Skip to main content

Listen now

In this episode, wildlife biologist Tim Van Deelen returns to talk about the spiritual challenges of wildlife conservation and activism. We get into some of the technicalities of strategic activism, and we talk frankly about sorrow and anger, melancholy and fatigue. We consider the challenge of valuing the commons and working for the common good. And we take heart in the healers out there, especially those working in research and conservation.

For more information

Listen to our previous episode with Tim here. We talk a lot about Aldo Leopold!

Tim mentions Debra’s essay on “spiritual” or “pious shortcuts,” available here.

We discuss Kathleen Dean Moore’s book Great Tide Rising and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding SweetgrassTim also mentions Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey by Julianne Lutz Warren.


Debra Rienstra: 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 places 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. And this is Refugia.

Tim Van Deelen: I’m teaching the next generation of people who are going to be working in these agencies, and if not working in these agencies, at the very least they’re going to be citizens. So, you know, you try to make them aware,  but then you also try to make them  not just aware of the problem, but sort of the structural and cultural dimensions of that.

And  you can’t leave a student with despair. You can’t leave them thinking that there’s really no way to deal with this.

Debra Rienstra: Hi, everyone. In this episode, I welcome back my friend Tim Van Deelen, a wildlife biology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Tim was one of my guests last season, too, but we had so much more to talk about, I’ve asked him back. Last time, Tim helped us learn about refugial biology, especially as relevant to mammal populations. This time, I asked him to talk more about the spiritual challenges of wildlife conservation and, in particular, what it’s like to be a Christian and a scientist.

We get into some of the technicalities of strategic activism, and we talk frankly about sorrow and anger, melancholy and fatigue. We consider the challenge of valuing the commons and working for the common good. And we take heart in the healers out there, especially those working in research and conservation.

I always come away from a conversation with Tim better informed and more deeply inspired to love the wild world. I hope you do too. As always, thanks for listening.

Today I’m talking with Tim Van Deelen, professor of wildlife biology and conservation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hey, Tim.

Tim Van Deelen: Hi, Debra.

Debra Rienstra: So glad you can be here with me today. Or, I guess we’re not here, but, you know, we’re here in spirit.

Tim Van Deelen: Well we’re here together in the Great Lakes.

Debra Rienstra: We’re here together in the Great Lakes. Absolutely.

So, Tim, with the exception of Dave Koetje, my biology colleague, who’s kind of my cohost for the podcast, you are the only person from last season that I’m asking back. So you should just know, you totally killed it last season.

Tim Van Deelen: I’m very honored.

Debra Rienstra: I mean, our conversation last season was indeed deep and fascinating. All my guests were terrific, though.

But you and I talked a lot about refugia biology last season, and I wanted to get a little deeper into how professional scientists like yourself actually deal more personally with situations of crisis.

So, a lot has happened since you and I recorded last summer up at Au Sable.

The climate crisis is still at the foundation of what we’re facing, of course, but now we have so many other crises on top of that, primarily this COVID pandemic. So, during these weeks when we’ve been stuck at home or just severely limited in what we can do and where we can go, have you thought about the refugia idea in any different ways?

Tim Van Deelen: Yeah. And actually it’s been motivated by that essay that you wrote on spiritual shortcuts. And we’ve talked about this before, but I keep returning to another ecological metaphor, and that’s the ecological trap. So, in an ecological framing, you know, a [refugium] would be a patch of habitat that an organism would find itself in as a way of being protected from these outside forces, and an ecological trap would be a patch of habitat where the environmental cues that would attract an organism would be dishonest. In other words, they would find themselves attracted to this patch, they would get there and they would set up shop, and what they would find is that the fitness that they were expecting to have isn’t there, that it’s actually a dangerous place to be.

And I’m making the analogy to these spiritual shortcuts. And I guess what really kind of set me off is, you know, one of the things that my Au Sable academic family put together. They put together a Facebook page and they entitled it “Behold,” and the idea was that they were going to invite people who were Au Sable alums and friends to have this online space where they could reflect on the beauty and the wonder of creation, all of which is very good. But then they said, “This is not a place to talk about politics.”

Debra Rienstra: Ah.

