For the penultimate episode of season two, writer Fred Bahnson joins us to talk about arks—as in Noah’s Ark—the church forests of Ethiopia, and the tree of life in Revelation. We also consider the importance of repentance as metanoia, as well as the church-supported community garden movement, the dialogue between community and solitude, and more.
For more background
We discuss Fred’s book Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith as well as the book he co-wrote with Norman Wirzba, Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation.
Fred’s pieces mentioned in the episode: “On the Road with Thomas Merton” (with Jeremy Seifert), “The Church Forests of Ethiopia” (with Jeremy Seifert), “Sons of Noah,” “The Ecology of Prayer,” “A Garden Becomes a Protest.”
We mention Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and Barbara Holmes’s book Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church.
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.
Fred Bahnson: I think that’s the depth of love that we need for creation if we’re going to turn the climate crisis around. It can’t just be a policy tweak here and there or greening up our lifestyles. It has to be this deep, transformative metanoia.
Hi, everyone. For our penultimate episode this season, I talk with writer Fred Bahnson, whose work I admire so much. Fred is an essayist and author, an eloquent and deeply spiritual person. Fred’s recent work has focused on the metaphor of the ark—as in Noah’s Ark—and we’ve discovered that arks and refugia have a lot in common as ways to think about surviving crisis points in history.
Debra Rienstra: In our conversation, we begin and end with trees. We start out discussing Fred’s experience visiting the church forests of Ethiopia. And by the end we’re pondering the tree of life in Revelation whose leaves are for the healing of nations. In between, we consider the importance of repentance as metanoia, as well as the church-supported community garden movement, the dialogue between community and solitude, and more. I love how we get to the spiritual depths of refugia here, pondering inner restlessness and the need for mystical connection. I hope you’ll find depth and wisdom here too. As always, thanks for listening.
Today I’m talking with Fred Bahnson: author, permaculture gardener, pilgrim, mystic. Fred is the author of the book Soil and Sacrament, as well as some gorgeous essays on Thomas Merton, the church forests of Ethiopia, and contemplative spirituality. Welcome, Fred.
Fred Bahnson: Hi, Debra. Good to be with you.
Debra Rienstra: Thanks so much for talking with me today. How have you been surviving during the pandemic? You’ve just moved from North Carolina to Bozeman, Montana. What was that like?
Fred Bahnson: Yeah, it was quite an adventure. We sold our house back in March in North Carolina and rented for a few months, moved up to Bozeman in May. And this is where I grew up, was in Montana. And it’s been a long time coming, this move, I think, and really wanting to get back here. And so, yeah, we sold our house, moved out here in May, and have just moved into a new place here in the Gallatin Valley.
So, on the one hand it’s been amazing, and on the other we’ve had just all kinds of life things happen, as many of us have in the midst of this pandemic.
Debra Rienstra: Everyone in the family is healthy?
Fred Bahnson: We are now, yeah.
Debra Rienstra: Okay.
Fred Bahnson: [We] had various health issues, but we’re doing well now.
Debra Rienstra: And do you have land in this new place?
Fred Bahnson: We do, you know, we have just over an acre, so—great size, not too big, but just enough to grow a really big garden and an orchard and have some chickens. So yeah, that’s what we’re aspiring to do.
Debra Rienstra: Chickens are key.
Fred Bahnson: They are, they really are.
Debra Rienstra: So, you and I have been corresponding a little over the past months because we’re working on parallel and complementary writing projects. I’m obsessed with refugia metaphors, and you’re obsessed with ark metaphors. So, would you begin by telling us a little bit about the church forests of Ethiopia?
Fred Bahnson: Yeah, I’d be happy to. So, last year, back when we could still travel, I went to Ethiopia with my friend Jeremy Seifert, who’s a filmmaker. And Jeremy and I have been doing these multimedia storytelling projects together. I sort of roped him in to this journey I did a couple of years ago, following in the footsteps of Thomas Merton. [We] went out and retraced some of Merton’s journey, his Western journey in 1968 before his more famous Asian journey. And Jeremy and I have told that story for Emergence magazine. And this past year, we signed up with Emergence magazine again. They commissioned us to go and tell the story of these church forests in Ethiopia.
And I’ve been hearing about, and reading about these church forests, and they just totally captivated my imagination. And even just the phrase itself, “the church forests of Ethiopia” you know—how could you not want to go and find out what that’s all about?
Debra Rienstra: Absolutely.
Fred Bahnson: So we went and we spent a couple of weeks there shadowing an Ethiopian forest ecologist named Dr. Alemayehu Wassie. And we just called him Dr. A for short. And Dr. A worked with and does work with another forest ecologist, Dr. Meg Lowman, here in the U.S. And Dr. Meg is a canopy ecologist studying forest canopies around the world. And they’ve been collaborating for the past ten years, helping preserve the last remaining old-growth stands of tropical montane forests in Ethiopia.
