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Encouraging Wonder

by Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85

This is my Father's world:
O let us not forget
that though the wrong is great and strong,
God is the ruler yet.
He trusts us with his world,
to keep it clean and fair--
all earth and trees, all skies and seas,
all creatures everywhere.

A familiar verse from a familiar hymn that is sung often-. Why is it then that so many environmentalists are frustrated with the concern Christians have for the creation?

"I think that some Christians have adopted the words of another old hymn, ‘This world is not my home. I'm just a-passing through,'" said Tim Van Deelen ‘88, wildlife ecologist for the Illinois Natural Survey. "I think there is a lack of a real, clear Christian voice for the care of the environment with the exception of Cal DeWitt."

It's a frustration for Cal DeWitt ‘57, professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin--Madison and director of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies in Mancelona, Michigan. "It's a rather perplexing question," said DeWitt, who recently spoke on Christian stewardship at Calvin's January Series. "Why do I so frequently meet people who honor Jesus Christ, who honor the creator of the universe, yet seemingly, by their behavior, don't give a care about the creation?"

DeWitt compared it to honoring and praising Rembrandt, but despising his masterpieces. DeWitt, author of Earth-Wise: A Biblical Response to Environmental Issues, is one of the foremost speakers on the topic. He recently took his position to Washington D.C., where he was asked to speak on the ethical implications of protecting threatened animals. Environmental groups were concerned that proposals being debated in Congress would weaken the Endangered Species Act, which was up for renewal.

DeWitt grabbed national headlines when he was quoted by The New York Times as saying "the Endangered Species Act is our Noah's Ark--Congress and special interests are trying to sink it."

At an ensuing press conference, DeWitt was accompanied by a cougar--an animal that perhaps owes its existence to the Endangered Species Act. Ultimately, Congress changed its thinking on the issue with the Act standing basically as it was written and signed into law in 1973.

"The power of the Noah's Ark story is that it doesn't just say let's save only those things useful to us," said DeWitt. "It says save it because it is."

DeWitt has spent much time studying the scriptures looking for answers and what he has discovered is that "The scriptures have an immense amount to say to the problems the earth faces but also a great deal to say about how we can put concern for creation back on the agenda of the church. What we have done is dismembered God into Creator and Savior; we have separated Savior from Jesus Christ, King of Creation. What we really need to remember is that to the Creator of matter, matter matters."

That's the philosophy Van Deelen tries to follow in all of his research on the management of large mammals.

Van Deelen is constantly working to find a balance between animal needs and human impact.

"One of my projects now is to figure out what size the deer population in the forest preserve system around Chicago should be," he said. "Again, it's a balance between humans and the deer. If we get too many, the deer eat landscaping, and the number of deer-vehicle collisions rises and they can even be a possible reservoir for disease which can be transferred to humans and their pets. For me, any way, these large visible animals are one of the most dramatic signs of God's creation and maintaining each of these intricacies and the diversity is an important part of the stewardship mandate."

The stewardship mandate is certainly something that Stan Kiste ‘83 does not take lightly. As vice president of Lubbers Resource Management in Jenison, Michigan, Kiste has taken an active role in developing recycling programs for the company.

"Seventy percent of what we do is recycling," he said. "Our goal when working with our customers is zero landfill--waste reduction."

Kiste does this in one way by "dumpster diving."

"We go through their trash and identify items that can reduce waste in landfills," he said "For large companies we identify their waste streams and then find somewhere to go with these products."

Kiste, who majored in biology and earned a master's degree in environmental science, finds his education being put to very good use.

"I grew up on a farm--very hands on," he said. "I really get into seeing another 20 or 30 tons that doesn't end up in a landfill."

But why does it matter to Kiste?

"I think it can be our only response to creation," he said. "If I love God and am in awe of and place value and respect this gift, then I should do everything I can to protect and conserve it."

Unfortunately, Kiste feels his response is not being supported heartily enough by Christians.

"We have become so disconnected with creation," he said. "If we want to exercise we go to an indoor club. If we want to be entertained, we go to a movie. We pay someone to mow our grass and shovel our snow. We think dinner comes from the grocery store. You don't value things you don't have a connection with."