Tim Van Deelen: And in the applied world, politics and policy is how you implement what Christians would call caring for creation. And it bothered me a little bit that we take that and put that off the table.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Yeah. Explain what “applied” means, so listeners can understand what that means.

Tim Van Deelen: I work in an applied science. We have on campus lots of academic ecologists who are studying in very fine detail how ecosystems, organisms behave and interact. But the applied disciplines of wildlife biology and forestry take that knowledge and try to put that into practice for conservation.

In other words, wrestling with the sticky questions of “How do we live on this earth?” “How do we get our food and fiber from the environment?” “How do we build our houses, but still provide them room for all the wild animals that we want to have around us?” So, you know, you take the ecological knowledge and you try and marry it with what ultimately becomes public policy for how you continue to have these things that we think are valuable.

So, like, the birds—they’re singing over my shoulder right now.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So are you suggesting that sometimes when Christians talk about creation care, it’s analogous to an ecological trap because it prevents us from doing this kind of advocacy work that needs to be done?

Tim Van Deelen: Yeah. I think that there’s a danger that always being in a reflective and appreciative and sort of a passive mode—that it sucks up the intellectual energy and the motivations that you might have to go bang on the door and try to effect a change for the better.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So it’s this, um… almost this idolatry of the comfortable.

Tim Van Deelen: Yeah. I hadn’t heard that term before, but I think that that’s accurate.

Debra Rienstra: I just made it up.

Tim Van Deelen: Well, you know—

Debra Rienstra: It’s apt, though.

Tim Van Deelen: —I give these kinds of talks in churches, and, you know, the people that you shake hands with afterwards are enthusiastic and appreciative, but then you often wonder if that goes anywhere.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah.

Tim Van Deelen: And we’re reaching such a crisis right now with climate change and the related environmental impacts that we don’t have the luxury of intellectually or spiritually checking that box so that we feel good about moving on.

Debra Rienstra: “I have now contemplated nature and given thanks to God. And so I can go back and do everything I just was doing.”

Tim Van Deelen: Right.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah.

Tim Van Deelen: That’s, I think, a source of frustration that I have.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah.

I want to thank you for your activism, speaking about activism, on the Enbridge Line Five question. So you appeared at a public comment session in Wisconsin and gave testimony as a wildlife biologist. So, describe that. What was that like?

Tim Van Deelen: Well, I did it online, but I’ve done that in person before. And I think it’s important to recognize what that process is about so that you can be strategic. That was a scoping process. And that’s the early part of a public input process that’s required by state and federal environmental laws. And so, in a scoping process, what the regulators are trying to do is identify all of the issues that should be put into an environmental impact statement.

So in this case, they wanted to build 41 miles of Line Five pipeline to get around the Bad River Indian reservation in northern Wisconsin. So the Bad River tribe had told Enbridge that they no longer want the pipeline to cross the reservation. So, it’s not like you’re voting. You know, a lot of people would go online and participate in the meeting and say, “I really oppose Line Five,” you know? And then you go in the opposed column.

But what you really want to do to be strategic is to read the material and look for the issues that are not being addressed so that you can raise those for the regulators. So my point was that Enbridge wanted the environmental impact statement to be entirely about 41 miles of reconstructed pipeline, but that 41 miles enables the operation of the pipeline—so that the risks associated with the operation of that pipeline, including the fact that it enables them to pump oil under the Straits of Mackinac. And there’s a real risk there.

So I was trying to get that idea on the table for part of the analysis that is starting.

Debra Rienstra: Right, so you were arguing about what the scope of the environmental impact statement should be. That’s what you mean by scoping.

Tim Van Deelen: Right. And, you know, you only get three minutes, so if you really want to stop the pipeline, you have to identify the problems that the managers, the regulators need to address in doing the permitting. It’s not just registering your disapproval of the pipeline. You have to tell them specifically what the issues are.

Debra Rienstra: Right. Which is why we need people like you, who can read these environmental impact statements and then actually find the gaps in them. Find the loopholes, so to speak, and point those out from a position of expertise.

Tim Van Deelen: Well, I don’t think it takes a whole lot of specialized expertise or training. I think any citizen can read the materials and just think about, well, if there’s a spill, then what? And raise those issues for the regulators.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Yeah.

