Tim Van Deelen, professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains how the term refugia is used in the context of wildlife conservation. Along the way we hear stories about grizzlies, black-footed ferrets, wolves, and Aldo Leopold’s legacy.
For more background…
Tim’s faculty page.
The post Tim mentions that I wrote about Christians and climate change, “Does Theology Make Us Passive on Climate Change.”
The quote that Tim refers to in his phrase “keep all the pieces” actually goes like this: “If the land mechanism as a whole is good then every part is good, whether we understand it or not…To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Conservation, Round River. I like Tim’s phrase better! Here’s a page full of Aldo quotes.
Debra Rienstra: Today, I’m talking with Tim Van Deelen, the Beers-Bascom Professor of Conservation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Tim’s a Calvin College alum–because it was still Calvin College in those days–and he’s a good friend and a colleague to us at Calvin. So we’re going to talk today about wildlife ecology, about the role of science, the limits of and the opportunities for human care for wild things and places.
Tim Van Deelen: Hi, Deb.
DR: So glad to be here today. Thanks for hosting me up here in the woods. We’re at the Au Sable Institute in Mancelona, Michigan, otherwise known as “up north,” and we are in the lodge here today. We tried recording outside, but we had the sounds of some very busy Merlins, which is a small kind of falcon, I just discovered, and some children playing. It was wonderful, but we thought it’d be better to be up here in the lodge. So here we are. So tell us a little bit about Au Sable Institute. What does it do? What does the Institute do and how have you been involved?
Tim Van Deelen: Well, Au Sable Institute serves a network of Christian colleges around the country and it provides summer field courses mostly having to do with environmental science. My affiliation with Au Sable Institute began roughly 30 years ago when I was a student at Calvin College and I came up here for a January term. Au Sable Institute has a strong connection to the University of Wisconsin and, as you might know, people in our circles kind of keep track of each other. So when I showed up in Madison to begin teaching there, Cal DeWitt, who is one of the people who was instrumental in starting the college program here at Au Sable, took me out for lunch and gave me the hard sell on putting together a course on wildlife conservation.
DR: So this was back when you were in grad school?
Tim Van Deelen: No, no, this was when I started at the University of Wisconsin as an assistant professor.
DR: Oh, I see.
Tim Van Deelen: So this would be like roughly 15 years ago.
DR: Okay, and you had been here as a student at Calvin.
Tim Van Deelen: I had been here as a student at Calvin. I had come up here on a field trip, but then I spent a month here one January taking a course called Winter Biology where we spent a lot of time on skis out in the woods.
DR: Sounds like fun.
Tim Van Deelen: It was fun.
DR: Yeah, so what are the courses like during the summer?
Tim Van Deelen: Well, we’re in summer session two right now. There are two summer sessions at Au Sable. During summer session two, in addition to Wildlife Stewardship, we have a watershed ecology course, we have a limnology course, we have an environmental studies course–excuse me, an environmental chemistry course. And a course on GIS applications.
DR: What’s limnology?
Tim Van Deelen: Limnology is the study of freshwater ecosystems.
DR: There’s a word for that?
Tim Van Deelen: There’s a word.
DR: English is amazing.
Tim Van Deelen: It is.
DR: And what do you teach at the University of Wisconsin?
Tim Van Deelen: I teach two courses primarily. I teach our animal population dynamics course–that would be the last of the core courses that a wildlife major would take. And then I also teach our capstone course, which, according to the policy of the College of Ag and Life Sciences, has to be interdisciplinary and problem-solving, and it enables an undergrad at the end of their career to try and bring together all the different realms of knowledge that they’ve absorbed in four years to apply it to a question in their own discipline.
DR: Yeah, we have something like that at Calvin University, too. And your specialty is wildlife, especially mammals.
Tim Van Deelen: Most of my research has been large mammals, population dynamics of large mammals. It’s mostly been located in the Great Lakes region, and even within that I always describe myself as a deer nerd.