And so your listeners might be surprised to hear that, like the U.S., Ethiopia has only 3 or 4 percent of its old-growth forest left. So we don’t really think about that here in the U.S. because so much of it is forested, but that’s—a lot of it is secondary and tertiary growth.
Debra Rienstra: That’s certainly true in Michigan.
Fred Bahnson: Yeah. Yeah. And in North Carolina as well.
And so there’s very little old growth left. And in Ethiopia, you really see that on a visual level, because so much of the land is denuded and has been turned over to agriculture. And so you see these little forests, and as we were flying over into the state of Gondar in northwestern Ethiopia, we could see these little green dots just spread out across the landscape every couple of kilometers.
And there’s something like 20,000 of these church forests in northwestern Ethiopia. And they range in size from one hectare up to hundreds of hectares, but most of them are pretty small. Sort of like neighborhood forests in a way.
Debra Rienstra: The visuals are remarkable, and we’ll link to those.
Fred Bahnson: Yeah. It’s a visually stunning phenomenon, and Jeremy, I think, really captured that with his drone footage. But in the middle of these forests are Orthodox churches. There’s a round Ethiopian Orthodox church right in the middle of the forest. And we can talk more about that, but that really captured my imagination as well. Just the church sort of right in the center of this old growth forest, as protector, as guardian, as spiritual steward, as cultural heritage site. I mean, there’s just so much there in terms of parallels with what you and I are both interested in.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So I love that these forests are literally refugia in the biological sense: they are preserving these small places of biodiversity. And I love that they’re preserved and sustained by churches, and not just by happenstance, but because this is part of their fundamental understanding of what a church is and does. Maybe you could talk about that a little bit.
Fred Bahnson: Yeah. You know, one of the things I wrote about in the article, Debra, was how Ethiopian Orthodox ideas of sacred space are really what has protected these forests. And, you know, you can look at it two ways: on the one hand you can say, “wow, there’s so little left, you know?” and I think that’s testament to a number of things, including colonialism and the Marxist regime in the 80s that cut down so many of the forests. But in terms of what is left and what the church is guarding, a lot of that is based on their idea of sacred space in that, sort of borrowing from Judaism, they see the center of the church as the Holy of Holies, and it’s almost like the Jewish temple in many regards. And so there’s the Holy of Holies, and then there’s the layer outside that, or the ring outside that, where people receive communion, and then there’s another ring where chanting and singing happens. And then there’s the courtyard outside of the church and then a wall around that. And inside that wall is sort of sacred space. And so the brilliant thing that Dr. A and a number of the priests he worked with did was to build a replica of that protective, sacred wall surrounding the church outside of the forest.
And so they essentially moved—they widened the boundaries of what is considered sacred to include the forest. And as they were quick to point out, we don’t worship trees; they’re not sort of pantheistic about it, but they’re essentially saying that the forest itself is part of the sacred ground of the church, and that when you enter the forest, you’re entering holy ground.
Debra Rienstra: And it resonates so beautifully with Genesis to Revelation and all the beautiful imagery in the scriptures that involve the redemption of land and the beauty of the land as part of God’s purpose.
So let’s dwell on that ark metaphor a moment. I set aside a quotation from the essay that I’d just love to have you read for us. Would you read that for us?
Fred Bahnson: Yeah.
“The forests are living arks of biodivesity, tiny green vessels, sailing over a barren sea of brown. In this time of rising waters and diminishing life, the church forests of Ethiopia are in many ways the perfect metaphor. As we sail into the anthropocene bottleneck, a constriction of our own making, places like Ethiopia’s church forests offer a vision of a future that we are making even now. We will need many more arks like them, tens of thousands of arks—cultural, biological, spiritual. Only then will we survive the storms that are surely coming, that have already arrived.”
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Thank you. So, a little shout out to David Oates and Kathleen Dean Moore, who also use this metaphor. Admittedly, your sentences are especially beautiful here.
One of the things I really love about that ark metaphor is this sense of transition. Arks as this way of traveling through a bottleneck, or at least we hope that they will help us do that. And there’s this kind of sense of desperate measures about the ark metaphor that isn’t quite the same as the refugia metaphor. And so I wonder if we can explore for a minute the complementary sort of contributions of the ark metaphor and the refugia metaphor. You get to go first.
Fred Bahnson: Okay. Great. Yeah. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the refugia metaphor.
Debra Rienstra: Well, I’m waiting for your thoughts.