Well, I want to talk to you a little bit more about anger and sorrow, which I think we have felt so constantly in these last months for so many reasons. It seems like the reasons just keep piling up for both anger and sorrow. Last time we talked together, we mentioned Aldo Leopold’s famous remark about an ecological education bringing us into a world of wounds.

And it seems now we—we have this more widely shared public sense of a world of wounds, thanks to what the pandemic has even more keenly exposed in terms of systemic racism and injustices built into our whole economy. So it’s not just environmental wounds, but wounds of the way our society is structured too.

So, many of us are weary from anger and sorrow, and I know that these are things you feel too, and I just wonder, how have you adjusted your spiritual life, so to speak, in these recent months?

Tim Van Deelen: Wow. That’s a difficult question. This is really the substance of an ongoing conversation that I’ve been having with my pastor. It seems to me like you’re sort of pushed onto a decision about whether or not you’re going to give into despair or you’re going to deal with the anger.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah.

Tim Van Deelen: Right. I don’t see a place to be passive about this once you kind of understand it.

So, you know, I spend a lot of time trying to confront my own biases. I think a lot of the Black Lives Matter stuff has really motivated that recently. You know, I’m trying for a little mental, spiritual sorting.

Debra Rienstra: What do you mean by that?

Tim Van Deelen: Well, how much of what I really believe is a cultural accretion on the faith?

It’s something that I have because I grew up as a privileged white kid in West Michigan, and then went to Calvin University. And, you know, some of that might actually add to my understanding of the faith, but some of it might actually obscure.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah.

Tim Van Deelen: And the Black Lives Matter movement, you know—particularly on my campus, a Black student made an argument for moving the statue of Abraham Lincoln.

So Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which is the genesis of land-grant universities. That’s the big deal at the University of Wisconsin, but, you know, Abraham Lincoln, for all we understand about him as the signer of the Emancipation Proclamation, was also pretty terrible to Native Americans back then.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah.

Tim Van Deelen: And she was seeing that statue through different eyes. I’m seeing a bit of a myth based on what I was taught in my history classes at Hudsonville Christian School.

Debra Rienstra: Yes, back in the seventies and eighties.

Tim Van Deelen: Right. So, you know, the ongoing discussion for me is, how do you deal with the anger?

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Your own and other people’s.

Tim Van Deelen: Well, yeah. Yeah, I guess I’m selfish enough that my own anger is the one that I struggle with the most. And you think about where anger has been productive in the Bible, and I always think about that story where Christ is in the temple and he finds the money changers. And I think that we really don’t know what to make of that angry Christ. You know, when he found the temple being abused by corrupt businessmen, he found a whip and he flipped over the tables and he started kicking asses and taking names.

Debra Rienstra: We like that story when we’re angry about something.

Tim Van Deelen: Well, right. And it sounds provocative when you say it that way, but that’s the point.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Yeah.

Yeah, so what do you do with your anger? What are your strategies?

Tim Van Deelen: Well, I go write letters in scoping exercises.

Um, I think the way that I try to make it productive is in my teaching. You know, I try to think, okay, I’m teaching the next generation of people who are going to be working in these agencies, and if not working in these agencies, at the very least they’re going to be citizens. So, you know, you try to make them aware, but then you also try to make them not just aware of the problem, but sort of the structural and cultural dimensions of that.

And, I don’t know, you try to… You can’t leave a student with despair. You can’t leave them thinking that there’s really no way to deal with this. So you try to leave them hopeful that there is a way to deal with these environmental issues and specifically the training that you’re getting in the department, the major, whatever, is something that you can bring to bear to make this a better place.  In my world, in the natural resources world, everything eventually is going to get back to climate change and human impacts on the landscape. So dealing with that upfront, I think, is one of the ways where that anger can become productive.

My pastor keeps telling me that you have to speak the truth in love. So, to the extent that anger somehow becomes divorced from the love that we’re commanded to show to people and to the rest of the nonhuman world, then it becomes kind of corrosive.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah.