DR: So I was up here last year for the Wendell Berry weekend and you and I had a good conversation, and I wrote some things down that I wanted to come back to today. So it was really to go back to some of those topics we talked about last year that made me think of talking to you about the topic of refugia. At that time last summer we talked quite a bit about the challenges of conservation work. And I wonder if you could tell the story of the black-footed ferret.
Tim Van Deelen: Sure. The black-footed ferret is a weasel. It lives in the high desert regions of Wyoming primarily now. It used to have a much wider distribution in the United States, but it was on its way towards extinction and in fact believed to be extinct, when a rancher’s dog brought home a specimen that they couldn’t recognize and so they brought it to–I think the Wyoming Fish and Game–found out it was a black-footed ferret. That triggered a lot of excitement on the part of conservationists. They went out and they found the ferret–ferrets will always be associated with prairie dog colonies…
DR: Oh. Ferrets and prairie dogs.
Tim Van Deelen: Yeah, ferrets, black-footed ferrets, are specialists on prairie dog. That’s their primary prey source. So finding the ferret generated a lot of interest on the part of conservationists, so work went in to try and estimate how many there were left. Turns out not very many. I don’t remember the exact details, but at some point the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is the federal agency that’s in charge of endangered species, made the decision that the population looked like it was in imminent danger, winking out, so they decided to bring them into captivity, as many as they could capture, and begin a captive breeding program so that they could maximize the reproductive output and the genetic diversity of the few animals that were left.
DR: And how did the ferrets feel about this?
Tim Van Deelen: Presumably okay. The program was a success in the sense that, given the small number of animals that they were able to work with, they were able to get the ferrets to breed and produce offspring that were then released back into the wild, and begin rebuilding the wild program using those efforts.
DR: So the dog that found the first ferret, I presume that was one ferret down in the population, then.
Tim Van Deelen: Probably.
DR: The dog isn’t out there with a safe capture trap or anything.
Tim Van Deelen: No.
DR: Okay, so then they release the ferrets into the wild. And then, as I recall you telling me before, then the population grew for a while and then fell again.
Tim Van Deelen: Yeah, fell again. I don’t remember the exact history here, but it’s sort of characteristic that there is… that with many species that start out at very low numbers, they can kind of struggle for a while before they hit a growth phase. And we see this in carnivores, in fact, we’ve seen it in wolf recovery in a couple of different places including Wisconsin and Michigan but also in Scandinavia and in the northern Rockies, and it just seems like for some animals… one of the theories is that there’s an advantage to having conspecifics around to help raise the young or find the prey or whatever. So, you know, it was bleak for a while then they were discovered–yeah, they were still there. So the captive breeding program continued and eventually the ferret population began to take off.
DR: Okay. So how are the ferrets now?
Tim Van Deelen: Tenuous.
Tim Van Deelen: It takes a long time to recover a species.
DR: Okay, so we’re still hoping and waiting.
Tim Van Deelen: Yes.
DR: Why? Why put so much human effort into the black-footed ferret?
Tim Van Deelen: Yeah. That’s a good question, isn’t it? Um…
DR: I can think of reasons but I remember you talking about the decisions that had to be made, the time and the resources, and how the ferret fit into the ecosystem.
Tim Van Deelen: Well, yeah, so the scientist would say that each species has a unique role in the ecosystem. And that if you begin removing species, individual species by individual species, at some point you destabilize the whole system. And the ecological theory would say that animals who are predators, because of the influence that they have on their prey species and how that influence trickles down through the different trophic levels, tend to have more importance in the sense that they have a bigger individual species level, individual impact on ecosystems.
DR: So now we’re in the territory of how human beings interact with wild systems. And how do we know when to do what? So this has to do with being caretakers, being earthkeepers, and you are among the people who do this professionally. How do you know when to interfere, when not to interfere?
