Leah Kostamo has liberated me. I can now face my dark side: I love everything from sloths to moss and serve on three eco-friendly boards, but most environmental literature reminds me of toothpaste-flavored herbal tea – with no sweeteners allowed (carcinogens, you know). Guilt is slung like linguini. Humor and joy are banned, and bang the drumbeat of shame on Christians, who supposedly believe in the biosphere’s annihilation.
Enter Kostamo’s Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling, and Community, which narrates how she and her husband, Markku, established Canada’s first A Rocha ecological study center in British Columbia’s Little Campbell River watershed, just north of the US border on the Pacific Ocean. Her book is fun, hilarious, and eloquent all at once – and it softly shreds the forgery portraying Christianity as the world’s one anti-nature religion. God adores creation and commands us to tend it.
What’s more, she actually likes people. Imagine that.
A Rocha (Portuguese for “the rock”) is an international Christian environmental organization founded in 1983 by Anglican Reverend Peter Harris and his wife, Miranda. The couple anchored themselves in Psalm 24:1 (“The Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it”), moved to Portugal’s southern Algarve region and founded a nature center. Students and interns flocked and A Rocha spread to twenty countries, with each center and team agreeing to “five core commitments:” Christian, Conservation, Community, Cross-Cultural, and Cooperation. The Harrises eventually handed the Algarve facility to Portuguese residents and, after a stint in France, returned to Britain. Peter serves as the organization’s president.
Perhaps A Rocha’s chief distinctive was summed up by Christianity Today in a 2011 headline: “The Joyful Environmentalists.” Harris doesn’t abhor the human race. “There is a radical environmentalism that wishes people were not on the planet,” he said. “That’s not the biblical view at all.” An unpeopled Earth would be dull, with Britain providing a case study: “The original British form of vegetation was a pretty mono-cultural oak forest.” Farming brought biodiversity.
A Rocha’s knitting of community and ecology seeps through Kostamo’s book. Her love for the environment was born and bred in relationships when she was a child, beginning with her family’s summer migrations from arid Arizona to her grandparents’ home on the Puget Sound’s Oyster Island. She visited neighbors Frank and Dorothy Richardson, respectively an ornithologist and biologist, who loved the birds and ferns and meadows and wild flowers and trees, but “they never once sat down and lectured us on the evils of clear cuts or the plight of endangered species; they simply invited us into their lives.”
Their model was a key building block in her character formation and eventual A Rocha ministry.
She feels the meddling ambivalence of the compassionate: “On most days malnourished African babies and AIDS sufferers in Asia go to the front line (of her sympathies) while pretty fish and waving strands of eelgrass can twiddle their thumbs and wait all day to see the doctor as far as I’m concerned.” But she’s discovered the insight found in Ben Lowe’s Green Revolution and Scott Sabin’s Tending To Eden: We’re synced with the fish and the grass – as Lowe’s bowels testified in Tanzania, where deforestation stirred the giardia parasite into filthy water. Sabin ministered to the poor in developing nations and saw human desolation amid treeless hills; still others link the Darfur conflict with depleted water.
She describes the center’s launch on a threadbare budget in 2003, confirms the biblical foundation for environmental care, and tells its story through vignettes and reflections, often with self-effacing humor. A Rocha Canada expanded through plans, accidents, and Providence. Students, interns, volunteers, and other would-be naturalists and scientists – often introverted – grew while studying and rescuing flora and fauna: “We try to make the A Rocha center a safe place where you can take off your mask and be real – where you can even sing an aria if you are so inclined.” Cathy, “a stereotypical science nerd,” did precisely that, startling everyone with her sudden Little Mermaid crescendos. And there’s Martin, who made a valiant but vain effort to rediscover the Pacific Water Shrew, unseen for decades. He found other breeds, including a dead Trowbridge shrew in a bucket – so, “for the sake of science” he attempted taxidermy by boiling it down in the kitchen. He left it there for three hours. The building reeked.
The stories go on: They stumbled into animal husbandry when a friend gave them cattle they didn’t want; they teetered on financial calamity but received unanticipated $5,000 and $100,000 checks the day before the bills were due; a nearby resident bequeathed them her regal house for a new headquarters just before her surprise death. While weaving the narratives, she takes aim at factory farming and encourages buying local – but, like the Richardsons, she never finger-wags. She even pokes fun at environmental legalists.
The result: Planted is a work of grace, wit and awe and conveys the joy for which A Rocha is known, potentially entertaining hunters, plumbers, and actuaries as well as tree huggers. Leah Kostamo has lit a guiding light for other environmental writers: Even while we sound the alarm of an unparalleled ecological crisis, we cannot despise our audience. We lose it if we do. She shows us that the cause of environmental rescue is too vital for scorn. It must be handled with love, which she does with poise and style.
She gives a good plug for her book in the following video: