In this, our very first episode, I interview my wonderful colleague Dave Koetje, professor of biology at Calvin University. Dave helps lay the groundwork for all subsequent episodes by exploring the basic definition of refugia.
For a little more background…
Refugia is a podcast about watching for places where God is working at renewal; of the earth, of the church, culture, society. And it’s also about seeking how we might participate, willingly and courageously, in that divine work.
I’m especially grateful to Dave because he helped me muster up the courage to do this podcast. Dave’s enthusiasm about the Refugia podcast began with an essay I wrote in May 2019 for The Twelve. You can find that essay here. In Episode 13, I talk with Dave again, and we reflect on everything we’ve learned from Episodes 1-12.
For a highly edited, condensed version of the transcript, go here. For the full transcript, keep scrolling.
Here’s Dave’s faculty webpage at Calvin.
And here is the full video of the episode, filmed with the lovely palm fronds of the Calvin greenhouse right behind us.
Debra Rienstra: Hey, Dave.
Dave Koetje: Hey, how are you?
Debra Rienstra: Thanks for being here today.
Dave Koetje: You bet.
Debra Rienstra: So, explain where we are. We’re on Calvin’s campus. Where are we?
Dave Koetje: We are in a little conference room adjacent to the greenhouse, and so behind us here you can see all of these wonderful tropical plants, our own little refugium here.
Debra Rienstra: So, I’ve heard a rumor that the greenhouse is where our colleague Dave Warners rescues abandoned plants. Is that true?
Dave Koetje: He does. He rescues abandoned plants. He’s also been known to sneak a few from different places and put them back into the greenhouse.
Debra Rienstra: Oh, I see. So he steals them from places like the English Department lobby?
Dave Koetje: No, farther away places.
Debra Rienstra: So what do you teach at Calvin, Dave?
Dave Koetje: I teach a lot of the introductory biology courses, things like, of course—Biology 123, Living Systems, is one of my favorites. I teach a lot of cell and molecular biology courses, Cell Biology and Genetics, and I teach an upper-level course that’s called Global Health, Environment, and Sustainability. Those are kinda the main areas of my teaching. But from time to time, I’ll do the senior seminar course and so, as well.
Debra Rienstra: So you’ve also been intrigued with this idea of refugia.
Dave Koetje: Very much so.
Debra Rienstra: Can you tell us how the term is used in biology? That seems to be the origin of its popularity right now.
Dave Koetje: Yeah, it comes out of thinking about evolutionary history and looking especially at things like, at the end of the last ice age, there were little pockets of plants and animals that began to kinda populate and repopulate the glaciated—the formerly glaciated areas as the glaciers were receding. And it did so rather quickly, and they began to explore: well, why was that? And that’s where this little idea of refugia comes from, because they said oh, well, there were these little pockets of semi-protected areas that continued to thrive even as these glaciers were receding, and became the areas from which a lot of life evolved from that point on. And it’s also a big topic now, especially related to climate change, and so thinking a lot about what little pockets of plant and animal life are in more protected zones that, when the climate changes pretty dramatically over the next couple centuries, what are some areas that might be more protected from which life can continue to thrive?
Debra Rienstra: Do we know what some of those areas might be at this point?
Dave Koetje: Yeah, there’s a lot of different kinds of refugia that ecologists talk about. That has to do with—think of, like, in mountainous areas, there’s lots of different slopes to the land. So, land that has a southern slope is going to be far more exposed to harsh conditions. Whereas lands on the northern slope, lands and small valleys that are more protected, they’re considering those as refugia, where the current diversity can continue to thrive there, even as things change all around them to the point where that same diversity can’t survive.
Debra Rienstra: Can human beings help these refugia to be created and to be sustained?
Dave Koetje: One of the big questions right now with climate change is, how fast is it going to happen? And how can we predict where the best places of refugia are gonna be?
So using a lot of different modeling kinds of things right now to say, you know, what are the environmental conditions that this particular community of species needs? And then, where do we expect to find that environment thriving over the next couple of centuries? And how do we anticipate not only things that will continue to thrive, but conditions that will persist even when the surrounding conditions change pretty dramatically?
Debra Rienstra: So this idea is compelling to you perhaps for ecological reasons?
Dave Koetje: It’s compelling for ecological reasons, but that’s not what I think really kinda caught my eye when you wrote your blog a while ago and you said, you know, we should as a church think about what it means to be people of refugia.
Debra Rienstra: What does that mean to you?
Dave Koetje: I thought immediately of all of these different things that are happening around us, things that seem to threaten us in so many different ways, things that we sometimes feel like, you know, we don’t recognize our society anymore. And I thought, we need to find places of refugia for our souls as well; places where we can continue to receive that life-giving nourishment and that water, spiritual water that will continue to enable us to thrive spiritually, even when there seems to be so much change and so much that threatens us.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So one of the things I’m trying to think about is the distinction between refugia and other kinds of escape, or a kind of bunker mentality.