Tim Van Deelen: You know, that’s a tough question to answer. We operate from the principle, which says, basically, keep all the pieces. And there’s that famous Aldo Leopold quote that says, you know, the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the pieces. So at a fundamental level, I think you just accept that each individual species has some unique value. And the real truth of ecology is we just don’t understand these systems at a comprehensive level. So we go with sort of broad rules, which say that individual species are important, the function that they provide is important, which means you have to have a certain number of individuals in the landscape, it can’t be just a token number. But you know, we’re sitting here at Au Sable where the point of view is very much a Christian approach to this and so… in you asking me that question again, I’m reminded of the devotions that we did with my class this morning where we read the story of Noah.
DR: So glad you brought that up.
Tim Van Deelen: And, well, in story of Noah, God tells Noah to take his family into the ark and then he tells Noah to take male and female, two by two of the unclean animals and seven by seven of the clean animals. And the language there is very interesting because God is telling Noah to take one of every kind. And so it’s pretty clear in the story of Noah that it’s the individual species that matter, whereas for Noah and his family, it’s the individuals, the individual people.
DR: Wow, yeah. It’s not the certain zebra.
Tim Van Deelen: Right.
DR: It’s just two.
Tim Van Deelen: It’s not the zebra named Fred, but it’s two zebras, male and female, and you know, the people who first read that story would understand that you need a male and a female to perpetuate the species. And Aldo Leopold uses that same language when he talks about preserving individual animals according to their specific kinds and their specific numbers. I’m getting that quote a little bit mangled, but it’s kinds and numbers. So he’s essentially adding a little bit of scientific understanding here, that small populations are vulnerable. But that concept of kinds, I think, is really important and…
DR: The Noah story isn’t a roadmap for conservation today. It’s a story we need to have and we have it for certain reasons. But yeah, we can apply our contemporary biological knowledge as we think about what that story might mean. So let’s talk about the idea of refugia. And the Noah’s Ark story is a good entree into that. So, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that what that term might mean to you, maybe some more examples that you’ve encountered of refugia in the ecological sense.
Tim Van Deelen: Well, typically in my world you think of refugia as patches in a landscape where populations or meaningful subunits of a population are secure. And it might be a sense of security that’s a bit tenuous. So a patch of individual animals that is a little bit too small to be viable in the long term. And so quite often conservation strategies think about connecting those refugia.
Tim Van Deelen: So when I was in grad school at the University of Montana, then grizzly bear conservation was a huge topic. And I remember one time in the office of my major professor, a bunch of graduate students hauled out maps of the northern Rockies and we said, okay, there are bears, grizzly bears in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, and there are grizzly bears in Glacier, and there’s grizzly bears in Central Idaho, and maybe a few in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, but these areas are sort of bisected by various degrees of development. And so the question we asked ourselves, if you want to have grizzly bears be secure for the long term in the northern Rockies, what would you need to protect? And so you look at the refugia as little islands of security that are at least temporarily secure but they become more secure if they can exchange individuals among themselves. And so then you look at what a metapopulation biologist will call the matrix and try and find opportunities to make corridors that would connect those refugia.
DR: Right. Matrix and corridors are the key words here. I have heard… a phrase that is common, I guess, in conservation ecology: habitat fragmentation is the enemy.
Tim Van Deelen: For many animals it is. Yeah. So if you’re an animal that’s really a habitat specialist, and you fragment that habitat, quite often what you are doing is dividing the population into smaller subunits. And it’s the smaller subunits that just because of randomness run the risk of going extinct by chance, by a catastrophe, by just the sort of odd circumstances that might have… a couple of years of poor growth happen just randomly. I guess that’s chance. But anyway. Connecting refugia makes what would be called a metapopulation, so a population composed of a bunch of subpopulations would make a metapopulation more secure.
DR: This is really helpful because one of the qualities of refugia that we’ve been exploring is that they’re temporary, they’re places of safety where life can endure, where certain–if you think about this metaphorically–certain practices can be practiced and there can be a strengthening, but then the idea is to spread. So we haven’t talked much yet about how that spread happens. And what I’m learning from you here is that one of the ways it happens is that the refugia are connected together?
Tim Van Deelen: Yeah.