It seems like diffuse anger is the least productive and perhaps the most corrosive. Whereas if you can find a channel and that anger can be pointed and constructive, then it can become a form of love. It can be committed to something that is worth loving. And it sounds like that’s what you’re helping your students do.

Tim Van Deelen: Well, I hope so, but I– that’s where I struggle. And I wonder if this Christian impulse that you sometimes see, to just give it all to God…

Debra Rienstra: yeah.

Tim Van Deelen: …isn’t one of those ecological traps.

Debra Rienstra: We love a good metaphor here. Yeah.

You and I both love Kathleen Dean Moore’s book, Great Tide Rising. And one of the most evocative phrases in that book for me is “the moral power of sorrow.” What does that phrase evoke for you?

Tim Van Deelen: Oh, I think that really is, you know, the ecologist’s burden.

Hmm. Sorrow.

You confront the loss and the question of, you know… well, this is all the Leopold’s “world of wounds” again. You just—it’s something that you carry with you. And I think, again, the way to make that productive rather than debilitating is to basically take the attitude that Kathleen Dean Moore takes and says, “Doggone it, from where I am right now, I’m going to do what I can so that things are better for my grandchildren.” And if that means that you can slow down the damage or you can turn things around or you can set up the next generation for turning down the damage, you know, you don’t want to have to be in a position where you face your grandchildren at some point and they ask you, “Well, what did you do during this crisis?” and you don’t have an answer for that.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So many people are asking that question about so many things. The sorrow is almost overwhelming.

I’m curious about that moral power. And so maybe we could get at that in a couple ways. One way would be, are we obliged to feel sorrow?

Tim Van Deelen: Obliged, boy.

Debra Rienstra: This gets back to that idolatry of comfort.

Tim Van Deelen: I think so. I think that sorrow is an emotion that enables you to navigate. Sorrow implies that you’re losing or missing something of value. And I think that the sort of sorrow that I associate with all the impacts that are converging on climate change is, you know, sorrow and anger kind of go hand-in-hand together. Otherwise you don’t care, right? If you don’t have some response…

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So, to not feel sorrow is to devalue what we are losing.

Tim Van Deelen: Right.

Debra Rienstra: So that moral power—I would like to ask Kathleen herself what she thinks that that means. Is it similar to what we were saying, that sorrow and anger can both become kind of engines to energize actual work?

Tim Van Deelen: Yeah, I think so. And I think there’s a little bit of a choice that a person has to make there, you know, because I do think there’s a danger that it just becomes debilitating, or even that it becomes comfortable in its own sense, rather than you take it and try to make that a motivation.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Speaking as you are—maybe like me—as somebody who can definitely indulge in melancholy.

Tim Van Deelen: Yeah.

Debra Rienstra: We know what that is.

What do you think have been the biggest spiritual challenges in the last year or so for you?

Tim Van Deelen: Well, fatigue.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah.

Tim Van Deelen: You know, you’d think that this would be sort of a perfect situation for an introvert because I get to work on my own terms and create my own space and all this stuff, but I find that the teaching and the grad student mentoring and the administrative work that I have to do is just harder if everything has to be arranged through a Zoom meeting or a telephone call. That you miss out on some of the communication that you get in person, then that’s more difficult.

Debra Rienstra: I think we all share that and have experienced that, that everything just feels heavier. Everything requires more energy. And I think that’s true not just for those of us who are introverts, but for extroverts too.

So what resources have you drawn from? What practices help?

Tim Van Deelen: Oh boy. Birding here in my little hometown this spring. You know, as a wildlife biologist, you’d expect that I knew something about birds. You know, I call myself a mammal guy, so I was kind of free to ignore that, but just finding all the migrants and all the varieties of birds in my little suburban world. And there’s a lesson in resilience there, that you still have this amazing biodiversity of bird life, but you have to go look for it, and you have to invest a little bit in learning the names, spending some time with the binoculars. And that’s been, for me, kind of restorative.

And then there’s a short list of books that I keep returning to just because—I don’t know, I love them and I love the writing, and they’re helpful for me.

Debra Rienstra: Mm-hmm. What books are those?