Dave Koetje: Yeah.
Debra Rienstra: So how would you distinguish what we mean by refugia compared to those other things? It’s not the same as going to see a movie, or binge-watching Netflix, or hiding oneself in a cabin with a bunch of guns or some other, you know, bunch of organic arugula, whatever your choice is. So what is it about refugia that’s a distinctive idea?
Dave Koetje: To me, what’s exciting about refugia is that there’s a lot of work to do within refugia. It’s not a place where you bunker down and try to defend yourself against everything that’s happening. Things are going to happen and refugia are—I see them as welcoming places. I see them as places where there’s an intentional nurturing of relationships that have to continue to thrive. And I see them as places where honest renewal can happen. And I think that’s true biologically, I think it’s also true in the sense that we’re talking about.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, I’ve been using the phrase micro-countercultures.
Dave Koetje: Yeah.
Debra Rienstra: They’re little—not Edenic places, but places leaning into the kingdom.
Dave Koetje: Yes.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. And they’re not meant to be permanent, they’re meant to be places of shelter temporarily, and then places that actually spread.
Dave Koetje: Yeah.
Debra Rienstra: Where are you finding those right now?
Dave Koetje: You find them in biology in places where natural disasters have happened. So, Kathleen Dean Moore talks about this in her book, with the eruption of Mount St. Helens that occurred in 1980 and how there is this blast zone of total devastation. And I remember seeing it shortly after that and just being completely blown away by how much force and heat there must have been there. And I remember reading at the time that biologists, ecologists were thinking, yeah, it would be decades before life returns to those areas. And within a period of five, six, seven years, suddenly life was springing all over the place. And what they discovered is that there were these tiny little refugia, micro-refugia, of protected areas that, when the trees blew over in the blast, they protected small areas that became these little wellsprings of life.
Debra Rienstra: Little mosses. Little mushrooms. Little voles. Little birdies.
Dave Koetje: Yeah, exactly, everything coming back. Just all of a sudden, wow! Just blooming, like a garden.
Debra Rienstra: It’s still not old growth.
Dave Koetje: Oh no.
Debra Rienstra: Which it used to be.
Dave Koetje: Right.
Debra Rienstra: So that’ll take a few hundred years.
Dave Koetje: Yes, it will but, you know.
Debra Rienstra: But life is resilient.
Dave Koetje: Life is extremely resilient. I remember them planning that, oh, we’re gonna have to go in and we’re gonna have to plant all these trees and so on and so forth, you know, hundreds of thousands of acres of trees. And yes, there’s some private land owned by Weyerhauser where they did a lot of those kinds of things. But what surprised everybody was the fact that even now when you go there, there’s a lot of young trees that are all over the place. The forest is coming back with a vengeance.
Debra Rienstra: I remember when Bill McKibben was here for the Festival of Faith and Writing, one of the things he said in his plenary talk that has stayed with me is that if we move toward–he didn’t use this word–but if we move toward creating refugia, the world will meet us halfway.
Dave Koetje: Yeah.
Debra Rienstra: And I thought that was a stunning thing to ponder. Metaphorically speaking, where are you finding refugia of the spirit?
Dave Koetje: I’m finding refugia of the spirit certainly within my department and with my colleagues here at Calvin.
These are tough days to be a biologist. There’s a lot of bad news that we have to deal with in my discipline, with living within the sixth mass extinction on the planet, and recognizing that this is largely human-induced. And yet, my colleagues are people of hope, and I find that we thrive together because we have this faith underpinning that helps us to see beyond the immediate and to be able to recognize that yes, even though things might seem dire in many cases, yet God is sovereign. And what does that really mean for us? Even though we don’t know exactly what the future will hold, we recognize that, you know, God is here with us. And so our job, then, is to be a place of refugia for our students, and I’m trying to think about what does that mean within my classroom as well.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, you mentioned teaching this upper-level environmental studies class and working through some of these concepts and issues and finding your students become droopier and more melancholy. So you’ve been thinking about how to create refugia in the course. Could you tell us what you’re thinking about a little bit?
Dave Koetje: Well, what I’m currently thinking is that I want them to think about their environment, the environment that they call home. And of course our students come from all over the planet. So I’m going to have to give them a heads-up before they leave to come here, and say, take some snapshots of the places that you call home, and the creatures that live there and let’s bring that into the classroom. This is your refugia. And this is your place and you’re surrounded by these other creatures that are your companions, your sojourners. And let’s think about what it is that enables life to thrive within a refugium. Let’s think also about what are some practices that we can inhabit, that within our classroom space allow us to lament, and to do that well. You know, I don’t think we really know too much about how to lament well.