DR: Yeah, so that’s how it works in conservation ecology. And maybe we can think about how that might work metaphorically, too. So how do you decide as a conservation ecologist what is the ideal that you’re working toward in a particular bio region? So the way it was 50 years ago, is it the way it was before…
Tim Van Deelen: Well if we’re talking in terms of sustaining a species or population, then we have to define the risk. And there are various ways to define it but a lot of times it, you know, it varies for the lifespan of the animal, right? So the risk over 10 years for an elephant population is far different than the risk over 10 years for a mouse population just because of the turnover and demographics. But basically you want to have some threshold level of risk of extinction that you’re willing to live with.
DR: Say more about that.
Tim Van Deelen: Well, let’s say… there’s an elephant example in the literature and I think it’s how much habitat do you need for a population of elephants to persist for a hundred years, for five hundred years, for a thousand years. And that area goes up. It’s not a linear relationship, but the area increases. Turns out, if you can subdivide it into smaller populations, sometimes the refugia give you a lower risk.
DR: What would that mean?
Tim Van Deelen: So, well, let’s say I divide my population into five subpopulations, right? So in order for that population to go extinct in the timestep, it would have to go extinct in each sub population at the same time.
DR: I see.
Tim Van Deelen: So if you spread out the risk in the individuals, subpopulations are viable in themselves. Then having a bunch of refugia can make the overall population level risk decline to almost nothing.
DR: It sounds like similar or analogous to having a diverse financial investment portfolio.
Tim Van Deelen: Exactly. Yep.
DR: So maybe what we need is a diverse refugia portfolio. Maybe not in ecological terms, but…
Tim Van Deelen: Well, for species that are at risk, I think the message is that every subpopulation is precious. And it also sort of gives you a way to prioritize things. You know, if you know of a subpopulation that is intermediate to or connects other ones, then those might be your targets for conservation efforts. And there are all kinds of mathematical models that ecologists can use to quantify those sorts of risks, but it basically goes back to the demographics of the individual species and how that extinction risk relates to the size of the subpopulation.
DR: Okay. Fascinating. All right. So at one point in our conversations last summer, you said this, and I wrote it down because I thought it was so fascinating. You said the longer I’ve been a professor the less I talk to students about science. What do you mean? What do you talk about?
Tim Van Deelen: I guess what I was thinking at that time–and the context for me would be talking to my graduate students–so when you take, say, talking to students, that’s where I have most of my interaction and quite frankly every one of my graduate students is capable of reading a scientific paper as well as I can if not better, but I think what I provide for them is more of a context: having been involved with a number of different research projects and having an opinion about, you know, what reliable science looks like and how that might change from one paper to the next. It feels like a lot of the time I’m giving them advice on what to do next and they’re going into the literature and figuring out the details. And so a lot of times the conversation will go along the lines of, I think that the relationship works this way and then I’ll say well I saw something similar in a different context. Why don’t you chase down this paper and see if it’s relevant? And then they’ll go and do that and they’ll report back and we’ll work from that.
DR: It sounds like disciplinary meta-commentary.
Tim Van Deelen: If you say so. But I also find, you know, that with a group of graduate students a lot of times they have real concerns about what their job prospects are like, what it means to work as a scientist. Right now my lab is mostly young women and we’re having an extended discussion about gender issues in the field of wildlife ecology.
Tim Van Deelen: I never dreamed, right, when I became a wildlife biologist–then you’ve known me a long time–I never dreamed that the most rewarding part of my job would be the interactions with the graduate students.
DR: Yeah, that mentorship role is a huge responsibility and a huge honor and I always feel with my students as if I’m holding something holy when I talk to them about vocational issues or when they share with me some struggles they’re having or something. It is an awesome responsibility in both senses of the word.
Tim Van Deelen: Yeah, I would agree with that.
DR: Last year we also talked a little bit about how you wished that professional scientists were better at telling their stories. We talked a little bit about communicating what scientists do, what it means what they do. You said that you wish they could tell stories rather than just dazzling with facts. So what stories do you want to tell? What do you wish people knew?
Tim Van Deelen: Boy, that’s a tough question.