Tim Van Deelen: Well, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer; you mentioned Great Tide Rising, that’s one of my favorites. A friend of mine some years ago wrote a book called Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey. So, that’s a book about how the young Leopold, who became interested in wildlife because he was a naturalist, and he was interested in hunting and fishing and all this sort of stuff that was important to me when I was in high school, became a guy who could write The Land Ethic and think more deeply. And it just kind of traces those intellectual developments over his life. And then, you know, by the time he’s writing The Land Ethic, he’s looking at the fact that policy changes aren’t going to get us where we need to be, per se. Scientific innovations aren’t going to get us where we need to be, per se. But what we really need is to work on changing people’s values, but then he had the audacity to go and try and do that.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. He said what we need are different kinds of people.

Tim Van Deelen: Yeah.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. If you had to say what that means, what kind of people do we need? What would you say?

Tim Van Deelen: Well, this is the kind of phrase that rolls off my tongue because I use it in class all the time: we need to value the commons and we need to work for the common good.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Yeah. Interestingly, I think this COVID pandemic is helping people recognize that in ways that we were able to set aside maybe before this. And maybe not necessarily about commons in terms of land use, but just in terms of how we look after each other, how we think outside the private-property, private-interest boxes that we so often get stuck into.

Tim Van Deelen: Right, so—this is great—one of my Au Sable colleagues who just recently retired started something called the Alabama Water Watch. And he took that to foreign countries, third world countries. And basically what it was was a box of simple tools and a simple protocol that would enable people who weren’t trained biologists to monitor their water quality.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Citizen science, man.

Tim Van Deelen: Right. And God knows how many lives he potentially saved just by training people to be able to measure water quality and find sources of pollution. But he had a bumper sticker printed that said “Love thy downstream neighbor.”

Debra Rienstra: Yeah, I’ve seen that. Yep.

Tim Van Deelen: And I think that is the distillation of the gospel. If you had to put the gospel on a bumper sticker, it wouldn’t be much different than that, because it sets up this idea of loving one’s neighbor alongside the justice component. Because the person who’s upstream has a responsibility and a place of privilege that the person downstream doesn’t.

Debra Rienstra: Right. So upstream becomes a metaphor for privilege.

Tim Van Deelen: Right. So I told that to him one time, and he was running out of bumper stickers, but I think he gave me the last one. And so I have it in my office.

Debra Rienstra: Sounds like he’s gotta make more.

Tim Van Deelen: Yeah.

Debra Rienstra: So, I’ve been impressed in my research with the field of restoration ecology and with the people who are laboring so fiercely to put together specific initiatives for creating more resilient communities in terms of energy infrastructure and everything else. And so you mentioned this guy with these bumper stickers; who are the other healers that you see from your vantage point, people who are really doing this work?

Tim Van Deelen: Yeah. Yeah, this is not a scientific problem anymore. So we’re not waiting for some scientific breakthrough or some new technology. So it really gets back to, you know, Leopold’s idea that the values that we bring to bear and how we interact with the world are what need to change. And so, when you ask me a question about healers, I think about people like Robin Wall Kimmerer and Kathleen Dean Moore.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Thank you for mentioning writers.

Tim Van Deelen: Well, Debra, I gotta tell you, as a scientist—I mean, I make my living in the world of peer review and grants and all that sort of stuff. And a lot of times we’re working at the margins; we want to find that one little fact that’ll get the paper published. And we sort of console ourselves that in the aggregate all these facts are going to come together and be world changing.

And that’s true. I mean, that’s a sort of faith that a scientist has to cling to, but it’s not all that satisfying. Because, you know, it’s an abstract thing. People who are arguing, writers who are arguing for us to see the world in a more productive way, that’s something that doesn’t take four years of research and isn’t only accessible to scientists, right? So that’s accessible to the people, to my neighbors, to the people that I go to church with and that sort of thing.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Yeah.

Tim Van Deelen: And, you know, there are examples of people who put that kind of thing into practice. And I think of our friend David Warners with Plaster Creek Stewards, you know? So when I struggle with anger, I think about Dave and his ability to just kind of serenely organize people and do good work in his own neighborhood,

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. That’s a good way to put it. Yeah.

