Postcard from Portugal (so why the cranes?!)

Every spring and fall, the North American prairies host a remarkable event. It’s called kettling. Migrating Sandhill CranesGrus canadensis pause en route to come together and ride the thermals. Their numbers reach hundreds of thousands, all aloft, all rising and soaring in a mysterious symmetry. I’ve stood below such a spectacle of swirling flight and marveled. What calls them to come together? Why not just set off in their individual flocks, as efficiency would dictate? I am not an ornithologist. I’m a storyteller and so my anthropomorphized version would go something like this: the Sandhill Cranes come for a family reunion of sorts – swap stories of the past season, make plans for the next, and encourage one another for the next leg of the journey.

I’ve just come back from a similar sort of family reunion. It was seriously lacking in the plumage and spindly legs of the cranes’ gathering, but we did come from varied flocks to fly together for a while in Portugal. A Rocha leaders and other participants from over 20 countries, on every continent but Antarctica (we’re still waiting for the penguins to send a delegate) came together for a five-day gathering that occurs just once every three years. We sang with gusto in at least three languages and were challenged by the wise words of biblical theologian Ruth Padilla DeBorst. But most of all we were encouraged by the incredible stories shared − stories of saving forests in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya, stories of opening the eyes of children to the wonders of creation in New Zealand, the UK and Uganda, stories of significant conservation research on elephants, storm-petrels, and plovers.

They were good stories. They were bolstering stories.

Would you like to hear one?

This one comes from Mwamba, A Rocha’s field study centre in Kenya, on the Indian Ocean coast and was told to me by Jaap Gijsbertsen who, along with his family, spent a year and a half helping lead the work.

He was asked to provide a retreat and teaching for Erisata, a community development organization in the Masai Mara reserve. Jaap happily agreed and put together a one-week course that included the theology of creation care as well as practical application, with plenty of time spent getting up close and personal with habitats and creatures surrounding the A Rocha centre.

At the end of the week, the A Rocha team took the Masai participants out in a glass-bottom boat over a coral reef reserve where they conduct their conservation research. None of the participants had ever been in a boat, let alone swum in water. As herdsmen, living 700 km from the ocean, learning to swim is completely irrelevant and even going into water is seen as dangerous and irresponsible behaviour.

Therefore, when Jaap offered these dignified Masai land-lovers snorkels, fins and masks, they balked. But with a bit more coaxing the village headman and pastor showed his leadership by accepting Jaap’s offer.

After strapping a flotation device around his waist, he took the plunge, and proceeded to float face down over the coral reef. He floated so long, without coming up for air, that his fellow tribesmen began to grow restless. Just as they were arguing about who should go to the headman’s rescue, he shot his head from the water. His face broke into a wide smile as he shouted, ‘Halleluiah! God is truly amazing! You will not believe what is under there!’

His amazement at the beauty of what he had beheld was infectious and almost all the other participants went in as well, each emerging with his own wonder-struck expression.

The week came to a close and the participants left transformed. They left not only with a fuller biblical understanding of God’s love for all of creation and their responsibility to actively care for the Masai Mara, but with an awe-inspiring first-hand understanding of a world they never knew existed.

And because, as leaders of A Rocha National Organizations, we came together and heard this story we left transformed as well – transformed in the knowledge that creation care begins with wonder.

Creation care begins with wonder and is sustained by gathering in friendship, song, wisdom and the sharing of stories.

Margaret Atwood and the Matt Damon Syndrome

credit: Sandra Vander Schaaf
It became know as the “Matt Damon Syndrome.” About a year ago a friend attended a BBQ on Bowen Island. It was a small affair consisting of the host family, my friend Peter and the hosts’ guests who happened to be none other than the Oscar-winning actor Matt Damon and his family. In the weeks following the BBQ Peter regaled all within earshot on the wonders of Matt Damon. Pete’s eyes would fix somewhere over his listener’s left shoulder, his voice would take on an airy quality, and this big, normally reserved and quiet man suddenly spouted a fountain of superlatives befitting a besotted teenage girl. It got so bad that his business partner and fellow renovation expert perfected a wonderful impersonation of Peter, “Matt Damon, OOOH, Matt Damon, he’s soooo fabulous, he’s soooo down to earth, he’s sooo…blah, blah, blah…(exaggerated rolling of the eyes)…blah, blah, blah...”