At an R1 research university like the University of Wisconsin, my promotion, my professional profile depends primarily on the number of research papers that I can get published. And the number of papers–we look at the quality of the journals, the amount of money that I can bring in to do research–and that kind of a system where it rewards you on research productivity, where the productivity ends with the published paper, doesn’t leave a lot of room for taking the next step and explaining to society what this means. And you know, in the past year we’ve heard another IPCC report that was dire, our own government’s climate assessment, that UN report on the extinction crisis. We’re in a full-on ecological crisis. And many, many scientists are doing wonderful, wonderful research. And it’s being read by other scientists rather than having somebody who collects it and collates it and says, look, we can use this stuff to address a conservation issue here. And just I think the culture of university science is such that it largely leaves that to people who kind of on their own volition feel a burden to do that.
DR: Who are willing to go read the reports. Or it goes up the journalism food chain. And that can have… there are fabulous science journalists who are doing an excellent job, but it can be very quickly turned into a reductive, provocative headline that isn’t really accurate, and I can see where that would be frustrating, that scientists who are doing all this work…
Tim Van Deelen: Right, and, you know, I can speak for my field but there’s almost an inside joke among wildlife biologists that most of us are extreme introverts. When we decided to become a wildlife biologist we imagined that we were going to be by ourselves in the wilderness, paddling a canoe and making impressive observations and never having to interact with policymakers and stakeholders and maybe people whose interests didn’t align with you. And then having to sustain an argument for why we should do something one way versus why we should do it another.
DR: Right. So that communication piece, that persuasion piece, that was not part of the romantic vision.
Tim Van Deelen: It’s not, but there’s also a real danger there because if a scientist becomes perceived as an advocate, then their science becomes suspect.
DR: Right. They seem to lose their objectivity.
Tim Van Deelen: Right.
DR: Well, it probably doesn’t help that you have predator bait hanging outside your cabin. That probably keeps people away. So. You’re going to be able to preserve that introversion if you could keep that smelly predator bait outside that we smelled earlier tonight.
Let’s talk about Aldo Leopold, who also taught at Wisconsin, and I imagine his friendly ghost hovers over the work of all of you there. In fact, you hold a position he held, is that correct?
Tim Van Deelen: Only in the sense that I’m a professor of wildlife ecology.
DR: Okay. So anyone who has read any Leopold or really anything in nature writing is familiar with his famous quotation, which goes like this: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” So, what wounds are you feeling right now?
Tim Van Deelen: It’s… loss. It really is. It’s the sense that we are losing our biological richness. It’s disappearing before our eyes. And if there are people that care about it, within a generation it becomes a memory, in the next generation it becomes an abstraction. I start out my class here at Au Sable with just a walk into the woods. And I ask the students to work together to find the biggest oak tree and then we sit down and we talk about passenger pigeons. And I describe for them what the unbelievably dramatic biological phenomenon that once was. So the passenger pigeon at one time was the most populous vertebrate on the globe. Enormous flocks flew up and down and across the northeastern forests. And the descriptions are such that it would take days for them to pass, and just the sheer number of birds would block out the sun. And when they landed on the oak trees, they would break the boughs with their collective weight, you know, suggesting that there is a disturbance mechanism that may have been important to our Midwestern hardwood forests–this idea that they might have co-evolved with this biological disturbance.
DR: So it sounds like a terrible thing all these pigeons, but actually you’re suggesting that that disturbance revitalized the forest.
Tim Van Deelen: Absolutely. There’s been a theory that it might have had something to do with keeping the lid on Lyme disease somehow–I can’t reproduce it for you now–but…
DR: Similar to the way that we’ve discovered that burns are actually vital to forests.
Tim Van Deelen: Yeah.
DR: Certain kinds of forests.
Tim Van Deelen: Certain forests. But here in the east, I mean, that would have been kind of the signature big biological phenomenon/event. And it’s gone.
DR: And no one remembers it except a few.
Tim Van Deelen: It died out in the late eighteen hundreds. By 1919 the last passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati Zoo.