Fred Bahnson: Yeah, so the ark, you know—I’ve been captivated by the ark for years, and I first started writing about it—I wrote a piece for Image Journal called “The Sons of Noah,” I don’t know, four or five years ago. And it was sort of a reflection on the ark in Kentucky, built by the Genesis Project, a creationist group that decided to build a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark. You know, 300 cubits by so forth—I mean, exactly as it’s described in the Bible. And, you know, as I wrote in the essay, it struck me as just a sort of farcical exercise to be building an actual ark in the middle of Kentucky, you know, hundreds of miles from the ocean, in a time where waters around the world are literally rising. Like, we are literally experiencing human-made climate-change sea-level rise around the world.
Debra Rienstra: So this is the same ark that they had to file an insurance claim for for water damage?
Fred Bahnson: Exactly. Yeah. Yup. So, another piece of irony there is that the ark doesn’t actually float. It’s not watertight. And it struck me as a very sort of American response that in the midst of this global climate crisis, you know, this group of Christians decided to spend $70 million building a replica of a sort of—in my mind, a sort of, you know, third-grade version of biblical literalism. Like, like really? You know, it was just—it struck me as just so bizarre. Why not take that $70 million and put it toward any number of climate relief- or climate mitigation-type projects?
So I wrote about that, and wrote about that in relation to the climate crisis. And then, I think more, I guess, more positively, I’ve started—just in my conversations with biologists and ecologists, they’ll sort of offhandedly refer to an ark, you know, a species arc. I’ve even read about some ecologists in North Carolina saving some freshwater mussels or freshwater clams, and they talk about “arking” a species. Like, literally pulling it out and helping rebuild the population before reintroducing it. And they use that verb, “arking.”
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. I’ve seen that too in Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, The Sixth Extinction, in the discussion of the Panamanian golden frog, and they have literally built a building there to preserve some of these amphibians. It is very much like an ark. It’s a desperate measure. They do not know when these creatures will ever be able to be released into the wild again; in that case, it’s because of a fungus that they’ve been threatened. But yeah, that idea of a separate, human-made preservation, I think, is really challenging and appropriately frightening when you talk about the ark metaphor.
Fred Bahnson: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s funny you mention Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, because one of those chapters was devoted to the work of my friend Miles Silman, who’s a tropical ecologist working in Peru and the upper Amazonian basin. And Elizabeth Kolbert followed Miles down there and spent time working with him and shadowing him. And Miles—in my conversations with them, I was sort of talking about arks—and he says, yeah, we referred to our whole region in the Amazon as an ark because of how much biodiversity is there and how we need to protect that. And he’s been working on issues, you know—stopping mercury mining there in the Amazon, and he’s created a whole conservation partnership with the Peruvian government and with NGOs and funders and Wake Forest University, protecting that ark in the upper Amazon. You know, in biologists’ language they’re already using that language. And so I was drawn to that, especially with the Ethiopian forest churches, because it just—visually it looks like this sort of self-contained little ecosystem in each of these church forests.
And there, I thought of how it’s not an ark moving through space; it’s fixed, but it’s moving through time.
Debra Rienstra: Yes.
Fred Bahnson: And I think that’s where the metaphor becomes really potent, is that, you know, we don’t need to be building literal ships. We need to protect places and species in situ and protect them where they’re going to stay, but help them be more resilient, I think. And that’s a big part of what arks can do, biological arks can do.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So is there anything about the refugia idea that resonates or maybe even expands on what you’ve been thinking about?
Fred Bahnson: Yeah, well, clearly they’re symbiotic and they’re sort of cross-pollinating metaphors in a way. But yeah, I’d love to hear you describe it. I mean, I’m captivated by the idea of a refuge in a place of protection and shelter in a way. And I see arks functioning in that way in many respects too, but I’d love to hear what captivated your imagination with the refugia idea.
Debra Rienstra: Well, I think one of the differences maybe, and it’s a fruitful difference, between ark and refugia is that refugia happen anyway; they’re not necessarily human-controlled or built. So one of the things I’ve been reading about in the biological literature is that refugial conservation biology—the main task of it is to identify where these refugia are happening anyway, and then to assist insofar as we’re able in expanding them in preserving them. So it’s a way of identifying where conservation efforts should be prioritized. And so I really like that idea. And I think you can apply that to human culture as well. Where are the places, the churches, the community groups, the human relationships that are already serving as refugia, and how can we support and sustain those and learn from them? So, that’s another thing I’ve just been thinking about in terms of human cultural refugia, is that these are places not just of shelter, but even more so of capacity-building; this idea that refugia—they’re not self-contained, they’re intended to grow. So they have this kind of a built-in sense of expansion and of permeable boundaries.
