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Theology from the Tractor Seat

by Karen Schnyders DeVries '92

When she tells people she's a geography professor, Janel Curry-Roper jokes, "their first response is they attempt to play Trivial Pursuit with me."

They'll sometimes ask if her post-doctoral work is to keep up with place names in eastern Europe. But geography is a serious subject, a study that can affect environmental public policy or even validate communities and their beliefs in the eyes of the powerful. That's one of the reasons Curry-Roper now holds the William Spoelhof Teacher/Scholar-in-Residence Chair at Calvin.

Detroit real estate entrepreneurs Stanley and Harriet Van Reken donated $1 million in 1994 to endow the Spoelhof Chair, in honor of the former Calvin president, to attract top-flight professors to study and teach at Calvin. Curry-Roper is the chair's second appointee.

When Curry-Roper accepted the position, President Gaylen Byker said, "she increased the number of geographers on our campus by 100 percent."

Professor Henry Aay was the geography department, the only teacher here in a discipline lumped together with geology and environmental studies.

But geology seems to be a more concrete discipline, a "natural science" in the sense that it deals with tangible objects, with classes such as mineralogy, oceanology, paleontology and petrology -- the study of rocks.

Geography, on the other hand, is more amorphous, dealing with both objects and ideas. It's not just the junior-high study of people, places and products, Curry-Roper says.

"It's how culture is related to the land, issues of rain forest deforestation, water rights, population, demography, literature reflecting sense of place and land -- how our lives are interconnected with all these places whether we want them to be or not."

Aay says geographers "bridge the natural and social sciences" by studying both the physical earth -- like geologists do -- and its societies -- like sociologists, economists, political scientists or historians do.

"We investigate the spatial aspect of the world in which (we) live," Aay explains. "Why are things where they are, and what are the consequences?"

But while it touches on every aspect of life -- Aay, for example, even traces the geographic development of rock music -- an introductory geography class still isn't part of core curriculum at any college, including Calvin. In fact, Calvin is one of only two colleges in the Christian College Coalition even to have a geography department.

That amazes Curry-Roper.

"Christian colleges ought to be in this," she says. "They're talking (in classes) about the internationalization of the economy -- and there's no geography course?

"I think it says a lot about Calvin that they're willing to add another position, strengthening (the department) rather than killing it."

There were no formal geography classes at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minn., where Curry-Roper earned a B.A. in political science.

It wasn't until she took a job in Louisiana with the Mennonite Central Committee that she discovered geography as an academic discipline.

She'd been hired to write the ethnography, or personal history, of the United Houma Nation, a native American tribe that was considered non-existent by the federal government.

They wanted "some proof to their neighbors that they were who they claimed to be," that they rightfully belonged on the oil-rich land they occupied.

After two geography graduate students researching Louisiana's French culture talked with Curry-Roper about their projects, she enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. "It seemed like a good match," she says. As an undergraduate, she'd gotten interested in third-world development and land ownership issues, and had even spent an interim studying in Nicaragua. These issues of agriculture and land management have become her specialty, perhaps because of a seed planted in her as a child.

She remembers, at age 8 or 9, riding in the back seat of her parents' car when they took trips through her native midwest, passing through small town after small town.

Every village seemed to be organized the same way: Main Street ran past the town's two tallest buildings -- the church and the grain elevator. Streets parallel to Main were numbered; any cross streets were named after trees.

"Though the sameness of these towns was disorienting," Curry-Roper says, "I was fascinated by the differences."

Those differences are subtle reflections of a town's theology and ethnicity, she now recognizes, borne out even in how residents manage their farms.

That's the subject of the book she's putting together with a friend.

Before coming to Calvin, Curry-Roper taught at Central College in Pella, Iowa and collaborated with other scholars at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a geography think tank at Iowa State University where she completed some preliminary research for her book.

Curry-Roper traveled to seven Iowa farm towns and one in Minnesota, reading histories of the towns, learning about their theologies and surveying in great detail the residents' perspectives on their farms, their religion and government.

Each town she visited had established itself around ethnic background and religious denomination: Cascade, for example, is an Irish and German Catholic town; Hull, a Reformed Dutch community.

She found, as she expected, that these ethnic and religious perspectives, particularly their eschatologies, shaped farm management and even subsumed any individual quirks.

Responses from the German Reformed community, for example, indicated a utilitarian view of nature and a strong emphasis on private property rights.

So even though they were seeing the demise of their community because of big farms eating up smaller farms, Curry-Roper said, their mindset precluded them from doing anything about it.

While the Dutch Reformed -- a Calvinist group -- also supported private property rights and accumulation of wealth, they put more emphasis on family and community than the Germans did and considered themselves stewards of the land.

There was a "commitment of one's whole life to their (religious) worldview," Curry-Roper says. "Even a decision about what machine to buy is a religious decision for Calvinists."

These conclusions are hardly a new discovery to religious people. Calvin poet Sietze Buning even wrote about "Calvinist Farming" some 20 years ago:

Our business was to farm on Biblical principles.
Like, Let everything be done decently and in good order; that is
keep weeds down, plant every square inch, do not waste crops, and be tidy.

...When different ideas of God produced different methods of farming, God mattered more.

But Curry-Roper conducted the study to show "secular" geographers how the U.S. government's farm policies, tailored to individual farmers, can fly in the face of their community interconnectedness. That approach "doesn't conceive of that farm as part of a larger group," she says. "What that farmer does" -- how he handles water runoff, for example -- "affects his neighbors. It almost undermines the community life and the common understanding of their life together."

Curry-Roper compared U.S. and Canadian approaches to natural resource policy as a Fulbright scholar and a Pew Evangelical Scholar last year.

She much prefers the Canadian government's community-oriented approach, which has evolved from its original policy of giving tracts of land to groups, not individuals as the United States did. The community approach is "more likely to sustain healthy rural communities," she says. "It's just a better way to live."

The U.S.'s proclivity toward individualism also explains why schools here don't give the same emphasis to geography as to history, Curry-Roper thinks. Geography emphasizes the global community; history -- in this country, anyway -- celebrates individual achievement and personal freedom.

But Curry-Roper's appointment to the Spoelhof Chair, Aay hopes, will attract more students to their department. Last year, just seven students graduated with geography majors even though careers like cartography and urban planning are wide open.

She'll also bring balance to the department. While Curry-Roper's specialty is agriculture and third-world communities, Aay focuses on urban settings in North America and Europe.

"We can now cover the waterfront a little bit better than we did before," Aay says.

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Contact Lynn Bolt Rosendale or Mike VanDenend.
Last revised by Nathan Vandenbroek on 11/26/96.