DR: Yeah, and we should probably point out that they were killed. It wasn’t a natural die off. They were hunted.
Tim Van Deelen: Well, it’s some combination of being hunted, but also breaking up the Eastern Forest to build our farms and, you know, feed our timber supply. But I just… I start at that point, number one, because I guess I want students to understand the stakes here, and I think it’s also important for the development of the way we do wildlife conservation here in North America. So there’s a bit of a starting point, both in terms of the class I teach, but also in terms of the profession that I identify with. But there is a true sense of sadness and the passenger pigeon is just an example.
DR: What are you seeing? What kind of losses are you seeing right now in your own field?
Tim Van Deelen: Well, one of the big controversies that I tend to deal with is the recovery of wolves. Wolves are recovering. They’re going strong in the northern parts of Michigan and Minnesota and Northern Wisconsin. It seems like where wolves are going to be limited, they’re going to be limited by human tolerance. So, you know, wolves… there’s a whole literature out there on wolves as being sort of ecosystem engineers, being keystone species in terms of how they structure the rest of the ecosystem, from the food they eat, the herbivores, and then the plants that the herbivores eat, and so forth. A lot of this comes out of Yellowstone and it’s been criticized, but the point being, you know, here you’re looking at another magnificent, dramatic animal that is going to be limited by human tolerance. So the biology is such… I mean, they’re adaptable species. In the eastern United States we have lots and lots of deer. So it’s not like they’re limited by the resources they’ll need, but they’re limited by the security that they require when they interact with human beings.
DR: So they have to have a certain amount of safe habitat where they won’t be shot or disturbed.
Tim Van Deelen: Yeah, shot. Basically. And, you know, you live in this extinction crisis and I sometimes feel like I’m almost blind to it because I deal with big flashy animals, you know. We have animals that you won’t find on a t-shirt that are going extinct. And those are in many senses equally as important, but they don’t have a constituency.
DR: Right. They don’t have pretty big eyes or pretty fur coats and yet they’re important in ways that…
Tim Van Deelen: We may not know.
DR: We, I mean, ordinary people don’t know and even ecologists don’t necessarily know.
Tim Van Deelen: Yeah.
DR: All we know is that things fit together.
Tim Van Deelen: Yes.
DR: In ways we don’t entirely understand. So, how do you think about this in terms of Christian responsibility? If all creatures here below are supposed to praise, how do we think about our human responsibility in the midst of this extinction crisis? Can we create refugia? Do we know enough to create refugia, at least some? Is that what we should do?
Tim Van Deelen: We absolutely should create refugia, but we have to be intelligent about it, right? We have to figure out where we can do the best… do the most good. So simply creating more forest somewhere might not be the right answer, but we have to pick out the species that we think are at risk and figure out what their life history needs are. That’s all scientific stuff.
DR: Yeah, it sounds like a lot of work.
Tim Van Deelen: Yeah. You send me the money and I’ll put a grad student on it. The larger question though, I mean if you couch this in Christian terms, what’s the responsibility here? And I think that’s one to struggle with. Because if you think about what an individual species is, right, it’s the product of maybe millions of years of evolution. And a Christian would say that that’s millions of years of being fostered, by a Creator.
DR: Lovely verb. Yeah.
Tim Van Deelen: And if it’s our lifestyles that are causing that species to go extinct, how do we tell the Creator that we think this individual piece of your creation is just a simple inconvenience? I don’t want to alter my lifestyle so that species X can survive. So I’m going to pray to God now and say, how about you let me continue to live the way I want to live, but then somehow save the species too. This comes up all the time here. And one of the best quotes I ever heard was that, you know, you pray like it’s all on God, but you act like it’s all on you. And we struggle with that because it’s not so much in protecting individual species, individual wildlife species. I think the real discussion has to happen right now on the question of climate change.
DR: So back to Leopold, Leopold wrote to a friend that he doubted anything could be done about conservation, quote, “without creating a new kind of people.” What kind of people do we need to be, in the face of climate change, in the face of species extinction?