I’ve been reading about refugia science in particular, and a movement to combine researchers and managers and help managers identify places of refugia, and then the action step would be “Can we preserve and protect these places of refugia that are going to happen?” And so I wonder if you see people who are actually doing that kind of thing. In biological contexts, do you know people who are actually working on refugium identification?

Tim Van Deelen: Yeah, I have a colleague who’s very active in mapping something called the Wildland Urban Interface. And what that means is, using remote sensing techniques, he looks at the human footprint in terms of housing and road density, and he looks at the ecological cover. So the forests, the wetlands, the lakes, whatever. And he maps those so that you can see at a glance where the human footprint seems to be overtaking the natural presence or the naturalzI’m struggling for a good word here, but the more natural part of this, the ecosystem, the more intact ecosystem part of this.

And when you do that, that gives managers a place to focus.

Debra Rienstra: Right.

Tim Van Deelen: So it gives you a way to identify the places where you get the biggest bang for your buck in terms of energy. So right now, you know, a colleague of mine is studying foxes and coyotes in the urban/suburban region surrounding Madison and is able to show the importance of green spaces as foraging areas, as loafing areas, as places where these animals can live. And I think, you know, to the extent that we’re always designing and redesigning the places we live—cities, the suburbs, whatever—having people who can identify opportunities for ecological restoration, and then being able to say that this patch, not that patch, will give you a bigger return on the scarce public money that you have to do restoration.

Debra Rienstra: Right, right, right. Yeah, and I know that’s happening on a planetary scale, too. There are groups who are working on what are the biodiversity hotspots that we absolutely have to preserve. And what does it mean to limit human impact—limit human impact how much, limit it to what, are there places that have to be absolutely wild, no touching?

And, unfortunately, some of these hotspots of biodiversity are heavily populated right now. So that puts us in this dilemma of “What do you do?” And so maybe one way through that is to find the refugium spots and focus on those and then figure out a way to manage human impact so that they leave those refugia intact.

Tim Van Deelen: Or at least can find a way to live with them. In your description I’m reminded of one of my graduate students who’s working in Borneo, where the local people have lived in the rainforest for generations, and there is a human impact that she’s able to measure on the mammal community that extends from nearby the village where there’s traditional farming of forest trees that provide certain fruits and nuts that are important, on a gradient that goes out to the wilderness, the areas where they don’t do that arboriculture, and where they only access sporadically for occasional hunting. But, you know, people have been living that way on these landscapes for generations. And so you shouldn’t ever get into an anti-human idea where a wilderness has to be completely set aside and pristine—which, you know, we’d like to see at least in some places—but you wouldn’t want to displace people who have a culture for living on those landscapes.

Debra Rienstra: Right. And that’s why indigenous peoples have been parts of these planning groups and have been demanding their say, because often they manage land better than if it’s unmanaged at all.

Tim Van Deelen: Yeah. Right. And, you know, this gets back to the whole Black Lives Matter movement and the broader concern for being more representative—is that I think in the sciences we haven’t really found a way to incorporate that traditional ecological knowledge because it just looks so different than the scientific research that we’re much more comfortable with and that we’ve all been trained to use and understand.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Yeah. And the infrastructure, so to speak, isn’t there to connect indigenous knowledge or traditional knowledges with scientific research. That’s why Robin Wall Kimmerer is so amazing.

Tim Van Deelen: Yeah. I completely agree with that. And I think that she’s got a lot to teach us. Because she also comes from this Native American tradition, which was so badly abused by our American history. You know, the settlers pushed off the land, genocide, all that stuff, but then you read Braiding Sweetgrass and she’s just got this quiet, loving wisdom to offer, when if I were in that position, it’d be rage and bitterness probably.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Maybe she has that too, and maybe she just has figured out a way to live beyond it through her art in such a way that it can be such a gift to those of us who can read that book.

And I think people really do want to help when it comes to climate action and species extinction and healing the land where we live. If they’re aware at all, they’re always asking, you know, what can I do? So, from your point of view, what would be good entry-level ways to get involved?

Tim Van Deelen: Number one, vote. Research the candidates’ positions on climate change and all the ancillary related stuff. So, we need to reorganize our economy. We need to be using less fossil fuel, throwing less stuff away, being more protective of singularly valuable natural resources like the Great Lakes. So that would be the first thing.

