I first became aware of James Amadon when friends alerted me to an essay he had written in the magazine of the Evangelical Covenan Church entitled “HIs Eye is on the Salmon.” I was struck by the conviction, compassion, and intelligence with which he communicated his faith. I knew I had to talk with him. So over the past few years we’ve exchanged phone calls and emails. Without fail these connections have relit my own convictions and challenged me to do more. I knew at some point I would want him to be able to share his insights here.

Now seemed the right time. He recently made the hard decision to leave the church he had been pastoring to help launch a new initiative to advance a more integrated Christian faith in the 21st century. If there are to be communities that live out a whole Christian faith, then there will need to be brave people who step outside of their comfort zones to build them. 

James Amadon stands on Rattlesnake Ledge with a small mountain range in the distance and a forested valley floor just behind him.

James Amadon hiking Rattlesnake Ledge near North Bend, Washington.

Nathan: Can you trace your journey from growing up in New Hampshire to becoming the executive director of Circlewood?

James: I grew up in a rural area of New Hampshire in a small town called Lancaster. Church was a huge part of our lives. We lived in town. We went to the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church just around the corner. My dad’s been the organist for over 30 years. My mom helps lead worship. We were just always there. In addition to that, because it was a small church, I went to a friend’s youth group at the local Assemblies of God congregation. These two different church perspectives – one high church that leaned liberal, the other a charismatic congregation that leaned conservative – influenced me going forward.

In addition to that, living in what we call the Great North Woods, where a ten-minute walk took me from my front door into the woods and down to a beautiful beaver pond, well, all that made its way inside me.

As a teenager, I received a call to ministry as an evangelist. While I resonated with this call, I didn’t know what it meant. I admired evangelists like Billy Graham, but I didn’t feel like that was for me. So I left my vocational direction open and began a search for what it meant for me to be an evangelist. What was the good news? What does it mean to share it?

I went to a Christian liberal arts college and studied the Bible, theology, and philosophy. I knew intuitively there was a personal dynamic to faith but I also knew there was more to it than that. When I graduated I was still not sure of my vocational direction. I knew I wanted to go seminary. I ended up at North Park Seminary in Chicago and threw myself into the social dimensions of the gospel. I read everything I could find. I started a Bread for the World chapter which focused on lobbying political leaders on behalf of poor and hungry people. I advocated for the homeless in the city. I had some opportunities to work in these areas but I still had questions – there was still something about the Good News that was missing.

After seminary, I entered pastoral ministry, which was has been wonderful, and started reading agrarian writers like Wendell Berry. This gave me the last piece of the puzzle and helped me to see our faith from the perspective of a connected, interdependent Creation. From there it has been a journey on how to bring the personal, the social, and the ecological aspects of the Gospel together.

Over the last decade I’ve been thinking a lot about that and began looking for churches or places that practiced that sort of integrated version of the faith. I couldn’t find many churches or parachurch ministries that were doing that. There are certainly people and places doing incredible work in one area, maybe two areas, but very few that offered that full integrated vision. That’s when it began to occur to me that maybe this was what I was supposed to do, maybe this is the fulfillment of that initial vocational call – to help people see the Good News in all its fullness, to see how we can integrate the personal, social, and ecological dimensions of the gospel. This is what led me to my current position as the executive director of Circlewood.

Nathan: Please tell me about that transition from the church you were the pastor of to becoming the executive director of Circlewood. How did that transition sharpen your insight into your call?

James: I served as Senior Pastor at Highland Covenant Church in Bellevue, Washington for the last ten years. Stepping down was very, very hard. I loved the people, the work, and the wider community. I would not have left if I had not felt compelled to follow this emerging call.

Thinking about it now, I can see that my denomination – the Evangelical Covenant Church – prepared me in some ways for this, because we read Scripture holistically and we are a very mission-driven denomination. One of our core affirmations is that we are committed to the whole mission of the Church. Now for the denomination that has meant expanding our work in areas of mercy and justice. It has been a little slower for us to the see the ecological aspects of the gospel, but the theological framework is there.

Nathan: This has been a big transition. Your family must also support your call.

James: Yes. They have been incredible. They loved our church. My kids loved that I was the pastor of the church. They were very much loved. In those ways, this has been a real loss for them. As I pursue something different, they have been very courageous, very supportive of me. My wife Emily has been incredible. She understands why I feel compelled to take on this new call. Honestly, I could not do it without their support.

Nathan: Please tell me more about Circlewood and what you are working on and what your goals are in that endeavor.

James: While it is still a work in progress, the emerging vision for Circlewood is “An ecologically-centered church passionately pursuing mission with its people, the poor, and the earth.” We want everyone to understand this integrated vision of faith and life that we have. We want people to love that vision, see the beauty and truth of it, and to commit their lives to following it as best they can. I think if you’re able to lead people into a new vision of Scripture and show them alternative ways of living and believing in the world that this kind of transformation is possible. Out of this vision comes our specific mission: “To transform Christian thought and practice through integrative, ecologically-centered ministry.

Nathan: Is your vision that Circlewood will change people’s vision of the Christian faith and that those people would then bring forth fruit in their home congregations? Or is it for them to plant new congregations?

James: Although at this point we are still developing the specific programming, we know that we want people to see this alternative perspective and be able to translate that into their homes, communities, churches, and workplaces.

