For this episode, as promised, Dave Koetje returns to reflect on some highlights from season two. All of our guests have contributed meaningful and thought-provoking ideas this season. And we marvel a little bit at how the many forms of refugia we’ve explored, taken together, start to reveal emergent properties—new patterns that we hope will prove transformative.
For more background
Check out each of season two’s episodes to hear more from our brilliant guests.
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.
David Koetje: I find that there’s a great deal of hope for new, more inclusive systems that will emerge then out of these new and revitalized paradigms. I think so much of what I see happening is a reorientation that says, “Okay, I’m getting out of my own skin, out of my own view of the world, and I’m learning how to embrace what the world is like through the eyes, through the paws, through the fins of another.”
Debra Rienstra: Hi, everyone. Thanks for journeying with us through another season of the Refugia Podcast. For this episode, as promised, I’ve invited my friend Dave Koetje back to reflect with me on some highlights from season two. All of our guests have contributed meaningful and thought-provoking ideas this season. And Dave and I marvel a little bit at how the many forms of refugia we’ve explored, taken together, start to reveal emergent properties—new patterns that we hope will prove transformative.
For the next few minutes, we reflect on a church in transition, on inspiring leadership from both young and old, on shifting our thinking from hierarchies to webs of inter-relations. We even sing the praises of kale.
We hope you found all this season’s conversations challenging and evocative. As always, thanks for listening.
Today, I’m talking with Dave Koetje, professor of biology at Calvin University and my faithful dialogue partner for the Refugia Podcast from the very beginning. Hey, Dave.
David Koetje: Hey, Deb, how are you?
Debra Rienstra: I’m doing all right. How are you?
David Koetje: Doing good.
Debra Rienstra: Good. Welcome back for the final episode of season two. I appreciate that you’re willing to reflect with me on what we’ve learned this season. We’ve come a long way since we recorded that first episode in the summer of 2019, haven’t we?
David Koetje: Seems like a decade ago.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, exactly. More crises and changes to deal with in the world since then, and even more compelling reasons to keep exploring this idea of refugia. So let’s check in a little bit. We started recording season two during a lockdown last summer, and now here we are in Michigan entering a modified lockdown again. And in between there, our university managed almost an entire semester of in-person learning. So how did teaching and learning go for you this semester?
David Koetje: It was actually a pretty decent experience overall for me. I did a fair amount of my courses online anyway and had some permission to do that. But I did actually take a course, in person, up until this week. And that was a Dutch 101 course, so my wife and I are both beginning Dutch speakers, and that should be fun.
Debra Rienstra: How did that feel to be on the other side of things?
David Koetje: Oh, it’s a riot. It’s actually fun to be a student. I try not to be too obnoxious of a student, but, you know, as a professor you kind of long for students to kind of interact and so on. So I get to be that person now, that I kind of long for myself, and do some interactions in the class. It’s a small class, about 12 of us total—super motivated people because we’re doing this just for the love of it.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah.
David Koetje: And what’s not to love about that? Learning for the sake of learning. Wow. That’s fun.
Debra Rienstra: What inspired you and your wife to start learning Dutch?
David Koetje: Well, my wife is actually the child of Dutch immigrants, so there’s that aspect of it. And then I have taught a Dutch interim course once and hope to do that again in May, COVID willing. And the more I learn about the cool things that are going on in the Netherlands, the more—I want to learn more about the culture, the language, whatnot. It’s just pure curiosity and fun.
Debra Rienstra: That is wonderful to be at that point where we can do that. I sat in last semester on a geography class with our colleague Deanna van Dijk, sat in on her dunes research class and watched students start to learn how to do field research, and it was great.
So let’s check in with each other, too, about this season’s episodes. We had another terrific set of guests, and we continue to deepen our understanding of refugia, both in the biological world and in the realms of human culture and the church. So what were some highlights for you this season?
David Koetje: First of all, where do you find all of these wonderful guests? My goodness. I am so humbled to be part of this tribe of people.
Debra Rienstra: Oh, well, connections through Calvin, you know?
David Koetje: Yeah. Well, so many highlights to this particular lineup. Bill McKibben is first of all just an incredible guy. I have really appreciated his approach to leadership. And when he talks especially about wanting to be known as an elder, and he describes what for me sounds very much like a mentor—he really wants to advocate for other people. And I think that is such a powerful form of leadership, and it fits almost perfectly with sort of the idealized version of refugia that I have in my head.
A refugia is led not by some superhuman, you know, dynamo leader, but by somebody who is out there underneath the whole process, kind of pushing this forward and pushing over there and encouraging over here and correcting over there, and just everything behind the scenes, just orchestrating all of that. And Bill just seems to fit that perfectly.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, he creates this—or doesn’t create, but he catalyzes this wonderful ecosystem—
David Koetje: Yeah.
Debra Rienstra: —of people, and he’s such a connector. So that was very inspiring. Completely agree. All right, what were some other highlights for you?
David Koetje: All of these stories, all these guests speaking to different crises, the sense of chaos happening all around and then their responses to that. And it just strikes me over and over again that this is actually sort of a prerequisite to this more decentralized, place-based reform that needs to be happening and is happening in so many places around the world.
And that even though these folks in their little places don’t often feel this, when you add it all up it becomes a really powerful collective movement. And I’m so impressed with that.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, even though, you know, refugia is exactly the opposite of, like, a global organized movement, but it’s exactly as you describe, it’s made up of all these little islands of reform and renewal that together add up to something. Even if they don’t coalesce with one another, they add up to something taken together.
So it has been a kind of encouraging continuation of the podcast to see all of these different examples of it, some of the images and terms that really inspired me this season, the image of the kite flying as a way of thinking about the Holy Spirit inspiring change and new patterns, or the image of the Ethiopian church forests, I think, is this beautiful image of refugium. Our new words that we learned, eloheh and cynefin—I’ve had to practice those.
The phrase “Love thy downstream neighbor” has been really helpful as I continue to think about this. And as you say, just this sense of so many people facing the crisis in the climate and the crisis in the church, too, with courage and creativity; it’s been inspiring to make those connections.
David Koetje: Yeah. I think it was Kate maybe who said something about ripples forming, and so on. And you think, that to me spoke as well so much of what Randy was talking about as being “co-sustainers.” And you think—a co-sustainer, co-sustaining—certainly with God, I mean, we think of it sort of in that way, but co-sustaining also with these other earth creatures.
Debra Rienstra: Absolutely.
David Koetje: And so you kind of get this feeling. And I think it was Kate that spoke of the migration occurring in Central America, the climate migration. And I get this feeling that we’re all kind of migrating.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Even if we’re staying in place.
David Koetje: Even if we’re staying in place, we’re migrating with really diverse sojourners. [That’s] so exciting because, you know, sometimes we want to limit our refugia to this little place. And we’ll even talk about that later, about, you know, a church as a refugium. But the more we think about what’s going on, the more we think about who’s involved, the more connections we make, the more we realize: well, this church, this group of people who are part of this refugium, this extends way beyond the borders that I’ve constructed in my mind.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. That’s one of the things I’ve been grappling with, is the local and yet not-local nature of refugia. And we’ve heard that a number of different ways. We’ve talked about pilgrimage refugia, we’ve talked about ex situ refugia, to use the biological term. And especially for younger people, and indeed older people too, moving from one way of engaging with the church to some other way. Even if they stay in the same place, they’re connecting with different people and different practices. So it’s just another angle on this.
Let’s go back to climate action. So much good news since we’ve last talked. I mean, of course there’s still a lot to worry about and lament, but we’ve had some good news in Michigan. Governor Whitmer has shut down Enbridge Line 5; a lot of us have been fighting for that for awhile. And President-Elect Biden has a fairly ambitious agenda for addressing the climate crisis. So this work goes forward, and I wonder, are you feeling any more optimism right now?
David Koetje: Yeah, tremendous, actually. There’s plenty, plenty, plenty of things that need to be done. And so, on the one hand, that can feel overwhelming to people. Certainly it does to students when they’re grappling with this, and that’s one of the things that I also wrestle with myself. But what I see happening here with refugia is that these provide places where new habits, new rituals, stories, and even meanings can form. And this collectively moves us in a reorientation towards a more radical inclusivity. And I find that there’s a great deal of hope for new, more inclusive systems that will emerge then out of these new and revitalized paradigms. I think so much of what I see happening is a reorientation that says, “Okay, I’m getting out of my own skin, out of my own view of the world, and I’m learning how to embrace what the world is like through the eyes, through the paws, through the fins of another.”