Tim Van Deelen: We need to be humbler. You know, Leopold late in his life had worked with private landowners in Wisconsin and he found out that a top-down, government-mandated motivation to conserve didn’t work. Incentives didn’t work, because when you raise the expectation that if I’m a landowner I’m supposed to do something for the common good, then the government had better pay me for it. And he ran up against that. And so when he was… late in his life, he realized that you needed to change people’s values.
DR: Good idea. How do we do that?
Tim Van Deelen: Well, I don’t know. I’m a biologist. And Leopold’s not the first person or the last to come to this point. But one of the things I tell my Au Sable students is that, you know, you’re here at an environmental institute that takes a very overt Christian perspective. And it’s religion largely that we look to on questions of ethics and values. And this is the point where we need to bring them together and the question I’m kind of famous for is asking students, what do you bring to the table?
DR: As a Christian. To what table?
Tim Van Deelen: To the discussion about, how are we going to conserve, preserve. How are we going to live on this Earth?
DR: What did they say? How did they think about that, young people?
Tim Van Deelen: I think a lot of them… it might be the first time that you push them to consider it deeply. There’s almost no way in our culture that you can’t show up at Au Sable and know something about the extinction crisis, something about climate crisis. But I think the value here is asking them to make the connections between their own lifestyle and how then that might reach back to their families, their churches, their communities. And every one of them is thinking about a career. And you want them to begin thinking, okay, where can I put my shoulder to the wheel here? I guess that’s the best-case scenario. I used to be disappointed that I didn’t see students immediately standing up to say oh, yeah, that’s terrible, I’m going to become an activist. But I think that the learning for students that go to a place like Au Sable happens as more of an incremental thing. And if to be… if I’m going to be perfectly fair about this, I think it was more of an incremental thing for me.
DR: Sure, yeah. That’s just developmental… for young people in general, that we… especially when you’re beginning to cope with something very large that makes you feel very small and helpless. It’s hard to comprehend it all at once. What do you bring to the table?
Tim Van Deelen: Well, I think what I bring to the table, again, like with my graduate students, is some experience. I’ve been successful in the world of professional research. I’ve also worked for a wildlife conservation agency. So I’ve seen where politics and special interests kind of intersect with policy and science. And I guess when I teach I can make [students] think about what their reaction might have been or what their role might have been or what they should be doing. And maybe not in the context of a biologist. Maybe they choose a completely different career, but it when it comes time for them as a citizen to weigh in a conservation policy, then they’ll remember that they’ve thought about this and they’ve got an informed perspective on it. And I can’t even claim that that’s my own idea. That’s Leopold’s idea to… he wanted to create citizens.
DR: Yeah. I told you he was haunting everything.
Tim Van Deelen: I’ve had my conversations in Russell Labs late in the evening.
DR: With Aldo.
Tim Van Deelen: Yeah.
DR: You talk to Aldo.
Tim Van Deelen: Sure. There’s a famous big poster or rather portrait of Leopold that hangs in our conference room. And I’ve had this conversation with Curt Meine over the years–Curt Meine is Aldo Leopold’s biographer– that you do get a sense that his ghost is hovering around Russell Labs.
DR: What do you say to Aldo Leopold?
Tim Van Deelen: Well, I don’t actually say it out loud. It’s more of a metaphorical thing. But I had a sticker on my fridge at home. It’s WWAD, so, What Would Aldo Do? And I’ve asked that question, you know, when controversies in my own subspecialty show up. And I’ve asked people who are Leopold scholars a version of that question, you know, because when Aldo Leopold was alive he was trying to push the science and the idea of conservation values out to the citizens. So he was… he began writing for a local newspaper when he was a young man in the Southwest right out of graduate school, and he continued doing stuff like that his whole life, eventually culminating in Sand County Almanac, which was published after he died.
DR: Now a classic.
Tim Van Deelen: Right, so the question I posed to my friends who are Leopold scholars is, what would he be doing today? Would he have a blog?
DR: Yeah. He would have a podcast.