The other would be, again, looking at your own lifestyle, because my assumption is that most of the people who are asking you have a similar background. You know, they come from this, by the world’s standards, wealthy and privileged place that we enjoy in North America. And, you know, you have to live with integrity, but you also want to be able to use your consumer choices collectively to influence things. So these are simple things that are well known, like cutting down on the plastic of disposable plastic that you use and buy…

Debra Rienstra: Ugh, yes. So hard.

Tim Van Deelen: Ride your bike or walk rather than jump in the car, you know, just all those sorts of things that you can do to reduce your emissions, to reduce your carbon footprint. It turns out that reducing the emissions, reducing your carbon footprint, also has payoffs in terms of the injustices that are just embedded in the environmental problems, right? So the effects of climate change really are not going to be more than a nuisance for you or I; we’re going to walk out in July and it’s going to be five degrees hotter and we’re going to get grumpy.

Debra Rienstra: I’m already grumpy.

Tim Van Deelen: Yeah, but, you know, the point is that the rice field that our family depends on is not going to be flooded or washed away. Or you think of all the people who live on a river delta in Bangladesh; they’re going to be flooded out and displaced. We have the luxury of being indifferent to that. And I think it’s pushing ourselves through that kind of a mindset by adopting better habits.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah, I found that one thing leads to another. I started out on this; the next thing I knew I was putting solar panels on my roof and we’re thinking about getting an electric car. Now, we have the means to do that, but I’m also getting involved in community actions now, and getting hooked up into this huge network that I didn’t even know existed of all these local people who are working on climate impact mitigation right here, where I live, all these groups who are working hard on equity and involving people of color in leadership. And it’s really impressive, and it was all sort of hidden to me.

So once you get started this trail, you know, forever will it dominate your destiny, and that’s a good thing.

Tim Van Deelen: Yeah. And you and I, of course, are teachers. So we have access to media and techniques and…

Debra Rienstra: And colleagues.

Tim Van Deelen: And colleagues, yeah. So, one of the things in my world is, I never turn down a request to come and talk about this. Because I see that as sort of a special thing that I can contribute that maybe somebody else doesn’t get the opportunity for.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Yeah. Anything else you’ve been thinking about that we should talk about?

Tim Van Deelen: Well, at some point, I want to talk about your backyard landscaping.

Debra Rienstra: Of course, we call it the “refugium.” It’s just a tiny little spot, and we’ve planted it with native flowers thanks to the Plaster Creek people. So right now it looks like somebody put wood chips down and then weeds grew. That’s what it looks like. So it’ll take a couple of years before it’s recognizably a re-wilded place, but I still love it. I still love it.

Tim Van Deelen: Yeah. Just a quarter mile from where I’m sitting is, an 80-acre patch that, when we moved here 15 years ago, it was an active corn field. Dane County bought it because it’s in the upper reaches of the Yahara watershed. And I’ve watched it go from being an old corn field full of weeds to a full-on prarie, which has been gratifying because south of me, towards Madison, everything is filling up with new homes and it’s urban sprawl. But here—you know, you ask about restorative things—walking around that prairie, remembering that it used to be a corn field, and now seeing all the prairie plants, it attracts geese, it attracts a number of prairie birds. I’ve surprised sandhill cranes there, you know. Intellectually you know it’s just a little 80-acre piece. But it also gives you a little vision for what’s possible.

Debra Rienstra: Yeah. One thing leads to another. That’s what we can hope for.

Yeah. Tim, it’s been so great to talk to you today. Thank you so much for coming back on and having another conversation with me. I really appreciate it.

Tim Van Deelen: I enjoyed it, Debra.

Debra Rienstra: This has been Refugia, a podcast about renewal. If you enjoyed this episode and you have a moment, please write a quick review on your podcast platform. Reviews help other listeners find us. You can find us on Facebook at Refugia Podcast. Leave us a comment, and send us your ideas about what refugia means for you.

You can also visit our website at Explore links and transcripts from this and all our other episodes. You can find me on Facebook and Twitter at Debra K. Rienstra. Thanks for listening to the Refugiapodcast.


Leave a Reply