Nathan: How would you explain why so much of Christian tradition has overlooked the ecological in the walk of faith?

James: I think there are a couple of reasons. Number one – I think we have incomplete readings of Scripture. I don’t want to call them wrong, but I think they’re incomplete. We’re missing the place of the entire Creation, the whole cosmos, in God’s purposes and work in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.

The second reason is that within our working theology of the Church, particularly in evangelical churches, we have a really incomplete eschatology, our understanding where God is leading everything. We have a vision of heaven that’s very distinct and different from the earth we live on. The biblical vision is of heaven and earth coming together in a way that brings the physical and spiritual together in a seamless unity.

And I think overlaying all of that is a cultural captivity to materialism that sees the world as raw material. As Christians, we’re often more committed to the American dream as material prosperity rooted in unfettered use of resources rather than the Scriptural vision of receiving the life-giving gifts of Creation and responding with humility, reverence, and care. All of these together are keeping the Church from seeing the complete picture.

Nathan: Is it possible for an established mainstream church to change and begin to have a more complete understanding of the Christian life? My sense is that a lot of Christians who care about what happens to God’s earth are typically in the outer orbit of their church, which itself does not consider Creation a core concern. Can there be effective reformation within existing churches or are new churches needed?

James: I think it’s a combination of all of those things. We definitely need some reformation to be happening. I think that church theologians and historians would say that the Church should always be reforming itself. This is a period in which we have the opportunity to see this. I think there are streams of this happening. There is a growing community of people who want to move the Church in this direction.

It is a mistake to cast aside existing institutions and relegating them to the dust heap and either disengaging or believing we can create something from scratch. In between those paths we need people and places that have a connection to the historic Church and its institutions as they exist but also are focused on a new direction and are working hard to reform those institutions. In addition, we need people and places creating new institutional life that can replace some institutions or completely transform them.

I do think we’re in this stage of upheaval where we’re not quite sure what’s going to be carried forward and what’s going to be left behind.

Nathan: Have you seen any alternative visions of church that have a foot in a more integrated vision of Christianity?

James: Yes. It’s important to remember that this is not a new vision of Christianity but a recovery. When mainstream Christianity has lost sight of this, individuals or communities have felt called to practice a more holistic faith and have stepped forward to create alternatives – from the early church to the various monastic movements to the Reformation to some Anabaptist groups to movements like the New Monasticism, which is a Protestant recapturing of monastic wisdom and practice. There are historic figures and communities that we can learn from that have been doing this for a long time.

In terms of today, it is important to look for people who are making connections between the personal, social, and ecological. They may not be perfect, but what they are doing is important. This is the genesis of renewal. Where are people are saying, “I’m tired of living a fragmented, siloed life. I’m tired of my faith not being able to speak to all aspects of who I am as I live in the world.”

There are communities, people and institutions trying hard to bring together what we’ve torn asunder. I take great hope in that. And I hope that Circlewood can help people in that process of renewal.

Nathan: As we pursue this integrated version of the Gospel, where does the church building fit in? A great deal of church resources typically go towards maintaining the church building. There are a lot of positives to that in terms of having a place to gather and in terms of having an expression of your faith that is clear and tangible in your community. On the other hand, if we’re living in an ecological age, would it make sense to have less resources invested in buildings and more resources invested in the land itself?

James: Ideally, the church is a particular people gathered together at a particular time to help take care of a particular place. The church body needs to ask, “How well are we doing those things? How are we caring for our place, which includes people as all the non-human aspects?” For existing churches that could means assessing use of physical resources. Are we taking care of them? Are our physical resources ecologically sustainable? Are our people living more sustainable lives? Are we seeking to do that together in this particular place?

I think there will be different answers because every people, every time, and every place is particular and unique. But there are churches that are doing several things with their existing properties, things like putting solar panels on the roof or initiating recycling, little small steps that can be taken that can raise that level of holistic care a little bit more

Nathan: Has there been one particular experience or book that has crystallized the convictions that you have in terms of the whole integrated understanding of what God offers us?

James: I think the one book that really set me on this journey was a collection of essays entitled The Unsettling of America. Wendell Berry in general has been a very important writer for me. He is someone who is thinking and writing and living through an integrated perspective. Some of the biblical and theological writers who have helped me develop my thinking and dreaming have been N.T. Wright, Norman Wirzba, and Ellen Davis.

Nathan: Does living out your faith ecologically have benefits for your faith?

James: Absolutely. When I am conscious about my place and role in the wider creation I feel closer to God, closer to our fellow humans, and closer to the incredible world God has created. I begin to experience, if only in flashes, the comprehensive oneness that Jesus speaks about in the Gospel of John. I am given a taste of the shalom that so many of the prophets point to in their scriptural poetry. I begin to feel a deeper sense of personal peace that is set into the fabric of Creation, this deep connection between beings, between God and what God has made.

It’s interesting to me that when I ask people questions like, “What have been the most profound moments of your life or of your faith?” most of them respond with experiences of being in nature. I think that speaks to a deep-seated sense that we are connected and that we need that connection.

Nathan: You said that your early call was for evangelism and that led to the pastoral ministry. What are the implications for evangelism from the perspective of a more integrated Christianity?