At the risk of falling into the Matt Damon Syndrome, can I share with you, my blog chums, my latest encounter with Margaret Atwood (because, well, she’s sooo fabulous and soooo down to earth and …)?

Yes? Well, if you insist.

Here's the link: Margaret Atwood & Leah Kostamo at the Green Gala

You can watch it now.  I'll wait.  

Tra la la, tum tum, tiddily tum....

The video was filmed at A Rocha’s Green Gala fundraiser about three weeks ago where I had the privilege of participating in an onstage “conversation” with Ms. Atwood. It was truly so very, very fun (which came as a great relief since, no joke, I had been waking every morning for the previous two weeks in a cold sweat, dismayed that I had agreed to interview this literary icon and uber smart woman in front of 300 people – what had I been thinking!? )

Highlights by category, from my vantage point:

Historical: Margaret’s musings on her childhood in Northern Quebec – a childhood spent, during her father’s field work seasons, without indoor plumbing, electricity, roads or schools, and with lots of time outdoors – a childhood that laid the foundation for her lifetime love of the natural world.

Humorous: Margaret’s rendition of The Mole Day Hymn (If you watch nothing else, watch this 2 minute sequence; you’ll find it at 12 minutes). Her adorable singing is preceded by her “outing” of my tone-deafness for the entire world to see. I think Margaret Atwood actually laughed at me. Oh well, she’s sooo great and soooo down to earth… And, truth be told, I am so very Piglet-like in my singing. I console myself with Richard Rohr encouragement to pray for at least one daily humiliation as a means of character formation -- this was mine for May 22, 2014… But I digress.

Profound: Margaret’s reflections on the stories we are writing and living that are environmentally dangerous and those that are environmentally helpful and hopeful. I think she just might have mentioned my book in the latter category. Can’t be sure, maybe I should go watch it again…

Lowlight: Actually, I won’t poison the well. You can decide for yourself what bit I found minorly mortifying (hint: not my tone-deafness, but something voice – my voice – related, which served as my daily humiliation when I watched it for the first time last week. But, hey, whatever, I didn’t trip and fall on the way up to the stage, and I didn’t do the deer-in-the-headlights routine which I was verily afraid I might do, and Margaret was sooo brilliant and sooo funny and sooo very articulate and ….

If a whale explodes on the beach and there's no one around to see it does it make a sound?

credit: Doris Sheppard

A blue whale lies fermenting on the shores of Newfoundland. With a world population numbering a mere 250, it represents one of the most endangered creatures on earth.

I’ve stood under a blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling of the Beatty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver and the thing was mind boggling big. The length of two city buses, one feels the vulnerability of Jonah in its skeletal presence. These are rare, grand creatures.

This one probably won’t explode. The gasses building in its gut will likely seep out through its decaying skin. But what if it did explode? Yes, the clean up job would be enormous and very gross, but it would certainly serve as a stunning metaphor for the extinction drama our planet is currently experiencing.

The place where the metaphor breaks down, of course, is in the sound department -- while species are going extinct at an unprecedented rate, they are doing so without explosions or cymbal crashes. They disappear quietly. No explosions, just fewer chirps, croaks and songs.

If a whale explodes on a beach and there is no one around to hear it does it make a sound?

Of course.

Perhaps the better question is “What sound of lament will we make as Creation’s choir loses so many voices?”

A Sucker for Easter

credit: Brooke McAllister
In these days drawing near to Easter I am mindful of Christ’s work of redemption – of His design to reconcile “all things” to Himself, as Paul says in Colossians. His work of redemption not only transforms human lives, but all of creation as we participate with him in his reconciling work. Allow me to illustrate.

I was strolling across the lawn at A Rocha’s Brooksdale Environmental Centre when one of our summer interns came scurrying by carrying a bucket. When I asked what it held she showed me a grey, wide-lipped fish swimming in a few inches of water. Her voice betrayed her excitement as she related that she was off to the program office to identify it.

Turns out it was a Salish Sucker -- an endangered species. Not seen in our watershed sine the 1970’s, this species had been considered “extripritated” in the Little Campbell River system. Needless to say, her find was a very big deal!