Debra Rienstra: We haven’t worked on it hard in our worship, which is where we would learn that, and that’s something I’ve thought about over the years, too, as I work with my husband, who’s a worship pastor. But one of the places we learn how to lament is in worship.
Dave Koetje: Yes.
Debra Rienstra: And some of us have learned that there, and some of us haven’t, depending on our home churches.
Dave Koetje: Yeah.
Debra Rienstra: But it’s not obvious.
Dave Koetje: It’s not obvious and I think we need to practice that. We need to also think about what nurtures us, what sustains us in this refugium work, and then to also think about, how do we become that little seed that then once we have the opportunity, we go out from our refugium and we start to change the world. What does that look like? And that’s where I’m really excited about this because I think, yeah, there are little kernels of things that we know that we can do to be a more sustainable society.
And I think this generation of students are going to have to deal with some very challenging kinds of issues, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. And yet at the same time, I want to give them the kind of tools to be able to say, yes, I can do this, and collectively there are things that we can do to become a more sustainable society that lives within the means of the planet, not—you know, right now if you look at what the average American footprint is, you would need something like five or six planet Earths to be able to live the way we live. But we don’t have that.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah.
Dave Koetje: And so how do we live within our means? And I think this generation of students is going to have to learn how to solve that kind of a question, because the world that they will inhabit and inherit from us is a world that on the one hand is scary to them and to us, but it’s also a place of hope. And I want to show them, remind them of passages from scripture, because God uses remnants a lot. And I think these remnants could be considered like these little refugia.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah.
Dave Koetje: And to be able to say, okay, how do we nurture that. Even though the people of Israel were exiled, yet there was this remnant where God continued to work with them even in their away place.
Debra Rienstra: Or the stump of Jesse.
Dave Koetje: The stump of Jesse.
Debra Rienstra: That’s a perfect example, actually. Yeah. So in the Reformed tradition, sometimes we have a kind of over-ambitious triumphalism, where we’re thinking all the time about being transformers of culture. On the other hand, we have this abject humility about our helplessness and our need for…
Dave Koetje: We’re an odd bunch.
Debra Rienstra: … our utter need for Grace. It’s very confusing to have both of those in paradox. I wonder how the idea of refugia fits into that theological tension.
Dave Koetje: Yeah. First of all, a refugium is not… I don’t see it as a place of triumphalism at all. It’s a very humble place. It’s a place where you are learning what it means to live within your means because a refugium is small.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah.
Dave Koetje: You know, it’s not—the whole world isn’t a refugium. A refugium is a little pocket. And so, how do you live within your means in that little pocket? And then, to do so requires intense humility.
Debra Rienstra: It’s a place of relearning.
Dave Koetje: It’s a place of relearning. But it’s also a place of great hope. Not hope in as much as what you or what even a community can accomplish on their own power, but what God can accomplish. Well, in systems theory there’s ideas called emergent properties, where a system is always greater than the sum of its parts. And a refugium is a system. And I think there’s a spiritual dimension to that, where especially people living in a refugium kind of community can certainly be agents of renewal that are way beyond their own ability, even their own collective ability. God is there. And I think because of that, there’s a power that works through their community that is way beyond the power that they have as human beings.
Debra Rienstra: Wonderful. One of the things I appreciate about teaching here at Calvin is that all my colleagues in all the disciplines are always thinking theologically, too.
Dave Koetje: Yeah, I mean, this is what animates us.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Absolutely.
Dave Koetje: It gives us hope.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So for you right now, what it where do you go for your refugia?
Dave Koetje: Oh several places. One is church. I think it’s crucial to be in a community of believers that is a nurturing place, but also a place that’s constantly looking out. In our church, Church of the Servant has a very global perspective on the world, and yet we’re very down-to-earth and we’re very focused on, you know, what does it mean to be people of social justice, people of peace, people of love—that we can practice that within a local community as well. And that’s a deep place of refugia for me.
Another one is our own ecosystem preserve here on campus. There are different days when I’m struggling with some things, things that happen. I’ve had days where I’ve lost colleagues. And so, one of the places I often go to is the ecosystem preserve, and just take a walk and let the other creatures speak to me as I’m grieving or as I’m dealing with anger, or whatever.
Debra Rienstra: You used the terms companions and sojourners earlier.
Dave Koetje: Yes, very much so. Yeah, I see myself as being always part of a greater whole, and so I try to live in a way where I’m conscious of that as much as I can be, and to try to be a citizen and plain member, so to speak, of that place.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Dave, thanks so much for talking to me today.
Dave Koetje: Thank you.
Debra Rienstra: I really appreciate it. It’s been fun.
Dave Koetje: Thank you.