James: I think it means that we need an evangelism that’s more holistic and creative, that is looking to draw upon the truth that every human is designed to be connected to God, to each other, and to the rest of Creation. I think this can inspire ways of life that are naturally evangelistic, that draw people to Christ by pursuing this vision of wholeness within themselves, their churches, and their communities. Inviting people into this way of life must also include inviting them to join in lament and repentance for the way we fail to live up to God’s vision for us, and this, of course, is at the heart of evangelism as well.

This is exciting to me; it can draw in lots of different people – people who have rejected the Church, people who are drawn to Creation but not perhaps to established ways of the Church, and people who are interested in community or social justice but haven’t necessarily found a faith community that’s making connections to God from these perspectives.

Having that holistic perspective offers entry points for people to come and explore the Gospel.

Nathan: Well, that’s the first time I’ve gotten excited about evangelism. (Laughter) So much of evangelism as I’ve seen it has been individualistic, self-oriented, consumeristic, and otherworldly. And that hasn’t resonated.

James: Take these categories of personal, social, and ecological. There are many Christians who are able to articulate a personal experience of faith but lack a substantive social or ecological vision. There are other people who have no faith but who are actively serving the poor or know a lot about ecology and are living very responsible and intentional lives. Bringing those people together is like cross-evangelization. Christians have a lot to learn from others. We don’t have to see them as the opposition, or objects to be converted, but as people with whom to engage with about the important questions. What is the good life? What is a whole life?

In that way, evangelism becomes much more about building community and relationships than taking an oppositional approach where I have a message that you need and you have a lack that I can fill for you. I think it can be much more mutual.

Nathan: I would build on that and say that you are offering people life, a life that’s really rich and abundant, rather than having to start from a point of condemnation and offering them a life preserver to get them out of that condemnation. Can you give me an example of what gives you hope for what’s possible for this integrated Christianity?

James: I continue to meet people, particularly young people, who intuitively understand a holistic approach to life and are looking for a church and a faith that can support them and offer them a place contribute. One young woman I know spent a college semester in New Zealand learning about ecological systems from a faith perspective. She is now doing graduate work in hydrology. Another young woman joined the protests at Standing Rock as a way to connect her strong personal faith to the social and the ecological problems of the world. Neither of these women grew up in a church that emphasized caring for the non-human world, but they arrived there anyway. That gives me hope.

Circlewood is in the process of developing its website. If you are interested in learning more about Circlewood or connecting with James, he would welcome your contact by email at jamadon316@gmail.com.

Painting by Julius Hubner of Martin Luther posting the 95 theses.

 

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation has been on my mind for weeks now. It was a turning point in Christian history and in the history of Western Europe. What should we make of it?

It is a legacy of growing up Lutheran that I continue to admire Luther’s willingness to stand up on principle. He was willing to challenge a massive institution and religious empire – the Roman Catholic Church – on points of principle about God. He was a rebel with a cause.

But was the Reformation’s legacy all good?

What I have struggled with is the battleground on which Luther largely fought the Reformation – theology.

My sense is that the zealous pursuit of a science-like, all-encompassing theology of God and Jesus has been given too much weight in Christian history. It is deeply ironic and shameful, for example, that Luther and other Protestant leaders went from being persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church to advocating for the persecution of others, like the Anabaptists.

When people are so consumed by a zeal for theological correctness that they lose the ability to love one’s neighbor as oneself, something has gone very wrong.

This is not to say that theology is not an important and valuable tool. It is. We are called to love God with our minds. Theology is one way to do that. And the diversity of the 66 books of the Bible calls out for some unifying ideas and ethics that will translate into how we live and think.

But speaking and reading theology about God can replace actual experience of God. It can, in its very form, make the Christian life too abstract and too left-brained.

I have had one profoundly spiritual experience in my life. It was an experience without words. I cannot describe it with any degree of accuracy using words. All of the theology and preaching I heard from the pulpit throughout my life did not prepare me for that experience. In fact, all of the theology and preaching I had heard had lulled me into believing I knew God through the words about God I had been taught.

We casually use words like grace, faith, forgiveness, resurrection, and salvation like they are distinct and quantifiable elements from a periodic table. They are, in fact, ineffable phenomena.

Interestingly enough, the humility with which we should approach words and names for the actions and essence of God is exemplified in the name of God that appears in the Hebrew Scriptures. As this well-written article by Rabbi Louis Jacob explains, we actually don’t know how to correctly pronounce the four-letter Hebrew name for God. It appears in the Hebrew Scriptures 6,823 times. But Jewish tradition long discouraged the actual speaking of the name and instead substituted “Adonai”, the Hebrew word for Lord.

In extreme theologizing we have too often lost the fear and awe of God and all that God is. We make God safe through theology. In some ways, theological constructs can even become an assertion of human power over God.

So how do we know if theologies and even church practices are on the right track?

Here is one of my suggestions – we should pay attention to their fruit. Jesus spoke often about good fruit being a natural product of a living faith in Him and of a good heart. Theologies and church practices can best be judged by their fruit. How do their believers and followers live out their faith in the following four areas?

 

ATTITUDE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD

Do you sense God’s love for you even as you are in awe of God and aware of God’s unwillingness to accept what is wrong in this world?

Is Jesus at the center of your faith and heart?

Do you seek out knowledge and experience of God like a person in a desert seeks out water?

When you pray do you not only seek out help from God open your heart to what God desires of you?

Do you approach God and Jesus with humility and mystery?