So I think maybe that’s an important difference. It might be that refugia don’t have quite the urgency that the ark metaphor does. So for that reason, I really like the ark metaphor. But this idea of refugia as something that happen and that occur, that are occurring already; I think that’s really helpful for de-centering human control over what’s happening and for helping us—and I think this is especially important for Christians who’ve had this sense of dominion. And even the word “stewardship” seems to imply that it’s all up to us, and I think it’s been very helpful to think, “Well, actually, we’re just participating in the community of creation.”
We have our particular roles, but creation itself is doing some of this work. So for that reason, I think this refugia metaphor has been really helpful to me and to a lot of the people I’ve been conversing with as well.
Fred Bahnson: Yeah. Yeah. And you know, that makes me think the refugia metaphor might work even better with the church forest idea than an ark, because they speak of those church forests as expanding, and in the work that Dr. A and Dr. Meg have done, you know, some of the forests have already started moving their walls outward. And these walls that they’re building around them are stone, dry stack walls, and they can be moved. Which I just love. I love the idea that they’ve conserved, they’ve protected, there’s enough people in the area who were behind the idea that they sort of decide, “okay, let’s negotiate with the farmers around here and let’s make the forest bigger.”
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, that was really exciting in your essay to read about that. It was also a little bit disheartening to notice that only a very small number of the total have been doing that.
Fred Bahnson: Yeah.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah.
Fred Bahnson: Just in many ways, you know, that conservation work has only just begun. I mean, there are 20,000-some church forests, and they’ve identified the top 40 in terms of biological diversity that they want to really work on. But I think the idea is just at the beginning, and they’re still, you know, they’re raising funds so that they can buy more gates, the walls—the stone is of course free, as is the labor: people volunteer to build stone walls. But they’re raising money for gates, and stipends to have people oversee it. But I think the work really is just getting going, and I hope that our story will help get the word out there to where they can continue and grow that work.
Debra Rienstra: I hope so too. It’s such a neat, beautiful model that demonstrates in this very efficient and elegant way kind of the whole work, the whole of the—as Thomas Berry calls it, “the great work”—that we all have to be engaged in right now.
So, speaking of Noah and arks, let’s talk about wickedness. In your beautiful essay in Orion magazine called “The Ecology of Prayer,” you propose that in this moment Christianity can offer two key strengths: a strong tradition of repentance and practices of mystical connection. So can you describe what those two things mean for you?
Fred Bahnson: Yeah. You had included a couple of quotes from those sections. Should I read those?
Debra Rienstra: If you want to, sure.
Fred Bahnson: Okay. So, in terms of the repentance theme, I’ll read a short quote here.
“We need a deeper form of political engagement; one that leads us to confront the darkness of the human heart. We can’t leap straight to Easter without first passing through Good Friday. Perhaps what we needed that night at the National Cathedral was not more can-do American solutions, I thought, but more sackcloth and ashes.”
So part of the essay was a reflection on my visit to the National Cathedral and to a big faith-based climate protest there. And this was a couple of years ago, and this coincided with Pope Francis’s visit, when he spoke at the Capitol. And I was reflecting back on that, and it just it seemed like so much of the energy around the protests was sort of jumping right to the solutions and right to political engagement. I agreed with much of that, and I’m all for climate activism, and I consider myself a climate activist. But also I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can’t just sort of baptize as Christians whatever 350.org is doing this week. Like, we have to have our own unique, distinct contribution. And what is that? And to me, it seems like what Christianity has most to offer in this moment of global climate change is repentance and a mystical connection.
And so, in terms of repentance, what I mean by that is, I think, the New Testament understanding of metanoia. And so, repentance is not just sort of feeling guilty for your sins. I think that’s something a lot of us in the Christian world have grown up with: you know, you repent for your sins and you sort of hang your head and sort of kick your toe in the dust and say, “Aw shucks,” you know, “Lord, I promise to do better next time.” I think that’s a really sort of jejune, childlike understanding of repentance. I think it’s much more radical than that, right? Feeling guilty doesn’t really get you very far. And it’s not very much fun to just kind of sit around feeling guilty.
I think what Jesus is calling us to with metanoia is being transformed, having our lives completely reoriented. And when we reorient our lives, were we orient them in the direction of Jesus’ kingdom—I think that has begun even now, and that we have this beautiful vision of in the Gospels, with people being healed and people’s lives being changed. And then also in the book of Revelation, the final vision of a new heaven and a new earth. And if we align ourselves with that vision, I think that’s much more long-lasting and transformative than just sort of feeling guilty that you had some impure thoughts or something.
Debra Rienstra: You know, I’m actually surprised to hear you say this dimension of repentance. I almost expected you to talk about lament.