When I asked later about the experience of discovering an endangered species, she told me the story of the day. Upon waking she had felt like God was saying to her, “I have a surprise for you today.” She went about her day, doing interny things, wondering all the while when the “surprise” was going to show up. Near the end of the afternoon, she toured some visitors around the A Rocha property and down to the pond where she could check a fish trap which was being used as part of an invasive species monitoring project. In fact, this was to be her last “check” of the season. As she bent to pull the trap out of the water she felt God saying, “Here’s your surprise.”

Her eyes brightened as she told me how she lifted the wire cage and found, not a Pumpkinseed fish or one of the other invasive species she’d been catching all summer, but a strange fish that looked too big to even fit through the opening of the trap. She knew immediately that it was something special.

I grinned widely. “Wow! Amazing!” I said. “How fantastic!” And, in the inner sanctum of my mind, I thought, What a whacko!

I thought this even though the week before someone had prayed for me and I had crumpled to the ground like a deflating accordion, awash in the presence of God. I thought this even though I’d been practicing contemplative prayer for the previous two years and often sensed God’s voice speaking to me uniquely. I thought this even though I believe wholeheartedly in God’s care for all of his creation.

In hindsight I think I viewed this fish-finding intern as a whacko for two reasons:

a) To “hear” God speaking so directly is weird. How presumptuous! But my own knee-buckling episode and my experiences in contemplative prayer had demonstrated that God is quite capable of interacting on a very personal level. Funny how God’s interactions seem so bizarre in other people’s lives but not in one’s own.

b) To assume that God cares about a sucker fish is weird. Sure, I believe, as that old song goes, that “His eye is on the sparrow.” And when it comes to endangered species I am easily convinced that His eye is on the Panda, and the Sumatran Tiger, and even the Vancouver Island Marmot. But on the Salish Sucker? A bottom-feeding, wide-mouthed fish with big lips? His eye is on such an ignoble, unattractive creature? That’s weird.

And so I’m left with the question, who’s the whacko? Maybe God’s the whacko – a God who risks his reputation to earnest interns and middle-aged contemplatives. A God who fixes his eye on the humble, the overlooked, the ugly. A God who’s eye is on the Sucker.

A portion of this post was adapted from Planted, a Story of Creation, Calling, and Community, published by Cascade Books.

This Just in from the Pope

Actually, the following pontifical sound bites are not “just in," but I did just discovered these morsels of environmental wisdom from Pope Francis this morning. Having a bit of a crush said pontiff (yes, I’m that ecumenical and that much of a religious nerd!), I was trolling around on the internet looking for the Pope's latest wise and pithy musings, as one does, and I came upon his address in celebration of the UN’s World Environment Day, which rolls around each June 5th – so old news, but new to me. True to his track record, what Pope Francis had to say was wise, compassionate and convicting:

Addressing a crowd of visitors and pilgrims in St. Peter’s square, the pontiff said, "When we talk about the environment, about creation, my thoughts turn to the first pages of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, which states that God placed man and woman on earth to cultivate and care for it. And the question comes to my mind: What does cultivating and caring for the earth mean? Are we truly cultivating and caring for creation? Or are we exploiting and neglecting it?”

Moving from the theological to practical, the Pope framed the environmental issue of waste in the context of justice and the needs of the poor:

"We should all remember, however, that throwing food away is like stealing from the tables of the the poor, the hungry! I encourage everyone to reflect on the problem of thrown away and wasted food to identify ways and means that, by seriously addressing this issue, are a vehicle of solidarity and sharing with the needy.”

Of course, this sort of statement is liable to remind us all of those childhood meals when we refused to finish our peas and our mothers harrangued us with guilt laden words like, "Don't you know there are children starving in Africa who would love to eat those peas?!" Which, of course, leaves us completely off the hook because, really, we can't package those peas and FedX them to Somalia.

But we can start to buy only what we need. We can use up what's in our veggetable cripser drawers. We can eat less meat and avoid industrially farmed meat, which requires far more grain and energy calories than it delivers to the eater. We can grow a bit more of our own food and share it with others. With the money we save on meat and wasted veggies we can give to organizations like FH Canada and World Vision who support farmers in developing countries.