 

ATTITUDE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH PEOPLE

Are you forgiving and full of loving kindness for others?

Do you make the effort with the help of God’s Spirit to see and perceive other people the way God sees them?

Do you love your neighbor as you love yourself?

Do you have strong integrity, honesty, and a clear sense of what is right and wrong?

Do you struggle against evil and people consumed with evil without losing yourself to hate and blind anger?

Do you care about justice for the poor and vulnerable around you, individually and collectively?

 

ATTITUDE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD’S EARTH

Do you see the earth as God’s and act appropriately respectful and compassionate towards it?

Do you and your community of faith balance the use of God’s earth with enabling it to thrive and prosper even when this requires sacrifices that others around you are not wiling to make?

Do you and your church pay attention to Creation?

Is being thoughtful stewards of God’s earth part of the fabric of your faith and life, including your civic life?

In your faith and life, do pigs, oak trees, and mussels matter?

 

ONE’S OWN LIFE

Do you love yourself at the same time you love others?

Are you honest about and aware of your failings and seek not only forgiveness but also seek to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit every day?

Do you seek to have your heart and your will reformed on a regular basis so that how you live is an eloquent statement about your faith?

Do you listen for God’s calling for your life? Do you do hard and challenging things when you sense that is God’s call?

Do you know your talents, enjoy using them, and use them creatively and energetically for God’s Kingdom?

 

If these are the widespread fruits of the theology and practices of your faith community, then God is a whole and living presence there.

Of course, all of us, individually and collectively, will fall short of what God offers us and wants from us. This is why God’s forgiveness is always needed.

This is why we will always need reformation that goes beyond words.

Have you ever eaten a pawpaw?

I just tasted one for the first time. It brought to mind the phrase from Psalm 34:8 – “O taste and see that the LORD is good…”

Linda Wiens, pictured here, is in the middle of this story. A former staff member and current volunteer for the non-profit organization for which I work, Linda organized the planting of a small demonstration orchard near our office a number of years ago. Among the American quinces, apples, pears, persimmons, cherries, plums, and other fruit trees she had planted, there were two pawpaw trees.

Linda Wiens holds the leaves of a pawpaw tree aside so the fruit on the tree can be seen.

Linda Wiens, a long-time member of a local Mennonite congregation, shows the fruit of a pawpaw tree that she had planted with many other kinds of fruit trees in a small orchard.

This fall, one of the pawpaws bore fruit for the first time.

As way of background, here’s the first paragraph of the first chapter of Andrew Moore’s excellent book – Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit:

Throughout the years it’s gone by a lot of names – frost banana, Indiana banana, fetid-bush, bandango, custard apple, prairie banana, poor man’s banana – but most of the time it’s just been called pawpaw. At first glance, both the fruit and the tree seem out of place in North America. A cluster of young pawpaws hanging from its branch resembles a miniature hand of bananas. And those clusters are tucked behind the tree’s lush foliage, shaded by leaves often a foot in length, larger and broader than those of avocado and mango. Wild pawpaws often appear kidney-shaped, two to six inches long, and one to three inches wide; they typically weigh from just a few ounces to half a pound. But under cultivation – and yes, there are pawpaw breeders and growers – fruits that weigh more than a pound and half are not uncommon.

This native American fruit can be found in 26 states. The heart of its range runs from the far eastern side of Kansas all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. The line formed by the northern borders of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas roughly forms the range’s east-west backbone. Check out the map (you’ll need to scroll down a bit) in this good online growing guide.

Speaking of geography, if someone tells you they’re from a town called Paw Paw, you’ll need to ask them which one. Six states – Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, and West Virginia – have a town called Paw Paw. And there would be seven if you counted Paw Paw Island in Louisiana.

George Washington planted pawpaws at Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson sent pawpaw seeds to Europe. It was even a big part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s diet in the last week of their trip back to Saint Louis.

It’s a part of American history that we had forgotten. And it’s now being rediscovered.

But wait, you say, what does it taste like? How do you eat it?

A plate with cross sections of pawpaws on display as well as two uncut pawpaws.

You can slice pawpaws up in cross-sections (after peeling off the skin) or cut them in half length-wise and spoon out the flesh of the fruit.

A close up of cut-up cross-sections of a pawpaw which have had the skins removed.

You will likely never find a fresh pawpaw in your local grocery store. It has a very short shelf life, and it will not ripen if picked prematurely. To paraphrase the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, there is a time to eat pawpaws and there is a time to wait for the next pawpaw season.

I found the taste something like a mix of banana, mango, and custard. The consistency reminded me of a well-ripened avocado.

And I liked it! Despite having to work around the large black seeds, I liked the flavor.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I cut up more cross-sections for our Friday staff meeting in early October. Some of my colleagues appreciated the novel taste. Others did not.)

There are many culinary options for this American fruit. We know that the Iroquois, for example, dried pawpaws and then used them in sauces and also cooked them into corn cakes. This worked well nutritionally.  Corn is very low in niacin while pawpaw is rich in it. Native Americans found the tree and its fruit so useful that they spread the tree west of the Mississippi and north into the area around Ontario.

At the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival in Athens County, Ohio, you can taste a wide variety of foods in which people are using pawpaws.

Salsas. Curries. Puddings. Mousse. Crepes. Ice Cream. All with pawpaws.