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. Yeah. And I think that what’s happening in climate movement leadership, is building the capacities to do that kind of inclusivity. And I’ve seen that among young people as I listen and watch for climate leadership; I’ve seen that even in our own town with the work in Grand Rapids to go carbon-neutral by 2030. There’s a group that is very intentionally forming itself around leadership from people in frontline communities, people of color. So it’s not just talk; it’s actually happening, and building these capacities. And that’s something to be grateful for. Those new patterns that Ruth Harvey talked about are actually happening, and it’s great to see.
Let’s go back to that word “co-sustainers,” which I agree is so helpful. And Randy Woodley’s other term, too, “community of creation,” has been really helpful to me. So he’s bringing a particular indigenous accent to Christian ways of thinking.
So talk about those terms and maybe how they evoke things for you beyond our usual terms in the Christian world of “kingdom” and “stewardship.”
David Koetje: Well, I’ll first start with a couple of biological examples because, you know, I am a biologist after all.
Debra Rienstra: Please do. Please do.
David Koetje: Well, the example that just comes to my mind so readily is the co-sustaining work of pollinators and flowering plants. You know, you cannot have pollinators without flowering plants, and you cannot have flowering plants without pollinators. They’re co-sustainers in their coexistence. And that’s just such a powerful example. And then as you begin to look around, you realize as well that there are just so many other examples. It’s been controversial, right? The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park, already almost, what, 20 years ago or so, right? But the changes that have happened within that ecosystem, revitalizing the health of the ecosystem and even the prey populations—you think, “Oh my gosh, you’re going to introduce wolves. That’s gonna really annihilate the prey.” Prey are actually thriving a lot better than they were before the wolves were reintroduced.
And so it just reminds us so many times that, yes, there are these co-dependencies within the natural world that we don’t even observe until something is not working well. Then we observe them when we say, “Oh my goodness, this is the way—we need to kind of rethink the way that nature should work, right?”
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. That leads us to rethink our theology and our terminology in the Christian world. Because if you think about it, “kingdom” and “stewardship” are both based on hierarchy, and yet what the natural world shows us is a web.
David Koetje: Yeah.
Debra Rienstra: And so if we start to think of ourselves as members of that web—and as you said before, co-sustainers, not just with God, but co-sustainers with bees and moths and flowers and trees—that makes us think about our role and our responsibility in really different ways.
David Koetje: Yes, it does. I like that de-centering that happens there. I mean, there’s elements of the more hierarchical terms that are helpful, right? Especially when we think about our relationship with the Creator. But it’s so easy for us to assume that hierarchies are everywhere in the natural world when in fact it is a web of interconnections. And even the creatures who we say are the top, right, the carnivores on the top—they’re so dependent on what’s going on at the bottom of that food chain. And I think it’s so helpful to think about that. But of course that begs questions like, okay, well, what about shalom? Right? If you’re talking about predator-prey interactions, you know, there are people who say, “Oh my goodness, there’s so much pain and there’s so much killing and death that’s occurring there. How in the world could that be shalom?” And yet, as a biologist, you think, “Well, it’s a shalom because the overall process leads to this way of operating the way it’s supposed to work.” And there’s something shalomic about that, although it blows our mind to be and to think about that. And so, you know, we got this image of moving into and out of shalom.
Debra Rienstra: I thought that was very helpful too. Yeah. And the way that Randy says shalom—it’s not utopia. It’s eloheh, it’s harmony, a harmony way that continues. It’s embedded in these cycles. So the visions and the scripture of the lion and the lamb and so on—we can imagine that, but that’s not where we are.
David Koetje: Right, right. Yeah. Yeah.
Debra Rienstra: So I was also struck by Ruth Harvey’s emphasis on flashes of insight that we remarked on a moment ago and new patterns that emerge, which—those ideas come from her long experience with a premiere example of cultural refugia, which would be the Iona Community. So relate that to biology a little bit. So talk about emergent properties in biology, because from what I understand, that’s the term that biologists use to talk about patterns that emerge.
David Koetje: Well, before I talk about that, just come back to that image for a second: these little flashes of insight and patterns that emerge. I couldn’t help but think when she was talking about that, about walking in the summertime through a wooded area with sunlight streaming through the canopy of a forest. And you see these little flashes of light, especially if you’re looking at a pond in the forest or something, and you see these little flashes of light on the pond from the leaf patterns. It’s fleeting. It comes and goes, and you’re thinking, “Did I just see what I think I saw?” And you’re not sure about that.