Fred Bahnson: Yeah. Well, I think that’s of course, part of it. And I think to reorient ourselves we have to lament systemic structures of injustice that we participated in, as well as our own individual faults. I mean, we have to lament all the ways we’ve screwed up. So I think that’s part of reorienting ourselves. It’s not a complete sort of ignoring or sweeping under the rug so much as it is turning towards something better.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah.
Fred Bahnson: Jesus has shown us. And so I think lament is part of that.
Debra Rienstra: You know, I’m not sure—this is a generalization, of course—I’m not sure Christians as a whole have actually been modeling repentance all that well, and I wonder if you have noticed that, too. Are there factors or dynamics that dampen Christian contributions in our modeling these practices, or even just dampen Christian contributions in the climate movement or in this task of healing?
Fred Bahnson: Well, I don’t think the majority of Christians think they have much to repent for in terms of the climate crisis, you know? I’m not convinced that people have fully grasped the magnitude of what we have done and what is coming. And so I think you have to become aware, first of all, before you can lament and before you can repent and turn your life around in a better direction.
So I think that’s a lot of what I feel my work has been about in a very small way, is trying to help wake people up. Trying to help show people. I mean, that’s a big part of what motivates me to write, is to try to tell these stories that are shocking in some ways and that are also hopeful, ultimately.
Debra Rienstra: What about that mystical connection? That was the other contribution that you felt Christianity can bring. What can Christians bring to help people live into that mystical connection? And what do you mean by that?
Fred Bahnson: Well, what I wrote in the Orion piece is this. I said, “What Christianity most has to offer the world now is not moral guidance or activism, or yet another social program. It is mystical connection to the source of life, capital S Source. Cultivating that divine human love affair seems to me the only hope left.
So I think I’ve come to this through my own faith journey and coming up against what I would describe as an overly intellectualized faith. And I think those of us in the Protestant tradition are always in danger of sort of practicing our faith from the shoulders up, rather than a more embodied faith.
And coming up against the shortcomings of that in my own life has led me to a search for a more embodied faith, a more mystical faith, a hunger for a deeper connection to experience God and to be in union with God. And that really just turned me right back to the Christian mystical and contemplative tradition. And lo and behold, you know, people have been working on that question for the past 2000 years in the Christian tradition, much longer in Judaism. But we have all of these guides who’ve come before us, and I’ve been reading them and really coming to see the richness of the contemplative life in the Christian life. And writers like Saint Isaac of Syria, who has this wonderful quote which I’m going to try to paraphrase. He said something like, “What is a merciful heart? A heart that’s on fire for all of creation, for the birds, for the trees, even for the demons,” he said. “It’s a heart that’s on fire for all of creation, that’s a merciful heart.”
And I think that’s the depth of love that we need for creation if we’re going to turn the climate crisis around. It can’t just be a policy tweak here and there or greening up our lifestyles. It has to be this deep, transformative metanoia, what Pope Francis calls an “ecological conversion.”
And so I see the two as really intertwined, this mystical hunger for God and this desire to see the earth transformed and made whole. And the mystics have been doing that work for millennia. Of course, the desert fathers and mothers were deeply immersed in their actual places, in the deserts of Egypt. And so, many of the stories were of them working out their salvation in that particular place.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. One of the things I really appreciate about your writing is your ability to be so honest about your own journey and your discoveries and your stumbles and your questions and doubts. The writing is so beautiful, but there’s a kind of authenticity behind it that makes it even more radiant. So I’m grateful for what you’re doing as you follow this path, but also as you draw readers along with you on that path.
Fred Bahnson: Well, thank you. I appreciate that.
Debra Rienstra: So let’s talk about Soil and Sacrament and farming. In that book, you described your own experience starting a community garden connected with the church, and you also recount visits to four other places that I would describe as refugia. So there’s a Trappist monastery, a community garden in North Carolina, an organic farm in Washington state, a Jewish organic farm in the Berkshires.
So tell us about this community garden movement. How are these places working as refugia or arks?
Fred Bahnson: Well, the impetus for this book really came out of my four years as director of Anathoth Community Garden, this little five-acre piece of land in northern Orange County, North Carolina. And as I helped to get this garden going, it occurred to me that—so this garden was part of a local Methodist church, and it was one of the sort of early church-supported community gardens, in the Southeast at least. This was back in 2005.
Debra Rienstra: So this is a recent movement.
Fred Bahnson: It is, it is. I mean, there’s always been, I would say, faith-based gardening and farming-type efforts. But I think in terms of coming up in the national consciousness, this really kicked off about 15 years ago, I would say. I would place it 15 years ago because when we started in 2005, there were very few models of how you do it, how you get a community garden going through a church. And so a lot of my work was just figuring it out, you know, building the ship as we sailed it.