We can see our eating as an act of solidarity.

HomeBrewed Christianity Goes Green

Hello Blog Chums!

I want to make you all aware of a wonderful creation care podcast series that has just come online this week. It’s hosted by a wonderful website called HomeBrewed Christianity (think theology, beer and winsome dialogue).

Yours truly lead off the series on all things Planted and A Rocha. The podcasts are about 50 minutes each and are free for your listening enjoyment (just scroll down until you see the little play button).

Go to

Here’s an outline of the series. Enjoy!

Episode 1: Leah Kostamo author of Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling, and Community

Episode 2: Matthew Sleeth author of Serve God Save The Planet , The Gospel According to the Earth & 24/6

Episode 3: Jennifer Butler is part of the new Christian Earthkeeping emphasis at George Fox Seminary. She is co-author of the upcoming book On Earth As In Heaven due out in November.

Episode 4: Randy Woodley with Shalom and the Community of Creation: an Indigenous Vision

Episode 5: John Cobb rang the alarm bell back in 1972 and has recently returned to the theme with Spiritual Bankruptcy: a prophetic call to action.

Episode 6: is a special surprise from new Elder Micky Jones and friend.

Episode 7: is specifically food related. How do get food on the table? What issues are related to feeding a family?

Episode 8: at the the end of each episode, we ask our guest the same 5 questions. Tripp and I are dedicating a TNT to interacting with their answers to the those 5 questions. It will be in the same format that we did the Brueggemann-Fretheim Bible Bash.

Who Speaks for the Trees?

I watched a forest felled last week. First I heard the rumble of a large machine, then the cracking of wood splintering, then a shivering balance and the fall of a tree appearing both ponderously heavy and bizarrely weightless as it toppled in slow motion, seemingly drawn to earth as much by subjected surrender as by gravity.

I had been standing near the garden outside my home on Kingfisher Farm when this occurred.  The forest in question ran along the 5 acres of our eastern border.  Most of the trees were alders – weeds of the tree world, but also home to squirrels, raccoons, and countless birds including a pair of Barred owls that called regularly to us from across the fence.

Three different envoys of farmmates pleaded with our new neighbour to leave a few trees standing – the cherry that draped over the fence onto our land, but especially the towering cedars on the slope toward the pond. But our case was made in vain -- every tree came down. In as sense our pleading was hypocritical -- our own gardens and pastures were once a tangle of Firs and ferns and our houses are built of wood. And so we pause and lament, recognizing both our own culpability in creation’s destruction as well as the potency of our technology which can destroy in a few days what had flourished for centuries. And we recommit ourselves to know our place, to steward it well, and live in peace.

A Whale's Last Song

credit:  Darryl Dyck, The Canadian Press

A juvenile humpback whale washed up onto the beach a couple kilometres from our house this morning. By the time my girls and I arrived a few hours later the beach was swarming with a crowd of the curious. Yellow police tape circled the 10-metre long whale, making it look like a crime scene, which I suppose it was -- the fishing net tangled at the whale’s fluke clearly indicated foul play. The Vancouver Aquarium folks were on hand as were the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. It was a strange atmosphere of mourning and festivity. I heard one man say to his son, “Isn’t this exciting?” I think he meant being so close to a whale.

There are only about 2,000 humpbacks that travel up and down the B.C. coast. They don’t often come near shore. They do sing, however -- haunting songs. And they’re intelligent. I thought of a story related by a marine biologist about another species of whale -- Orcas. Each of the three Orca pods that live in the Northwest’s Puget Sound sing in their own distinct dialect. When one pod failed to return one particular spring the other two pods went out to sea, singing the third pod’s song in an attempt to woo it back to their common summer waters.

And I thought of my grandparents’ neighbours on Orcas Island who once ate a Robin that had smashed into their windshield. Not wanting its death to have been in vain they collected it off the road, brought it home and cooked it for lunch. I remembered how our financial advisor trapped, killed and made stew of a squirrel who had taken up residence in his garage. He encouraged his kids to eat the stew as a living case study of “waste not, want not” (you got to love such conservatism in a financial advisor).