Now, to come back to your other question about emergent properties. In biology, we are dealing with complex adaptive systems. Everything in biology is a complex system, and it’s constantly adapting with its surroundings.
If you look at the individual components of the ecosystem and you look at how each component is using nutrients—the plants taking up nutrients from the soil, also taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, using that to build plant biomass, but then herbivores come along and they’re chewing on the plants, and then carnivores come along and chew on the herbivores, anything—okay. They’re all using these nutrients, but you would never come up with this idea of a cycle of nutrients unless you look at the whole ecosystem functioning, and then you say, “Ah, there’s a carbon cycle. There’s a nitrogen cycle.” And so on.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So the challenge both in biological study and in cultural thinking and cultural systems is dealing with the number of variables all in dynamic motion. And so that’s been the challenge for conservation biologists recently as we think about resilience in a climate-changed world, is that we understand a lot about these systems, but not as much as we wish we did if we want to be co-sustainers, as these biological systems try to react and adjust to changing climate.
So in human cultural terms, I’m thinking of how Fred Bahnson talked about infrastructures of holiness and Ruth Harvey’s term, the Welsh term cynefin, which has this meaning of “habitat.” So, similarly, as we think about cultural systems, we have to think about building those webs or nudging those systems into ways of being that are more harmonious and are more life-giving to the whole web involved. So that’s the challenge.
David Koetje: Also something to keep in mind if you’re involved day-to-day in these kinds of interactions and you’re saying, “I just don’t see that it’s making a difference.”
Debra Rienstra: Yeah.
David Koetje: And it’s easy for us to get depressed about that. Many of your guests talked about wrestling with, you know, feelings of depression and so on.
And I myself have felt, you know, pretty down in the dumps about things at times. But then you have to realize that what really emerges out of this is a property that is often really hard to see unless you’ve stepped back. And once you step back, then you realize, “Oh, there’s an emergent property there where this now begins to sustain itself in a way that, you know, the individual components…”—yeah, it’s almost impossible to see that.
Debra Rienstra: Right. So that’s a really good way to think about the scale problem with refugia, where refugia are by definition small and local. But as we were saying, if you have them everywhere, then there begins to emerge these infrastructures of holiness or of harmony, however you want to say that. And that’s what we have our eyes out for in this podcast and in our work these days.
So let’s talk about the church. We heard a lot this season about the church in a place of transition, and I was really impressed by our two young women guests Katerina and Kathryn, both brilliant Calvin grads, of course, and their struggle—a beautiful but painful struggle—to deconstruct and reconstruct their Christian faith.
Like so many young people, they see so much about the church that needs repair and even reform; they’re clear-eyed about that. Yet they’re not rejecting the church or their faith. And instead they’re finding activism and embodied practice to be a healing way forward. That’s where they’re finding refugia.
So I wonder about your biology majors. I could tell you about our English majors, maybe, a little bit, but I wonder what you’re observing in your biology majors as you see them working toward a mature faith.
David Koetje: Yeah. I see a lot of biology majors really wrestling with especially the church’s response to some of these crises. This causes great concern for them. I do a lot to encourage them not to give up—that they are, in fact, the ones we’ve been waiting for. Right? And there’s a number of little tactics that I’ve used over the last couple of semesters to help people to do this kind of reflective work that needs to happen in order to sustain themselves.
Midway through this semester, I had a reflection/response paper that students in my Global Health, Environment, and Sustainability class had to write. I said, “Okay, think back over the first half of the semester. And I want you to write either a letter or an article for Chimes, or maybe it’s a letter to an elected official. Maybe it is a letter to a place. Maybe it’s a letter to a creature. And I want you to reflect: what would you say to that person, to that place? What kinds of things would you put into that?” And I had some letters that—no kidding, I got really misty-eyed as I was reading these things. They’re just so passionate and so inspired in what they want to do. I had one young woman who wrote a letter to her pessimistic self—
Debra Rienstra: Perfect.
David Koetje: —and then she signed it ‘your optimistic self.’
Debra Rienstra: Oh, wonderful.
David Koetje: It was just—oh my gosh. Even just thinking about it now makes me feel a little choked up, just because her optimistic self writing this letter was reminding her pessimistic self, “This is what got you excited about doing this kind of work anyway.” And I think she’s a developmental studies major. And so she says, “Yeah, I see all of the challenges. I see these things going on around, and I feel overwhelmed at times, my pessimistic self feels overwhelmed. But don’t forget what got you going into this in the first place.”