And in those four years, I really started writing about our experience and what we were learning and the kinds of people coming to our garden. And I published an essay in Orion magazine called “The Garden as Protest,” I think it was called. And that was sort of the early version of what later became the book Soil and Sacrament.
I wanted to at first tell the story of this garden and its people and all of the amazing things I was witnessing, but it also became clear to me that this was part of a larger movement and there were other Christians and Jewish synagogues and—mostly Christian and Jewish, but people of other faiths as well—who are sort of reclaiming their faith through the land and through growing food. And a lot of it was happening in community gardens and small farms. And so I had this really amazing opportunity through the Kellogg Foundation. I had a two-year writing grant with them called the Food and Society Policy Fellowship. Just a huge gift to go and travel and research and wright.
And so I spent a couple years as a journalist, just traveling around and writing about these different faith-based farming and gardening projects. And so Soil and Sacrament the book was the result of that research. And, you know, I had dozens that I could have written about and I sort of had to narrow it down to four. And I chose one per season.
So I began in a Trappist monastery in South Carolina, Mepkin Abbey, and began there in the winter, and then moved to a Protestant community garden called The Lord’s Acre in western North Carolina, did that in Eastertide. I should say each season corresponded to a liturgical holiday. So I began in Advent, moved to Eastertide; in the summer feast of Pentecost, I visited a Pentecostal farm and coffee-roasting operation in Washington state. And then I finished the journey in the fall with the Jewish feast of Sukkot, a big harvest festival. And visited a Jewish farm in western Connecticut, Adamah Farm.
And the Jewish farm really, I would say, emerged as the hero of the book. I was looking for places where soil and sacraments met and were feeding off of each other, where the life of worship and liturgy and prayer was deeply enmeshed with the life of growing food and being connected to a piece of land. And I saw that most fully realized, I would say, on this Jewish farm in Connecticut.
But as you said, each of these places really functioned a kind of refuge and as a place of welcome, of healing, of reconnection with the earth, reconnection with God.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. One of the things we’ve been emphasizing is the way that in a refugium people are able to build capacities that then they take with them outside the refugia. That’s how they grow. So, what capacities do you see happening in these community gardens and in these farms that are then spreading?
Fred Bahnson: There’s so many. There’s so many, Debra. I mean, I think of these places as what I call—I co-wrote a book with my friend Norman Wirzba called Making Peace with the Land. And in that book, I describe these kind of church-supported community gardens as “infrastructures of holiness,” creating “infrastructures of holiness,” places where holiness could grow. And I think of these projects very much like that, where it’s not just the sum of its parts, but it’s actually, you know, one plus one plus one equals ten.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, we call that “emergent properties” in biology.
Fred Bahnson: Emergent properties, yeah. Just like natural ecosystems. And I think that’s really where they come into their own, is that they’re a sort of mashup of human ecosystems and natural ecosystems, and the emergent properties just spring to life out of that marriage. I’m sort of mixing my metaphors here, but…
Debra Rienstra: It’s fun.
Fred Bahnson: Yeah. I mean, any one of you listening who’s tried to grow food, you realize that you’re only just—you know, your human inputs are a very small part of the reason why a crop emerges three or four months later. Like, there’s just so many other things happening in the soil and with that piece of land and with the way that plant, you know, photosynthesizes and the way it interacts with mycelium and fungal species to gather nutrients. I mean, there’s so many things, so many mysteries you’re participating in, that you have no hand in and you can’t claim credit for, but you’re able to participate in and enjoy the fruits of nonetheless.
I think that’s one of the things that comes out of these community garden projects and these community farming projects, is that when you reconnect people to land and each other, and you have some kind of acknowledgement of these larger mysteries—especially in the Christian tradition, you know, linking that directly back to our faith—your faith is growing, your connection to people is being nourished, and your connection to the soil is growing as well. So it’s a kind of additive process where you’re continually growing.
Debra Rienstra: Let’s talk about community. One of the themes in all of your writing, I think, is that dialectic between solitude and community. And I came away from Soil and Sacrament thinking, “Wow, community is really hard.” So I often wonder whether we can even hold up under the community challenges that are going to be demanded of us. There are some people, including Bill McKibben and others, who say, “Yeah, you know, in the world that we’re heading toward, we’re going to have to be more cooperative with our neighbors, we’re going to have to emphasize local community a lot more.” And I know that you, too, like me, are a person who really values solitude. So, I don’t know, are we going to be able to do this, Fred?
Fred Bahnson: Yeah, that’s a great question, Debra. I’m a total hermit, and this is why I did not last longer than four years in the community gardening movement. I love the growing food part, but the community part was a real struggle.