That's exactly what Gail Bangma Baker ‘64 and Diane Reckless ‘90 are trying to do through education--reconnect people with the environment.

Baker has spent her career working for the National Fish and Wildlife Service and is currently working as the refuge manager for the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in West Virginia. "A lot of what I do is try and ‘sell' the refuge to the community," said Baker. "I do numerous talks and tours in trying to win the community over proving that a refuge in their area would be good." The Canaan Valley is the largest valley east of the Rocky Mountains and is very cool and moist. "It's a bit of Canada gone astray," said Baker, who has a master's degree in biology and a Ph.D. in botany. "It's the southernmost region where a lot of these things live."

Like Baker, Reckless' goal is education.

As the education coordinator of the Chicago Wilderness Bioreserve, Reckless aims to diversify the kinds of people involved in environmental issues.

"I do a lot with kids because they have a natural enthusiasm for the outdoors," she said. "If we can reach the children, we are reaching the future generation, but we also can reach their parents."

Reckless knows this to be true because she was motivated to pursue this field when she was eight years old.

"I was hiking in Shenandoah National Park when I was eight years old," she said, "when a mosquito landed on my cheek. The park ranger we were with picked it off my cheek, studied it for a minute and let it go. I was thinking, ‘What is it that gave him that sense of wonder that didn't make him want to just squish that bug?' Right then I decided I was going to be a park ranger."

While not a park ranger exactly, Reckless has managed to preserve that sense of wonder both as an educator and in her own life.

"I think I believe in this more than the average joe," she said. "I don't own a car. Living where I do makes public transportation a simple option. My kid wears cloth diapers. My husband is probably into it even more than me though. Half of the things in our house are things he pulled out of the alley and made into something we could use."

Mark Van Putten ‘76, president and chief executive officer of the National Wildlife Federation, was also impacted as a child.

"I was a kid growing up on the shores of Lake Michigan," said Van Putten, who grew up in Holland, Mich. "I remember summers when the beaches were so covered with dead alewives that we couldn't go swimming. I would stand there as a child and look over this lake that looks like an ocean and wonder how something so big could get so messed up.

"We used to think that they were so big we couldn't pollute them," he continued. "The solution to pollution was dilution."

Since 1982, Van Putten headed up the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Natural Resource Center in Ann Arbor. He was named president of the National Wildlife Federation in July, 1996.

A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, he is best known for his work on clean water issues, including a settlement with Consumers Power Co. and Detroit Edison for fish killed by a local power plant. The deal was the second-largest natural resource damage settlement ever awarded in this country.

Van Putten admits he is passionate about the Great Lakes.

"My challenge now is to help build an organization that is as committed to the Everglades and streams in the Pacific Northwest and the environment for salamanders in Texas as I am to the Great Lakes," he said.

After spending the first few months on the job, Van Putten is optimistic this can happen. "What has been so inspiring to me is traveling around the country and talking to people who care just as passionately about the places they know and love," he said.

Individuals who care passionately is critical, Van Putten continued.

"It's critical because the only solutions that last are the ones based on the values and beliefs of the community that has a stake in it," he said. "There are no permanent victories only permanent defeats, because where we have a victory today, proponents will come back tomorrow."

What we really need to do is "recollect ourselves as human beings in perspective to the earth," said Jon Rensenbrink ‘50, who founded the Green Party in Maine in 1984 and recently ran for a U.S. Senate seat representing his party. "All this time we have lorded over it and what we need is a new understanding of our place in nature and the cosmos. The production system is facing a major crisis--we will deplete, and pollute and waste our resources until the earth can not sustain itself."

Rensenbrink pushed that issue in his recent campaign. For it he received 4 percent of the vote, but more importantly his cause gained recognition.

"People learned that the Green Party is more than just tree huggers," he said. "I was involved in all of the debates and got people to realize that the ecological question is not going to go away. We need a new understanding of the world."

And that new understanding may not be as "new" as some people think.

"We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the tree, the animal; but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the mid-19th century and even further back in time: "For the creation was subjected to frustration...in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God," Romans 8:28.


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Contact Lynn Bolt Rosendale or Mike VanDenend.
Last revised by Nathan Vandenbroek on 2/27/97.