I had other students who wrote, you know—I had a student who wrote a letter to the little turtle that I rescued at such-and-such a golf course.
Debra Rienstra: Perfect. Yes.
David Koetje: I had another student who wrote to San Diego and said, “You know what? I started out being one who was not so sure about climate change. And now to my fellow citizens of San Diego I want to say this, and I want to note the fires that are happening and so on. And I want you to think about what this really means.”
And I thought, you know, there’s so much wisdom and learning and inspiration that’s going on that sometimes when I look out and when students talk to me, they will share with me some of the sorrow that they feel, but beneath the sorrow there’s still this flicker of illumination and this hope. And I just want to so encourage that.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah, it’s really a privilege to work with people at this point in their lives and to try to be that kind of elder and supporter that you’ve mentioned, that Bill McKibben is so good at. And I think of Tim Van Deelen, too, who was one of my guests, talking about his graduate students in wilderness conservation, and sharing with them his own and their sorrow and anger. But also helping them find ways to channel that into useful policy decisions and useful professional activities in their field—activism, too. And I’m so impressed with so many young people these days for their savvy and their ability to not only feel the sorrow and the anger appropriately, but also to take whatever optimism they’ve got and channel it into action.
They’re just impressive in ways that I don’t know that previous generations have been. And maybe they haven’t had to be in ways that this generation is. And I don’t want to lay everything at their feet; they hate that, and they should. It’s not their job to fix the world that we’ve messed up, right? But on the other hand, they have this energy and a kind of clear-eyed wisdom that some of us in our older years are a little more cynical and maybe a little more tired. So it’s a privilege to hold that space for them.
David Koetje: Yeah. A while back in my class, we were talking about ecological grief, and then I shared with them this quote from Aldo Leopold, from the Sand County Almanac. Leopold says, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the mark of death in a community [that] believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” And it’s a very despairing statement right there, right? And I asked the students, do we need to feel this way? And, they said yes, but no. Yes, we do feel this way. You know, one does feel the wounds of the world. But to say that one lives alone in a world of wounds, no, no, no. There are so many other people who feel these wounds, who understand, and then much of the damage inflicted on the land is quite invisible, yes, we all lament that, that it’s too easy to turn your eyes away from this. But then the next statement, you know, “An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science don’t matter, or to see themselves as a doctor who just ignores the fact that the community is dying.” No, those are not options.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. And Leopold was writing in the 40s, I believe. And so, you know, 80 years later the wounds are larger, more visible, but as you say, we’re sharing them. And I remember mentioning this idea of sorrow and our obligation to sorrow to Tim Van Deelen, and he wisely said, “Look, sorrow and anger is an acknowledgement of the value of what we’re losing.”
And so we do—and I think as Christians, as well as just as humans—have an obligation to be sorrowful and angry, and those are not pleasant feelings, but we have to face them. And I think Fred Bahnson agrees with this too in his emphasis on repentance. We can’t just focus on—you know, merrily go on our way and focus on innovation and capitalistic solutions and technology and “it’s going to be great” without really reckoning with our complicity. And I don’t want to dwell in sorrow, although I like melancholy plenty—I don’t want to dwell in sorrow and anger, but there’s an extent to which that’s necessary and cleansing. And I think our young people understand that too.
David Koetje: Yeah, I come back to this too, you know, even what the apostle Paul writes, you know, “The good things that I want to do, I find so hard to do, and the bad things that I don’t want to do, that’s what I find myself doing.” And we recognize correctly that that is a verse about the internal struggle. But it’s more than that. It’s also about a struggle with systems. And I think it’s helpful, actually, to think about it in that context as well. To say there is a meaning within this text that couples this with our wrestling with systems of oppression and exclusion, and it’s time for us to kind of reinvent the system in a way that is more shalomic, so to speak.
Debra Rienstra: I’ve never thought about that verse that way. That’s really helpful to think about that as more than the individual inner struggle, but as a systemic struggle. That’s really helpful.
So let’s revisit our foundational question for the podcast, which is this: how can people of faith become people of refugia? That’s what we’ve been grappling with through 22 episodes.
And we have some new, rather generative illustrations for thinking about that question. So I’m recalling again Tim Van Deelen lamenting that too often he goes to churches and speaks at the Sunday school, and people come up to him afterwards and say, “Well, you know, I want to stay out of politics. I think the church should stay out of politics.”