Debra Rienstra: That’s what scares me too. I’m not sure I’m up for it. What do we do?
Fred Bahnson: So, you know, as much as I kind of idolized that communal life in Soil and Sacrament, and, you know, the places I visited I was just so in awe of, especially the Jewish farm and the Trappist monks, you know, where they live a life of pretty intense communal life.
But I think it was the Trappist monks who helped me see that, especially in a communal life, you really need times of solitude. Some of us more than others. And I think that’s just—it’s simply a matter of setting up structures where you get a daily sort of dialogue between solitude and community, you have a daily rhythm where there’s times for gathering and times for withdrawal. And I’m thinking a lot about this now, because I’m a householder. You know, I’m married, I have three boys, ages nine, twelve, and fifteen, and you know, it’s a daily negotiation, how we balance that solitude and community and…
Debra Rienstra: Children, they say, are the quick path to sainthood.
Fred Bahnson: Yeah, they really are. It’s very humbling being a parent.
But I think that’s just a live question, and it’s a theme that comes up a lot in my writing, I’ve noticed over the years. And so it’s something that I haven’t figured out, but it’s something I think a lot about and struggle with.
And I think for me as a natural hermit, I think of myself as a gregarious hermit. I love being around people, but I get worn out being around too many people, and so I need times to pull back as well. But I think being a parent has really stretched me and pulled me out of my natural inclination toward too much solitude. You know, given the choice, I would be alone a lot more.
So it’s been a gift and a challenge to be pulled out of that at times.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So, pilgrimage is one way that one can find solitude. And, as you wrote about it in your piece on Merton, you use the phrase “the geographical cure,” which is a way of describing this desire to go somewhere else to relieve a kind of inner restlessness.
So I I’ve been thinking about this too, and thinking about how there are places people love to go as a kind of pilgrimage refugia. So one good example might be the isle of Iona and the Iona Community. And so maybe, in biological terms, we could think about pilgrimage sites as ex situ refugia—you mentioned in situ refugia earlier, so ex situ refugia, the ones that you go to. So places where animals or plants move, even to survive. This is what happens in the natural world.
So I wonder if you could talk about the role of pilgrimage in building the capacities we need to meet the challenges of this historical moment. What can pilgrimage do for us?
Fred Bahnson: Yeah. That’s a great question. Well, in that Merton essay, I wrote about— Merton has this wonderful, relatively unknown essay called “From Pilgrimage to Crusade.” And it’s one of the best things he’s written, I think. It’s a really great juxtaposition between what he understands early Christianity being, which is a pilgrimage faith, up until the sixth or seventh century, especially with the Irish monks, the peregrini, where they set off in little coracles traveling and going on pilgrimage.
But that idea, that metaphor of our faith being a journey, being a pilgrimage toward God. And sometimes it helps us to enact that physically, where we actually move, move our bodies in space. But then the flip side of that, the sort of dark side, is the crusade, where we go off to other lands to take things and to exert our power and to further the colonial project. You know, the colonial project was an extension of the crusader mentality.
And I think today, you know, I see the sort of move to colonize Mars or terraform Mars as part of that same crusader colonial mentality, where we’re going to just escape. You know, things here—things have gotten too bad; we’re going to escape and we’re going to go do something better over there on some other planet, right?
Debra Rienstra: Fascinating.
Fred Bahnson: And so I think there’s the dark side, that’s the dark side of pilgrimages. Going off with a kind of inner restlessness and taking all of our problems with us and just transplanting them somewhere else. And I think that’s where we really have to be careful, if we do go on pilgrimage, not to reenact that sordid history of Christian colonialism.
But in terms of a more positive understanding of pilgrimage in this time of the anthropocene, I think a lot of it looks like visiting these arks and refuges and seeing what can be done in our particular places. I think the great advantage, I hope, of a story like the church forests of Ethiopia is not that we should all go visit Ethiopia, but that we can take that metaphor and ask, “What can we protect here, where we live? And what are the true biological ecological treasures that we have here in our homes, those of us in North America? And how can we protect those?”
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. And even churches are doing that more and more. There’s a bit of a movement toward a responsible healing of church property itself. Churches do own significant real estate in North America, and to consider that an opportunity for modeling these kinds of refugia, or arks, is beginning to happen.
Fred Bahnson: Yeah.
Debra Rienstra: So you’ve been working on contemplative Christianity, the turn to contemplative Christianity. Could you describe what that is?
Fred Bahnson: Yeah. Well, I talked a little about that earlier, I think just sort of my own rediscovery of the contemplative tradition, where prayer is much more about sort of wanting with God rather than asking God for a bunch of stuff.
Debra Rienstra: Hmm.