And that’s not even mentioning the many micro-brews. Like the Pawpaw Sour Ale from Upland Brewing Company and Putnam’s Pawpaw Ale from Marietta Brewing. There is also the Paw Paw Wheat from Jackie O’s Brewery in Athens, Ohio.

I could go on for a long time about this fascinating plant and its lore. I’d like to tell you more about the fact that zebra swallowtail butterflies can only persist as long as there are pawpaws. Or that pawpaw trees contain complex chemical compounds that fight cancer.

But I want to end with a question.

How does the pawpaw fit into your understanding of God’s world?

Are theology, prayer, and worship in a church building the only ways to know and connect with God? Or is God also with us and pleased with us when we immerse ourselves in this complex world and understand, appreciate, savor, and mend it?

I’d vote for the latter. And I’d say pawpaws are a good place to start.

 

I urge Christians and churches to plant native species of trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers in their landscapes. If you’re in the home range of pawpaws and have the right conditions, why not plant a few of them? I planted two last  year on the east side of our house where it’s not too windy and the soil rarely dries out completely. (By the way, you need to plant two or more pawpaws relatively close to each other for the trees to have a chance to bear fruit). According to this article from Indianapolis, at least one church and a synagogue have planted pawpaws. If you’ve heard of others, please let me know!

 

If you are a Christian and you’re attentive to God’s earth, it’s likely that you’ve sometimes felt on the fringe of your church. In fact, you can feel downright alone. This is one of the reasons I thought it important to write this piece based on my visit to the Au Sable Institute last month. I thought it important, too, to describe the organization and its people in some detail. I hope you’ll persevere through the odyssey of reading this long piece. For decades an organization of committed Christian scientists has been equipping other Christians for ecological research and for science-based stewardship. 

They were as surprised as I was.

On Friday, August 4th I made the long drive from northeastern Illinois to Mancelona in northern Michigan to take part in the Au Sable Institute’s Reunion. “Reunion,” of course, suggests an event for people who have had some sort of previous and direct relationship with the institution. Almost every attendee I met courteously asked when I had attended as a student or had taught as a professor. They were astonished to hear that this was my first visit.

In the case of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, my only previous interaction had been several donations my wife and I had made in the past after a friend had encouraged me to check out the organization. The Institute’s mission – to inspire and educate people to serve, protect, and restore God’s earth – resonated with us.

A picture of the sign for the Au Sable Institute just outside the Institute in Mancelona, Michigan.

I decided to visit because I wanted to learn more about Au Sable, and I wanted to be with other Christians who care deeply for the fate of Creation.

Of course, I must be honest that there was a little voice in me wondering if I was going to be in a very awkward situation. I nervously joked with other attendees that I was relieved to hear that there were no secret initiation rites.

One of the things that had tipped the balance toward me attending was a conversation I had had with Fred Van Dyke earlier in the summer. Au Sable’s executive director and co-author of Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship, Fred was kind enough to speak with me on the phone and shared the Institute’s mission with sincerity and passion.

Fred Van Dyke, executive director of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, speaks during a tour.

From Fred and from the activities of the weekend, I learned that the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies pursues its mission by offering environmental science programs for students and adults of all ages. In addition to its main campus in northern Michigan, the Institute has locations in India, the Pacific Northwest, and Costa Rica that carry out similar activities.

The heart of Au Sable’s education mission has long been university-level courses in environmental studies and environmental science that are primarily taught in the field. These courses are accepted for credit by 60 Christian colleges. College students take the classes on Au Sable’s campuses.

The Institute, I’m happy to say, has also been expanding into field-based research around practical topics related to conservation, ecology, and restoration. One example – researchers at Au Sable have been testing different planting practices for restoring abandoned oil pads back to forest in northern Michigan.

If my memory serves from a conversation I had there, there are approximately 50,000 of these sites where forest was cleared for oil pumping. Oddly, forests have not reclaimed these sites many years after the machines and other vestiges of human activity had been removed.

“The Blogger” Feels At Home

The first event that Friday evening was a dinner in the rec center. I didn’t know anyone. With flashbacks to my freshman year of high school running through my head, I set my things down at an empty table.

When I returned with my food, I found I had a number of table companions, including Dr. Calvin DeWitt, the long-time director of Au Sable. From that point on and through the rest of the weekend, I found myself in fellowship with other Christians who talked passionately about beavers and the cloud forests of Guatemala, who prayed humbly, and who were ready to sing the doxology at the drop of the hat. And, I’m happy to say, the food was very healthy. Careful attention was paid to recycling and composting of waste.

Common meals during the reunion were held in the Rec Center. The sliding doors opened wide so we could take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the North Woods just outside. When the campus was being designed, there had been a proposal by a planner to create a typical campus by clearing much of the woods around the buildings. Thankfully, that idea was rejected. The campus is nested in the forest.

What a delight to fully feel at home and in one spirit with other believers!

There was consistently warm hospitality throughout my time there. I wasn’t known by anyone, and yet people came up to me on a regular basis to introduce themselves and learn more about me. I suspect this is what early Christians experienced as they traveled throughout the Roman Empire and visited local churches.

When Cal DeWitt used some of his introductory remarks that first Friday evening to ask for newcomers to introduce themselves, he made a point to ask me to share the name of my blog for everyone to hear. I later learned that from that moment other attendees began to refer to me as “the blogger.” This was done with a mixture of curiosity, intrigue, and perhaps a bit of anxiety.