And of course we see that reasoning used selectively. You want to stay out of certain politics, but maybe not others. So it can become a kind of excuse for passivity on race or climate or anything else. And then, meanwhile, I’m recalling Bill McKibben talking about how the mainline churches with which he’s connected, who have lost cultural dominance but are finding freedom in that and partnering with interfaith associations and climate action groups not connected to faith at all. So places like the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology and the Creation Justice Ministries group out of Duke—it seems to me that’s where the church is actually building capacity to be the people of refugia. And it’s through these interfaith and, you know, sort of non-faith partnerships. And then, meanwhile, Fred Bahnson’s church forests of Ethiopia that he writes about—these churches that are tending these forest refugia—they’re so literal and gorgeous, the church as keeper of biological diversity, these arks as Fred calls them.
So there are many places where the church is building this refugia capacity, and I wanted to ask you about your research into gardens, church-related gardens. So tell us about what you’re studying and learning about.
David Koetje: So I’m finding that as I dig into this area, there are—I guess I shouldn’t be surprised anymore about this—but there are little pockets of people all over the place who are thinking more creatively about how to use church properties in ways that will strengthen our interactions with the created world. And so creating spaces where native plants, native birds, native insects, native animals, can find a home in church properties. The National Wildlife Federation has this Sacred Grounds program, which is really amazing. And they’re trying to do this at churches, synagogues, mosques, you name it, all over the United States and Canada, in ways that form a network, right? One of their focal points is pollinators. You know, we’re having sort of a crisis of the collapse of pollinator populations. We think of bees, but there’s more than that involved. And these would provide habitats for these pollinators to be able to thrive all over the place, especially wild bees.
And I think, wow, you know, that’s just so inspiring. And you have a renewed emphasis, I think now especially, as we are wrestling with COVID-19 and especially with the economic crises that happen, and I’m sure this is going to be another pretty hard winter for a lot of folks because of that.
Debra Rienstra: Absolutely.
David Koetje: And you think, okay, there’s also the garden piece that is—well, in World War II, they called them the “victory gardens,” right? And you think about how in times of economic turndown, people turn much more to gardening. Now that was a little bit of a flash in the pan earlier this year. I think in the spring we talked a little bit about how there were so many people turning to gardening that even seed companies were having a hard time keeping up with the demand.
Debra Rienstra: I didn’t know that.
David Koetje: Oh, that was amazing, that was happening. And then what we found later in the summer is that a lot of these would-be gardeners kind of gave up.
Debra Rienstra: Well, it’s not so easy. You don’t just start with seeds. My goodness, yeah. You have to know what you’re doing!
David Koetje: You do have to—well, you either have to know what you’re doing or be really not knowing what you’re doing and just do it anyway. But you have to be persistent, right? And I think it’s hard for us as human beings, living in our culture the way we do. It’s such an instantaneous culture. And I think one of the things that gardening does is it forces us to slow down and to work at the pace that the rest of creation works at. And I see so many opportunities—there’s such strong spiritual implications for that kind of work.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So tell us about the refugium that you’re building or helping to build at our church. Our church has a little bit of property, the church that we both go to.
David Koetje: Yeah, Church of the Servant has—well, we were blessed with a wonderful location adjacent to Calvin University’s campus. And we are blessed with folks who have a real heart for creation care. And you take that, you couple that with: okay, we’ve got this space, this land, what are we going to do with this space in a way that speaks to our love of the creator, and our love of God’s creation? And to make it a more—well, to make it a refugium, but also to make it a hospitable place, to especially native creatures and so on. And so, yeah, there’s a pathway that several of our friends have built together that winds its way through the natural areas in the church property.
And eventually what we want to do is we want to put some signage along the way that might be actually virtual signage. There might actually be things that change with the seasons. It might be related to the church year calendar. It might be related as well to what’s going on biologically.
But the beautiful thing that I’d love to see in the end is a kind of a blend of these two things, perhaps through, like, a cell phone app or something, that as you walk the pathway there’s different things that you can pick up that trigger on your app that are inspirational readings: some from scripture, some from poetry, some from, you know, just biologically what’s going on in this particular community. And even offering praises, laments, thanksgiving, and so on, as part of this journey. It becomes sort of a prayer labyrinth almost, except it’s a pathway through these different refugia.
Debra Rienstra: Yeah. So what are the different little micro-ecosystems or micro-refugia that we have available? Because most of our property is—it’s not a lawn and a parking lot.