Fred Bahnson: So, you know, I grew up with this, what I call the “just wanna” prayer. You know, ‘Lord. I just wanna ask you, God, I just wanna thank you.” And we’re sort of rattling off this long list of either demands or list of gratitudes or whatever, you know, the intercessory kind of prayers. And that’s a whole lot of talking that we’re doing, and there’s not much space there for us to listen. And I’ve been much more drawn toward the listening tradition of prayer within Christianity, where we’re just sitting with God and seeing what God has to say to us in that silence.
So being comfortable with silence, being comfortable with solitude, or even communal silence, it doesn’t have to be solitude.
Debra Rienstra: Are you seeing this turn elsewhere in Christianity, are you seeing it…?
Fred Bahnson: I am. Yeah. And I’ve actually been slowly working on a long piece for Harper’s magazine about what I’m calling this contemplative turn. And I’m seeing it in, like, you know—I went to a Richard Rohr conference last year, the Universal Christ Conference. And there were a couple thousand people there in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
And Rohr has something like 400,000 subscribers to his daily listserv. And he’s one of the more well-known spokespeople of the contemplative movement, but it’s not just white dudes like him. It’s Dr. Barbara Holmes, an African American theologian and writer and former divinity school dean. She has a beautiful book called Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices in the Black Church. And she’s kind of reclaiming a lot of Black church traditions as contemplative utterance.
And so I think that there is a deep hunger for something beyond the, I would say, more chatty expressions of Christianity. It’s something that involves much more listening on our part and more embodied expressions of prayer.
Debra Rienstra: And there’s a beautiful nexus with connection to the created world.
Fred Bahnson: Exactly. Exactly. You know, the world is really trying to tell us something, and how are we going to be able to listen if we’re speaking all the time, if we’re constantly making arguments or trying to convince people at something? And so I think that’s where the contemplative tradition has a lot to speak, a lot to teach us, is to be in a posture of humility, be in a posture of listening, of receptivity, of vulnerability. And those contemplative practices of prayer train us in those ways of being and knowing. And I think that’s especially what’s needed now, if we’re going to have that ecological conversion.
Debra Rienstra: So this is the perfect time for you to read another quotation from “The Church Forests of Ethiopia.” Would you mind reading that last one?
Fred Bahnson: “Perhaps our time calls us to extend that yearning to the trees. To find God not only in the bread and wine, but in the bark and branch, the soil and mycelium. To notice the intercessory work of forests, breathing their invisible sighs from every copse, stand, and canopy.”
Debra Rienstra: I just love that phrase “intercessory work.” And it makes me wonder anew about that beautiful moment in Revelation 21, from the vision of the new heavens and the new earth, where the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. So what do you mean by intercessory work of the forest?
Fred Bahnson: Yeah. You know, the New Testament scholar Barbara Rossing talks about that passage. She does a lot of work on ecological themes within the book of Revelation. And she talks about how it’s striking in that passage, the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations: it’s striking the God’s healing comes through the leaves of a tree. Like, that’s the mechanism of God’s healing. It’s not some sort of power zap from heaven. It’s the leaves of the tree, this thing that we just don’t give much thought to, but yet that is the channel through which God’s healing comes. So I think of the natural world as intercessory in that way. And as we can see here, that’s a very biblical idea. And I think we’re coming back to this, I would say, biblical understanding of creation having agency and God’s healing coming through the agency of creation. You know, it comes back to all of the sort of gifts and nourishment we receive from gardens and from farms and through our food, right? That’s the way God loves us and cares for us.
So that’s intercessory work, you know, going on. And I think it’s just—the more we pay attention to those connections, that’s where we start to see God working and healing us through creation. But we have to be in relationship with that. And that’s where proximity matters, and that’s where cultivating a relationship with our local ecosystems in places, much like we would cultivate a friendship or a love affair or a marriage.
Debra Rienstra: Wonderful. Anything else you want me to ask or anything else you want to say?
Fred Bahnson: Boy, I just love the work you’re doing and this whole idea of refugia, and it was fun that we sort of had that aha moment of “Wait, you’re working on that, and you’re working on that.” And I think that’s a sign, you know, that this is a rich vein that we’ve tapped in our different ways, the ark and the refuge. And yeah, so I’m just excited to have a fellow traveler and fellow writer and thinker like you out there doing this, and I’m grateful for our conversation.
Debra Rienstra: I agree and let’s keep traveling together.
Fred Bahnson: Let’s do.
Debra Rienstra: Thank you, Fred, it’s been great to talk to you today. I so appreciate your time and your wisdom and your beautiful, beautiful work. Thank you.
Fred Bahnson: Thank you Debra. It’s been a joy.
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.
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