Calvin DeWitt

A considerable amount of the reunion was spent honoring Calvin DeWitt and for good reason.

Under the lealdership of Dr. Howard Snyder, the Au Sable Institute began as a science camp and field station. It was Cal, as the founding Executive Director from 1979 to 2004, who led Au Sable’s transition to its current identity and wide impact. He did so while serving as Professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His curriculum vitae runs over 30 pages, dense with listings of papers and presentations.

He was one of the early articulate voices advocating for Christians to be good stewards of Creation. Through his books and lectures over the past decades, he led the way in articulating the theological underpinnings of why Christians should care and act for God’s earth.

Here’s how an article in Grist summarizes his impact and leadership:

A respected scientist with advanced degrees in biology and zoology, DeWitt spent over 25 years as director of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, where he worked to help college students learn the principles of Christian environmental stewardship alongside hard science. He’s been one of the prime movers behind almost every significant collaboration between evangelicals, scientists, and politicians, including the much-discussed Evangelical Climate Initiative, a statement from high-profile evangelicals calling for concerted action to battle global warming.

Interestingly enough, he was appointed to his professorship at the University of Wisconsin in 1972 without being placed in a department. His mission was to integrate learning across disciplines.

That focus on integration is one of his most distinctive qualities. He is a dynamic person who delights in bringing together various fields of academic study, especially the sciences, even as he delights in the understanding of the Bible and theology. He loves the pursuit of knowledge and sharing that knowledge with students through teaching.

His breadth of knowledge and the extent of his leadership impact on Au Sable were clear during a tour he led of portions of the campus.

When the tour started at Earth Hall, Cal highlighted the many thoughtful features of its environmentally-minded design that he and the architect worked out together. He rattled off scientific names for most of the living things we saw when the tour then made its way into the woods and along the pond. He stopped to described the construction techniques of a log cabin built for lumberjacks. At a lecture hours earlier, he had lucidly explained the root meanings of Greek words in the New Testament.

He is full of enthusiasm, erudite knowledge, contagious energy, playfulness, and skilled storytelling. What a difference God has made through him.

Cal and Ruth Dewitt were kind enough to share this photo of themselves with me for this post. The background, by the way, is not northern Michigan but northern China. You can see portions of the Great Wall in the background.

It would not do to mention Cal without mentioning his wife Ruth. They share a close bond. She spoke proudly to me at the first dinner of the details of the Agricultural Conservancy Zoning that are part of the Land Use Plan of the Town of Dunn. Cal played a leading role in developing this plan which has kept their home town in Wisconsin from being overwhelmed by unplanned development.

When the weekend’s activities closed and Cal and Ruth were walking together towards their car, I noticed they were holding hands.

From Nearly Changing Majors to Restoring Lake Sturgeon

Au Sable changed the life of Marty Holtgren.

Marty was studying biology at Bethel College in 1991 when Dave Mahan, the director of the Au Sable Institute at that time, came to introduce students there to Au Sable’s educational offerings. This intrigued Marty. Many of his fellow biology majors were headed towards nursing careers, but he wasn’t sure biology was for him. What’s more, Bethel’s small size meant that it had few specialty courses in biology or ecology.

In the winter of 1991, Marty attended a summer term at Au Sable. While there, Marty took a limnology course as well as a fisheries course taught by Fred “Fritz” Erickson. This experience led Marty to stay in biology.

“The passion that Fred brought towards fish and other aquatic creatures,” says Marty, “made it hard not to get incredibly fired up. It was contagious. That contagiousness is something that I’ve really tried to emulate throughout my life and career.”

After graduating from Bethel in 1992, Marty worked at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for about five or six years. During that time, Marty returned to Au Sable to attend a three-week intensive stream ecology classe. Desiring greater challenges and the opportunity to grow professionally, Marty decided to enter graduate school at Michigan Tech University. There he earned a master’s degree while studying lake sturgeon.

Marty Holtgreen and another person hold a lake sturgeon fish while standing in the Big Manistee River.

Marty Holtgren, on the right, helps hold a lake sturgeon along the Big Manistee River. For ten years, Marty helped the Little River Band of the Ottawa Tribe, restore the population of this fish species in the river.

This was the springboard for him to then begin working for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee along the eastern Lake Michigan coast. Marty served as their fisheries biologist. In that role, Marty assisted the Little River Band in carrying out a restoration project for lake sturgeon in the Big Manistee River.

“It’s a fish that looks like a dinosaur,” says Marty, “and lives to be 50 years old and can get to be a hundred pounds. They were almost extirpated at the turn of the century. They were also a key cultural species for the Native Americans across the Great Lakes.”

The Little River Band had one of the few populations of lake sturgeon left.

But they didn’t know how many.

“Because it’s not a sport fish, the sturgeon has gone unnoticed and hasn’t been researched much,” says Marty. “So when I started there, I was charged with helping to understand this population and to also labor to restore it.”

The Little River Band and Marty worked for ten years on the restoration efforts. If you were to reduce the restoration to a simple recipe it would be this:

Step One: Capture the young lake sturgeon fry that had just hatched and were heading out to Lake Michigan. They’ll be about an inch long and vulnerable to being consumed by other fish.