Tim Van Deelen: He’d have a podcast.
DR: Of course. He’d have a vlog.
Tim Van Deelen: Oh, that’s interesting. People are on the hunt for a recording of Leopold’s voice. He did a radio program at the University of Wisconsin and we haven’t found it yet. But there’s this tantalizing hope that there might be something out there.
DR: There’s a closet in the library, a box that’s unlabeled. Yeah, reel-to-reel tape or something. What else should I be asking? What other questions, what else do you want to talk about?
Tim Van Deelen: The citizenship thing motivates me in more of a broader sense. And I’ve been frustrated with kind of the big C Christianity. My frustration is that caring for this world is, in organized Christianity, too much of a boutique kind of thing. And I think that we find ways to ring that bell so we can set it aside. And your article on your blog about spiritual shortcuts, I think, talks about this. So, you know, I’ve observed… we can have a sermon on the importance of caring for creation–and I’m starting to get very careful with using that word–so we can have a sermon on creation, we’ll sing “How Great Thou Art,” and then everybody will get in their SUVs and drive across town for brunch. And we don’t let it kind of trickle into the really hard questions about, as wealthy Western Christians who have an outsized carbon footprint, who are setting the standard for people around the world who are striving to have our lifestyle, what our culpability is in a climate crisis.
DR: An outsized carbon footprint and an outsized potential to lead change.
Tim Van Deelen: Yeah.
DR: What are your most beautiful and important places of refugia for you personally.
Tim Van Deelen: Oh. Favorite places.
DR: Or whatever refugium means to you personally.
Tim Van Deelen: Well, you were there. Cedar House at the Pines at Au Sable. I move up here for five weeks in the summer and I live a much more elemental existence than I do at home. I’m still trying to balance two jobs, and I’m still struggling to keep up with my students. I’m a great procrastinator, but I have this little cabin to myself. I’m responsible for my own food. So I don’t have to coordinate that with my wife. I don’t have television. I don’t have a radio. I have wireless and I need to be more careful with that. But it’s being back here up north. On my weekends I head for Lake Michigan. I grew up on the Great Lakes and they’re… in the truest sense of the word there’s a spiritual connection to that big lake.
DR: I agree.
Tim Van Deelen: And so I get this sense that coming to Au Sable is… I get to make an important change. I don’t completely leave behind my University of Wisconsin life. I can’t do that. But it’s a big enough change where it’s… it’s refreshing and rebuilding.
DR: Yeah, so that solitude.
Tim Van Deelen: Solitude. Quiet. Where… my lab is…
Tim Van Deelen: Yeah, so my lab is working in the Apostle Islands. Being out on the islands, the boat trip out there has a sense that you’re moving into someplace special. Spending time in the islands is really motivating.
There’s a Hill Prairie in Dane County. It’s 10 minutes from my home. And if I just need to take a walk, I go out there because there are effigy mounds on the top and there’s an understanding that this was a sacred place for the indigenous people who lived there long before I did. So in their cosmology, right, the spring is the entry to the underworld. So there’s a spring at the base of the Hill Prairie. There are effigy mounds at the top, and it’s like, in their world, here’s where heaven and hell are closest to one another.
DR: And that’s a refugia for you.
Tim Van Deelen: Well, you know…
DR: Right on the edge.
Tim Van Deelen: I lived there for a long time without really appreciating it. And it was my daughter who took me out there for a walk. And you know… if you’re standing on the west side of it with your back to the sunset, what you see is, the shadow creeps up to the top of the Hill Prairie until the only thing glowing in the whole landscape is the state lead Burr Oaks at the top of the hill Prairie and then it clicks with you. It’s no wonder the ancestors of the Ho-Chunk people thought that that was a sacred place.
DR: They knew about refugia. Yeah.
Tim Van Deelen: Yeah.
DR: Tim, thank you so much for talking with me today. I really appreciate it. Really appreciate what you’re doing up here at Au Sable, and it’s great to be here.
Tim Van Deelen: Well, I’m glad you came up. Thank you.