But how could we redeem this whale’s death? We couldn’t eat it. We couldn’t use its blubber for oil. We could, however, lament. Before the crime scene tape went up some thoughtful souls placed flowers on its head. And just before we arrived three elders from the Semiamhoo First Nation beat drums and sang songs, honouring a rare and singing whale.
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Poverty and Conservation -- Making the Connection

Students in Ghana planting trees with A Rocha's Climate Stewards project

If ecology is the study of connections, then the ecologists should be the first to rally against the injustices of environmental degradation and the subsequent human suffering that accompanies it. The reason why many don’t, as Peter Harris points out, is that we live in a time of complete disconnection. He writes, “products conceal their origins, academic disciplines operate in expert solitude, social relationships fragment.” But the poor do not have the luxury of disconnection from their environment. There are no presto logs to burn when their forests are decimated, no stashes of bottled water when the spring runs dry, no fertile fields around the bend when their crops sizzle during a prolonged drought. Stella Simiyu, a native Kenyan and a Senior Research Scientist in plant conservation at the National Museums of Kenya, writes this about the predicament of the poor.

If you look at Africa, the rural poor depend directly on the natural resource base. This is where their pharmacy, supermarket, power company and water company are. What would happen to you if these things were removed from your local neighbourhood? We must invest in environmental conservation because this is how we enhance the ability of the rural poor to have options and provide for them ways of getting out of the poverty trap.

It is only too easy to live in happy naivete when it comes to the social and environmental costs associated with our extravagant Western lifestyles. What we need are some clarion voices to draw those connections for us. Enter the words of Hosea.

Hear the word of the Lord…There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgement of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery…Because of this the land mourns…the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying. (Hosea 4:1–3)

The Rat Came Back: Musings on Biodiversity

     Funny thing about biodiversity—it’s great in principle, but when things start to get too, well, diverse, one’s feelings on the matter get a bit muddled. Allow me to explain. Back in the early days of A Rocha’s first Environmental Centre, we had the usual diversity of biological life: chickens, cows and a myriad of plants and veggies on the farmy bit; frogs, salamanders, newts, shrews and at least forty species of birds in the wetland/forest bit; and homo sapiens in the shape of staff, volunteers, interns and school children throughout. We celebrate this kind of biodiversity.

     That year, however, things got too diverse—too diverse by two species. The first, Canis latrans, was spotted the previous spring, drawn by our chickens, who being free range apparently seemed a free smorgasbord for our canine nemesis. The coyotes (for that’s what they were) picked off two of our lovely heritage breed chickens, most notably Miss Mullet, a Black Polish cross with a crazy hairdo for whom we all mourned. So the rest of the chickens went back into the coop. But the farm was so much farmier with the “girls” scratching about, and so we let them out again. In short—and in short order—the coyote took three more chickens. Now the four that remained were only let out under the strictest supervision. But since the allure of chicken-sitting wears off after about fifteen minutes, they spent most of their time behind bars. Alas, what can you do when you live in a zoo?

     The second species to appear uninvited that year was Rattus rattus (that’s really its Latin name). They took up residence in our basement that fall when the weather turned chilly. After chewing up numerous plastic buckets and figuring out quickly what the rat traps were all about, they took advantage of renovations on the main floor to sneak up into OUR living space. By the evidence they left, they boldly scurried up the stairs, visited every room in the house and even started building a nest in our green corduroy couch. This last atrocity occurred while we were away for a week, and, needless to say, shot us into serious rat-eradication frenzy, which we eventually won.

     To our shame, I must admit that we used the appearance of these two species to our unfair parental advantage. When our daughter Maya (aged four at the time) showed signs of dashing without permission from our house to visit the interesting interns at the Main House, we casually would chirp, “Watch out for coyotes,” which, of course, sent her scampering back to our sides. And when little Bryn (then two) sauntered into the living room with a crumbly piece of toast in hand, we’d lightly draw for her the connection between crumbs and the onslaught of hungry rats. And so in their impressionable minds, coyotes were beasts to be feared above all others, and rats were so resourceful that at the mere scent of something delicious they flew from the basement to snatch the crumbs falling from one’s mouth. Law and order in the here and now versus a battery of counselling sessions for our girls years in the future—it was a tough call.
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