Step Two:  Raise them through the summer in a portable stream-side facility that you’ve designed, rather than moving them to a hatchery somewhere else in the state. (The Little River Band wanted to keep them in their own watershed where they belonged.)

Step Three: Release them back into the river when the fish are now larger and better able to fend for themselves.

What was even more notable is that the release was turned into an annual community event. The tribal community and their non-tribal neighbors would gather together along the river in solidarity for the fish and the restoration. Then many of the attendees were able to release the lake sturgeon into the river by hand.

“It was a very significant and spiritual moment for me,” says Marty. “You had come full circle with this little fish that you had held in your hand in May. Now you’re releasing that fish four months later and it’s eight or nine inches long.”

“It also healed that community. There was a lot of mistrust in tribal and non-tribal people. You saw healing in those communities. It was a beautiful moment.”

This experience prompted Marty to return to Michigan Tech for a PhD that integrated fisheries management with the social sciences. This integrated approach was valuable because fisheries issues are community issues.

Marty became a tribal liaison for the state of Michigan around natural resource issues. Three months ago, he launching his own ecological restoration consulting firm – Encompass Socio-Ecological Consulting, LLC.

“The main projects I’m working on now are reconnecting people to their watersheds,” Marty says. “On two of the projects I help with large scale dam removals, making sure the public needs are incorporated into those designs.”

“After leaving the Au Sable Institute,” Marty says, “I really had a passion for environmental work and that human connection with environmental work, too. I looked at Creation more holistically and saw that as we’re good stewards we’re also helping the human condition. Au Sable really changed my trajectory.”

The Au Sable Instiute in the Anthropocene

How could I not feel complete delight spending time in the quiet, beautiful woods of northern Michigan with faithful, friendly, thoughtful, stewardship-minded Christians?

Leave it to a blogger with some Norwegian lineage raised in a Missouri Synod Lutheran home whose father frequently reminded his sons not to praise the day until the evening.

Leave it to someone who listened to The Sixth Extinction on the way to the event.

In that book, Elizabeth Kolbert highlights the breadth and astonishing, accelerating pace of species extinction in our world today. She tells the story of how Nobel Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen was the first to christen our current geological epoch as the Anthropocene. That designation communicates that we are in a new period of life on earth. It is a period defined by massive, geological-scale, human-caused changes. These changes have been largely tragic for the living systems and living beings of God’s earth.

With those kinds of thoughts running through my mind, I couldn’t help but notice that throughout the time I spent at Au Sable I hardly heard a note of outrage or collective sorrow about all that is happening around us. All I remember hearing was the phrase “poor earth” in a prayer.

When I shared this reaction with Fred, he had a thoughtful response I want to share with you:

…I thought you were a little hard on the Institute for a perceived lack of expression of outrage over what humans have done to the Earth and what Christians have done. Some of our symposium speakers did express some of these ideas on Thursday at the symposium, and I have expressed this at times in my own writings. However, at the institutional level, we at Au Sable have found little good to come of outrage over a problem once the damage is done. Hence, our response is more intentionally solution oriented, particularly in our research.

One can express outrage over oil-related deforestation, but that won’t bring back any trees. Instead, we are now determining (and at some levels, already have determined) the best treatments on these oil pads and the best species to plant to restore them to becoming again a living part of the forest community. Similarly, we feel deep sorrow that a beautiful fish, the Arctic grayling, was extirpated from Michigan waters by habitat degradation inspired by greed in Michigan’s logging era. Our response now is to work with Michigan Technological Institute (Michigan Tech) in creating a habitat suitability model that will help identify the best sites for grayling reintroduction.

Likewise we have been saddened by the near extirpation of the Kirtland’s warbler through the loss of young jack pine stands, but encouraged by its recovery which will likely soon lead to its delisting. Our contribution here, which is future oriented, is to determine the warbler’s success in red pine habitat (which it also uses) and, if reproductive outputs are similar (initial data show that they are), create plans attractive to the forest products industry to manage red pine (a more economically valuable tree than jack pine) for warblers, filling a void of support that will occur when the delisted Kirtland’s warbler loses federal protection and federal funding for its habitat management, and making the activity of logging, which once contributed to the warbler’s decline, now an agent of its recovery and restoration.

…I do believe it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, and better to solve a problem than complain about the harm and hurt the problem caused.

There is no question in my mind that the Au Sable Institute is indeed a uniquely valuable candle.

As I’ve pondered Fred’s words, however, it occurs to me that the culture of science tends to be largely left-brained. It is a culture of rationality, analysis, and calm logic. Those qualities are certainly powerful.

Yet, the words of Aldo Leopold also ring true to me: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds.”

Leopold was a man of science and a man of action. But in these words you also hear that he was a man, a man of feelings.

Reading the Bible one is struck by the emotional intensity of the people called by God across many centuries. Jesus himself embarked on a path destined to offer a saving way to humanity and ultimate redemption of all Creation. On that path, Jesus taught the “science” of God’s kingdom but also expressed a variety of emotions as he lived out his mission. In fact, his emotions, many of which were not the happy and calm ones, were part and parcel of his compelling nature.

In the Anthropocene, I believe being fully effective in addressing the wounds humanity has inflicted on God’s earth will require an integrated response that is both left-brained and right-brained.

