The news this morning is bad.
Pretty much like most other mornings.
From NASA, we hear that last month was the hottest September on record. From Berlin, an international science panel warns that it may take “drastic measures” to avoid catastrophic climate change. From China, coal plants catapult smog to levels thirty times worse than the maximum safe level. From California, a new study finds that they simply can’t reach their aggressive emissions goals. And from Geneva, the WMO tells us that 2012 global carbon emissions hit a record high, breaking the records set in 2011, and in 2010 before that.
It’s bad all right. My goodness! I’ve got to do something! Seriously!
But a shipment of chestnut saplings has just arrived in the mail, and I’ve got planting to do. And twenty more raspberry canes are waiting for my attention as well. And the neighbor’s basement insulation is only half finished, with winter on the doorstep.
If you think of yourself as an earthkeeper, you’ve almost certainly been here. Today’s global threats to the Creation are so great. Maybe you just don’t have time for actual earthkeeping yourself. After all, what will planting a dozen chestnut trees – or taking a child for a bird-watching walk – really accomplish in the face of such menacing threats?
This is the world I live in, and – until recently – I hadn’t seen many examples of others who have found a workable way of living in both spheres: deeply moved by global-scale abuse of the Creation, but firmly committed to a sense of place and the renewal of those things under our stewardship.
But into that world steps Leah Kostamo, with her new book – Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling and Community. And finally, I’ve seen someone with a real story – told with insight and humor – about the struggle to live hopefully in a particular place, while caring for an imperiled planet.
At its core, Planted is a story about connections. Like never before in history, our age suffers from blindness to the complex interconnections among all things in the natural world. And like no other culture on Earth, ours has lost the sense of connectedness to other humans in community. The beauty of these two connections – to the natural world, and to each other – unfolds in Kostamo’s story against the backdrop of a third connection: the Creator’s connection to us and to all that he has made.
This is no lecture, no environmental tract preaching the wonders of an astoundingly beautiful world, and the horrific tale of what we are doing to it. It’s a story of ordinary people — among them Kostamo and her husband Markku – learning to restore life-giving connections, sometimes against impossible odds.
Leah and Markku are conservationists. It comes naturally for them to share the connections between the saltwater shrimp, which becomes part of the migrating salmon, which in turn sustains the hungry grizzly, whose droppings nourish the seedling, which becomes the majestic fir that forms the backdrop for the conservation center that they operate in coastal British Columbia. On page after page, we witness the connections among coyotes and chickens, cows and humans, developers and wetlands – stories told with insight in the voice of an eyewitness. If you’re like me, you’ll want to unplug yourself, get outside and dig for worms with a little child. Or learn to identify the calls of songbirds. And it won’t be because someone has persuaded you that you should. You’ve begun to see the connections you were created for, and you want to be a part of it.
Kostamo isn’t in this adventure alone, nor even with a small cadre of family and friends. Their home – a center belonging to the Christian conservation ministry A Rocha – has been visited by thousands of people of every stripe – for periods ranging from day-stops to years. And this confronts us with a second disconnection of our age: the loss of community in a culture that glorifies individualism. Here, we listen in as Kostamo re-learns the indispensable value of community, telling personal stories with charm and self-deprecating humor.
“Did you ever notice,” asks another capable author, “how loving you are – as long as you’re surrounded by people who are easy to love? Or how humble you are – as long as you’re respected and admired by others? Every one of us is a saint in isolation! It’s in community that our real weakness, sins and flaws are exposed.”
Kostamo’s stories give names and faces to these truths, and we share a seat at the table as fellow “me-first” North Americans begin to recover from the dreary individualism that diminishes our lives. Over time, we find that their most treasured assets have become people – interns intrigued by water shrews, neighbors captivated by animal husbandry, students dressed up as insects, volunteers singing arias at the kitchen sink, and agnostics surprised at the biblical narrative of creation care. And it’s not romanticized, like Peter Mayle in Provence. Restoring our connection to each other is tough – but essential if we’re to recover from the disconnections that plague our era.
But like all serious students of environmental trends, Kostamo has to deal with the thorny question of hope. How can we, as Wendell Berry says, “be joyful though we have considered all the facts?” For Kostamo, it begins with profound experience of the Incarnation. “The Creator becomes the created in the ultimate act of solidarity.” Or in more colloquial terms, “Matter matters to God, who created the stuff and even became the stuff and calls us to steward the stuff.”
Comforting words, yes. But for us – faced with an unfolding global extinction event unlike any seen since the passing of the dinosaurs – it would really help if practical experience reinforced our theology. And this is where the A Rocha community in Canada has much to offer. Kostamo’s account is replete with insurmountable challenges, overcome through prayer by the tangible intervention of God, providing solutions from unexpected quarters.
“I know that prayer is about way more than just making requests,’ writes Kostamo. “With all my heart, I believe that prayer, at its core, is about union with God. Even so, God has responded to our collective prayers for finances and people in ways that cause me to shake my head and marvel at the obvious connection between our asking and our receiving.”
So for me, I set down this book and go back to work with a little more spring in my step. Sure, I’ll head down the the EPA tomorrow to testify in favor of carbon standards for power plants. But I’ll also take a little time to get those saplings and raspberries planted. I’ll look for opportunities to welcome strangers into my home and church. And despite the daily influx of bad news, I’ll once again look to God to intervene in unexpected ways in the world that he continues to create, continues to love, and promises to renew.
This weekend, it begins with my little chestnut saplings.
Leah Kostamo — On her website, she writes: Twelve years ago my husband Markku and I helped launch the work of A Rocha (arocha.ca) in Canada. Together we founded the country’s first Christian environmental center, which has welcomed thousands of visitors and hundreds of interns. Those who have come have restored salmon streams, grown organic veggies and opened the wonder of creation to children (among a myriad of other things!).
I wrote Planted: a Story of Creation, Calling and Community because I wanted to invite others on this remarkable journey of earthkeeping and joyful living.