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. And that’s a capacity that I think we need to continue to try to build as faith communities. I’m impressed with Talitha and Sharon Delgado’s sense that faith communities, especially, you know, Christian communities, just because that’s our context, but Christian communities—providing that kind of spiritual care that people are so desperately in need of, including people in this sort of activist space who work so hard and face so many frustrations and really, you know, as Talitha was saying, don’t have that kind of built-in spiritual care infrastructure. But if churches can see themselves as places that can provide that even outside our own community, that could be a real gift.

Dave Koetje: Yes, absolutely. 

Debra Rienstra: What about some of these stories and rituals and theological resources that we treasure in the church that could be newly helpful or helpful in new ways as we face a warming planet and some of the stresses that go along with that? Were there any stories or rituals or theological themes that you thought, “Ah, I hadn’t thought about that before.”

Dave Koetje: Yeah. Crucifixion came through on a couple of the episodes, and especially thinking about how we tend to make it kind of a theoretical issue in our heads and it doesn’t have the real—what shall I say?—the real physical aspect of crucifixion. It’s an abstraction for us.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah, so Leah Schade and Sharon and Talitha all talked about the idea of seeing crucifixion and resurrection in the earth itself so that the work of Christ specifically sort of resonates through all of creation. I think we have kept atonement—and soteriology and Christology—all in that abstract realm instead of really seeing how Christ’s redemptive work is effective for all of creation. Good old Colossians one and Romans eight, we think about that, but have we allowed crucifixion and resurrection to resonate, as you say, in our material lives, not just our spiritual thinking?

Dave Koetje: Yeah. How do we embody that, right? How do we embody that within the places that we inhabit?

Debra Rienstra: Mm.

Dave Koetje: And I think that we want to avoid talking about things like crucifixion. We want to avoid talking about death, but we have to acknowledge, because so many people are feeling the pains of death and separation.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. 

Dave Koetje: And I think to be able to embody that and to live into that and to form places within our church properties, for example, where we can encounter death and really think about it and—we want to go right away to resurrection, which, okay. Yeah, spring is coming.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah.

Dave Koetje: But I think we do ourselves and we do the world a disfavor if we don’t also dwell in death for a bit and linger there for a while because the hurts don’t go away.

Debra Rienstra: Hmm. 

Dave Koetje: They just fester if we don’t do it.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. And the earth teaches us, I think, what we already know theologically, which is that death itself already contains life.

Dave Koetje: Exactly. 

Debra Rienstra: This is the story of the crucifixion and resurrection, that we go through this dying, and that dying is followed by the rising, and in fact, this is the redemptive will of God all along. And so I’ve been thinking about moths and how they over winter little insects and bugs and larvae in the leaf litter. Bulbs under the ground and the way that trees go dormant, but then they already contain the buds for the next spring. And that just reminds us of the way that God works in creation, and the way that God works in a salvific way, that death and dying already contains the promise of resurrection. And we need that so much right now where it feels like so many things are falling apart or dying or changing. Just change itself is such a stressor, and so we need to dig deep into that crucifixion/resurrection dynamic, I think, in our faith.

Dave Koetje: Yeah. Yeah, another theme that comes through, too, is the theme of alienation and suffering.

Debra Rienstra: Oh.

Dave Koetje: Several of the guests reported struggles with churches and organizations that are kind of loath to embrace climate science and what we’re learning from climate science, because they see it as, “Well, you know, that’s a liberal issue, right?” in our overly polarized political climate. But there is suffering that occurs and there are refugees that come from all over the world because of climate change that’s occurring. And when you see both the suffering and the sense that many people feel of being alienated by their own faith communities who are—they just so don’t want to go there, right?

Debra Rienstra: Yeah.

Dave Koetje:  And I think, yeah, that too is a good picture of what refugia are all about, because a native plant that is going to be going through the climate change that we’re anticipating over the next—well, till the end of the century—that native plant is going to also, if we can anthropomorphize here a little bit, going to feel alienated in such a climate.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah.

Dave Koetje: And I think, okay. There are some things that plants can do to adapt. Plants with deeper roots are better able to adapt. And I think, wow, there’s a great metaphor as well. So what do we do as communities to deepen our roots and what do we do, not to try to avoid the suffering, but as we are suffering, learn how to adapt. And so many people talked about resilience. How do we do that? Well, the only way to become more resilient is to experience the suffering.

Debra Rienstra: Oh. I don’t like that.

Dave Koetje: I know. I don’t either!

Debra Rienstra: But it’s just the truth, isn’t it? You know, I think one of the reasons maybe that we haven’t, overall as the church community, been drawing well and fully on the resources of the faith is because we haven’t had to. We’ve had it so good, so many of us, so that, you know, as you would say, our roots are too shallow. And isn’t there a way to like build deeper roots without suffering and stress?

Dave Koetje: No.

Debra Rienstra: Oh shoot. I was hoping you’d come up with something.

Dave Koetje: Well, there is, maybe with genetic engineering, but that induces its own stresses.

Debra Rienstra: Okay. Got it. Yeah, so it’s sort of disappointing that the moral call to be in solidarity with people who are already feeling climate impacts has been insufficiently persuasive—that this idea of justice and the moral call to address the suffering that people are undergoing, you know, that has been more or less unpersuasive. And so now we’re getting to the point where it’s not just a moral call, it’s actually self-preservation.

Dave Koetje: Yes.

Debra Rienstra: So in order to preserve our little ecosystem, we have to pay attention to what’s happening in adjacent ecosystems, so to speak—

Dave Koetje: Yes. 

Debra Rienstra: —and do whatever we can to mitigate there lest those stresses come to hit us.