Without question, we must have the left-brained understanding of how the world works and how to restore it. But right-brained responses are needed as well. We must be creative, emotionally open, and ready to engage in culture and art. The tragedy we face is in large part a product of polluted, closed, and misguided hearts. The unfolding tragedy is also taking its toll on people’s hearts. We must be able to understand, restore, inspire, and connect with people as living souls. We need science knowledge and heart knowledge.

Along these lines I was happy to hear from Fred that the Au Sable Institute is developing programs to train students in leadership. I am hopeful that these programs will begin to help Christians attending the Institute to inspire and lead within human communities, human organizations, and human systems.

Preparing to Leave

When the official activities came to a close on Saturday evening, I parked in the Au Sable Institute’s ball field near a few other attendees who had set up their tents. I slept less than well in my van. On Sunday morning, after a light breakfast the Institute provided, tents began to be broken down, and the campers prepared to go their separate ways.

Voices rose and people gathered when one of the campers, an alumnus of the Institute, spotted a large spider. It was crawling on the fabric of her tent that was lying on the ground and about to be packed away.

This striking orbweaver spider appeared on the tent of one the other attendees on Sunday morning. 

We gathered round, children and adults, to take a closer look. There was common curiosity and fascination. When we were done, the orbweaver spider was allowed to go safely along on its way. Once in the dew-flecked grass, it was almost impossible to see.

Fellow attendees check out the orbweaver.

A simple yet profound Sabbath moment at the Au Sable Institute. An example of the culture I’d love to see be the norm in Christian communities.

We warmly wished each other well, and I departed.

I was glad I had come.

I want to suggest that you add something a little different to your bucket list.

Before you die, be sure to attend a farm field day put on by a sustainable farmer.

Field days are usually geared for other farmers, but don’t let that scare you away. Field days are a chance to be immersed in the craft of farming with good, friendly people. You’ll see farming and the land in a new way.

This Tuesday, I made a one-day, eight-hour round trip to attend a field day at Trevor Toland’s River Oak Ranch in Macomb, Illinois that had been organized by The Pasture Project.

Despite the driving and the fact that I got home at 1:30 a.m., it was well worth it.

After some initial comments and presentations, more than 70 of us were carried around on hay wagons to different areas of Trevor Toland’s farm.  He has been converting much of his 380+ acre farm on rolling land to a rotational grazing system for a number of years. At each stop, Trevor explained how he has been managing each section and how the grazing of cattle has been part of that management system.

Rotational grazing is the grazing of large numbers of cattle for short periods of time on small sub-sections of a farm. The cattle are then rotated onto the next small sub-section.

Each grazed subsection then has at least 30 days (and often more) to recover. This mimics what buffalo and other wild ruminants have been doing for millennia. It gives cows what they naturally desire to eat – grass and flowering plants (especially legumes) – and the chance to move around outdoors. Thanks to always being covered with a variety of plants that feed the microbes underground, the soil becomes full of life. That life is made even more rich by the occasional but intense pulses of dung, urine, and even saliva coming from the cattle herd. In addition, the action of their hooves stomps plant matter into direct contact with the soil where insects and microbes can work on it.

Continually adapting exactly how and where the cattle are grazed is a key element to this approach to farming.

Dr. Allen Williams (kneeling and imitating the partial consumption of a grass by a cow) explained how grasses and other pasture plants can persist and thrive when cows are allowed to eat only 50% before being moved to another field. Grasses and other plants that persist with healthy root systems can then feed the soil microbes in the ground while also shading the ground. Healthy microbial life is the key to healthy soils that feed plants and hold water.

Trevor, seen standing in front of the small tractor, is the best of what it means to be Midwestern. He’s direct, thoughtful, humble, and honest about his challenges. I later learned that he played basketball for the University of Iowa and was a principal before becoming a farmer.

The bonus feature of the event and the main reason I drove the many miles was that Dr. Allen Williams was the featured speaker. Before we actually got out into the fields, he presented an overview of rotational grazing using high densities of cattle. While out in the fields, he added insightful commentary at a number of our stops and answered questions..

A self-described “recovering academic,” Allen farms in Mississippi and is a tireless evangelist for rotational grazing across the country. A good introduction to him and rotational grazing is the Soil Carbon Cowboy video.

What’s especially interesting is that Allen is a Christian.

His faith in our Creator God is what motivates him to do what he does.

He speaks with passion, knowledge, and conviction. He helps his audience understand the complexities of how soil and animals interact. He carries himself with both decency and strength.

Dr. Allen Williams explained that it is helpful to maintain wooded sections of a farm. Cattle can be brought to the woods to cool down during hot weather. He noted, too, that you can tell when a pasture has microbes thriving in the ground by the degree to which insects and spiders are thriving above the ground.

As Christians, we should be proud of Allen and other Christians who are advancing Creation-friendly farming method with integrity and energy.

We should also support the kind of life-affirming, God-affirming farming he practices and helps thousands of other farmers implement.

You and your church can do that by buying meat that comes from animals raised the way Trevor Toland does at River Oak Ranch.

If you’re interested in attending a field day on a farm where sustainibility is a key principle, please email me at nathan@libertyprairie.org. I can share some good resources, depending on where you live. I wrote a post earlier about the commitment a whole faith church would make to having the food for its common meals come from sustainable, well-stewarded farms. I also wrote about the care with which whole faith churches need to communicate about farming ethics. Farmers are our neighbors.