David Koetje: No, no. A lot of it is, and we’re working to make it a bit more natural over the years, but that’s going to take some time to do this.
It’s amazing. Even on our property, you know, a few acres, about four acres or so? I forget. But even on that relatively small property, there are wetlands, there’s a prairie, there are wooded areas. And so what we’re trying to do is to try to highlight, you know, what are some of the natural features of these areas? What kinds of plants do we tend to find within these areas? What can we do to extend the native plantings? And then also when we’re thinking about, you know, what are the risks to this particular set of refugia, we have to also think about, well, what’s going to thrive in 50 years here? And that becomes even more sobering work, because then you have to think about, well, then maybe we shouldn’t put in this particular native species. I’m thinking in my own backyard, there is a tamarack tree. And that tamarack tree—I know you’ve got one as well. Your tamarack is actually in a better location because it’s in a wetter area of the land. Mine happens to be in a drier area, and it is not a happy tamarack.
Debra Rienstra: Oh, poor tamarack.
David Koetje: And so I’m thinking, okay, we have to be very cognizant of the micro-habitat and make sure that we’re planting things that are appropriate for that particular micro-habitat. Otherwise we’re simply just planting things that will perish in the end.
Debra Rienstra: Well, I’m hoping that the refugium at church will be educational about these very things. About micro-ecology, the combination of receiving the refugia that the natural world creates but also co-sustaining, helping those refugia along. And then connecting them to spiritual practice so that we can think of that area as a kind of holy space, like those church forests in Ethiopia. And so that we can think of us as a congregation, as a group of people of faith, as those kinds of curators of the refugia that are given to us and that we can help create.
So speaking of those, I had a chance to visit your amazing home garden this past fall that you keep with your wife, Karen. And you have flowers and hostas and an amazing collection of hibiscus and a pretty ambitious food garden. So I wonder what you’re going to do now that the season is over. Where are you going to find your refugia for the winter?
David Koetje: Garden life is never over.
There are some things that will stay out there almost all winter long. We will be harvesting carrots under the snow come January.
Debra Rienstra: Impressive.
David Koetje: Yeah. Kale thrives throughout the winter. Not that it grows much, but it actually gets—there’s some things that are in kale—and this is part of the reason why some people don’t like kale—there’s some flavor compounds that are somewhat bitter, but after a few hard frosts, those compounds get degraded and you end up with this kale that is really sweet. So this kale is almost ready now.
Debra Rienstra: Kale is indestructible.
David Koetje: It is pretty much indestructible.
Debra Rienstra: You know that kale is the official vegetable of Lent?
David Koetje: That makes perfect sense.
Debra Rienstra: I just made that up, but it’s true.
David Koetje: That makes perfect sense. You know, it would be a crop that would survive all the way through the winter till Lent. Yeah. And it would be sweet by Lent; it would be beautiful. I think about that: there are cover crops that are now growing in a couple of our beds. We planted some wheat, and the wheat is just going to basically set in some roots; it’s already up like little grass seedlings like that. And come springtime, that’s going to become green manure that we then till under and put into the soil, and it’s going to basically become compost. And it’s going to leak out its compounds and let the microbes that are in the soil just go to town. The microbes are going to have a heyday with this stuff, come springtime.
And of course there’s compost itself, which will keep going all winter long. And we even had a day a while back where we were kind of forking over some things in the compost, and the compost was steaming. I was like, “Oh, this is gorgeous. Just beautiful.”
Debra Rienstra: Well, we, do love compost in the refugia realm of thinking. Yes, it’s one of our favorite images.
David Koetje: And then on the days when the winter is the longest and just seems bleak, that’s when the seed catalogs come. And so, you know, we get out those seed catalogs and we start planning. And even as early as early March, we start to plant some seeds in our house, so that later on we’ll eventually plant them out into the garden.
So, the work of gardening? Oh yeah, it just goes on. It takes a different form in the winter, but that’s still going to be our refuge.
Debra Rienstra: Wonderful. Glad to hear that. Dave, thank you so much for coming back today to reflect on this season and to keep this conversation going.
I want to send out another wave of thanks to all my wonderful guests this season, who were so generous and gracious. Also much gratitude and appreciation to my audio editor this season, Philip Rienstra, and very special thanks to my social media manager, Josh Parks. Couldn’t have done it without you guys. Finally, thanks again to our listeners.
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