Dave Koetje: Yeah. And they will, because as one of our guests was talking about, the fires. And while the fire was not directly affecting where she lived, the smoke was certainly causing an impact. And, she said, “Wow, this is—it feels surreal, right?”

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. 

Dave Koetje: And you think, yeah, there’s a lot of these kinds of things that make one feel like, “Wow, this is surreal. It’s beyond my imagination. I can’t really grapple with this.”

Debra Rienstra: Hmm. Mm-hmm.

Dave Koetje: And so how do we develop the tools, the networks, the communities where we can kind of collectively process that?

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Well, our guests this season had a lot of great ideas from the very, very local—so intentional community, the work with Gerry Koning’s Refuge Church, all the way through to absolutely global—with May Boeve’s work with, connecting local partners to these global networks. So we have so many great resources to draw on, and I’m just hopeful that the interviews this season will help people think about how, in their particular context, they could make use of some of these ideas. 

So speaking of that, Dave, would you tell us about your sabbatical project? You’ve been on sabbatical this semester. You’ve been working on this wonderful refugia-related project. Tell us what you’re up to.

Dave Koetje: Well, I have been digging far and wide, studying what I call “refugia gardening.” And this is a concept where you’re trying to do two things. In the face of climate change and other ecological disturbances, you want to try to enhance biodiversity in your own yard. And then as you do this, hopefully that biodiversity—and if more people can do this in their yards, you can begin to build networks of people doing this—and as people do this, they can not only experiment to try to find combinations of biodiversity that can actually thrive under new climate conditions, but at the same time, you’re also trying to nurture your own soul, because, as so many people have reported, one way to have hope for the future is to plant gardens.

Debra Rienstra: Mm.

Dave Koetje: And so the caring for your garden plants, being attentive to them, watching to see: what kinds of interactions do they have with the wild parts of biodiversity that come through and visit your yard? And what does that tell you, then, about the kinds of ecological interactions, the ecological functions that these plants are doing? Paying attention to those kinds of things—that can really be a way to also restore some hope that the world will continue, despite all of the horrors that we look to be facing.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Tell us a little bit about that Dutch gardening architect or landscape architect that you have been studying.

Dave Koetje: Yeah, Piet Oudolf, he’s a genius! I’ll say he’s an artist when it comes to landscapes. Probably his most well-known project is called Highline in New York City, where they went to this old rail line, an old elevated rail line in the city that had been abandoned, and he looked at that and said, “Wow, what a fantastic corridor to build a wild garden.” So he puts combinations of plants together that include a lot of grasses and a lot of interesting flowering plants that, as Piet would say, have very interesting structures to them, and he puts these combinations together in ways that mimic what you would find in wild places.

But as Piet would say, this is kind of a romanticized vision of a wild place, because nature herself probably wouldn’t necessarily put them together exactly the way he does. But he does so in a way that’s very appealing to the eye for different seasons of the year. You have different textures of plants side by side. You’ve got plants that are in clusters together rather than individual specimens. And then he also is a strong advocate for—he wants his gardens to look good, as he would say, when they’re dead.

Debra Rienstra: Ha! 

Dave Koetje: So when the plants are at the end of the growing season and they begin to die back, and you see these dead stalks with dead flowers that are long gone, you just see the pod structures that are left there. These, first of all, of course, contain seeds that are potentially food for birds and other wildlife. But even more important from our point of view, as he says, this time of the year teaches us to look for beauty in new ways that we don’t expect to find it.

Debra Rienstra: Ah, so this kind of artful wildness—

Dave Koetje: Yeah. Yeah.

Debra Rienstra: —is teaching us a new aesthetic.

Dave Koetje: Teaching us a new aesthetic. And I think that’s crucial because, you know, our aesthetic is actually pretty crappy. Because we think that a green lawn is the ideal, and a green lawn, again—the shallow roots that those grasses typically have—compare that to the grasses that Piet Oudolf and others are planting in these—sometimes they’re called ecological landscapes. They, in fact, have much, much deeper roots, which is better for allowing water to infiltrate down into aquifers and better for allowing the plants to be resilient because they don’t need to be watered all the time. They certainly don’t need to be mowed all the time. And so, yeah, changing that aesthetic and just getting rid of little pieces of your grass, your lawn, you know, one square foot at a time, that’s beautiful. That’s the direction that we need to go.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So is there a way for listeners to help you with your research and maybe churches to help you with your research somehow?

Dave Koetje: I’m working on a website right now that will hopefully be available in a couple of weeks. So people can come visit the website to learn more about the project. There’s also a survey tool that I’m developing to administer to different groups of people who might want me to come and talk to, say, things like garden clubs and churches and organizations that are involved in different kinds of ecological restoration kinds of work. And I can gladly come to your organization, talk about refugia gardening, and then administer this little survey where you give me some information as well about your practices in gardening, and we can post both of those to the podcast here as well.

Debra Rienstra: Sure. We’ll put a link in the show notes.

Dave Koetje: Sounds great.

Debra Rienstra: Sounds great. Well, Dave, I really appreciate your coming back and having a conversation about this season. I appreciate your support throughout the last three seasons and all your encouragement and wisdom as we think through these issues together. So thanks again for being with me today.

Dave Koetje: Thank you, Debra. 

Debra Rienstra: The Refugia Podcast is produced with support from the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship. Our audio editors are Ian Gilbert and Kathryn Gardner. Our text editor is Michal Rubingh. If you enjoyed this episode, please help other listeners discover us. Write a review on your podcast platform or share this episode through social media. 

You can find us on Facebook and Twitter @RefugiaPodcast. You can also visit our website at where you can explore links and transcripts from this and all our episodes. You can find me on Facebook and Twitter at Debra K. Rienstra. That’s D E B R A K. R I E N S T R A. As always, thanks for listening.

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