The Common Good
February 2014

Saving What We Love

by Margaret Atwood | February 2014

A hopeful encounter with real-life "God's Gardeners."

I MET MARKKU and Leah Kostamo of A Rocha, an international Christian environmental organization, on the set of a television show in Toronto. The show was Context, hosted by the welcoming Lorna Dueck. This show explores the stories behind the news from a frankly Christian viewpoint.

I had been invited to talk with Dueck about my MaddAddam future-time book trilogy, and in particular about characters in the second book, The Year of the Flood, called the “God’s Gardeners,” a green religious group that raises vegetables and bees on flat rooftops in slums. It is headed by a man called Adam One and includes a number of ex-scientists and ex-doctors who have withdrawn from a too powerful, greedy corporate world in which they can no longer function ethically. The God’s Gardeners group represents the position—probably true—that if the physical world is going to remain possible for human life, religious movements of many kinds will be an important element. We don’t save what we don’t love, and we don’t make sacrifices unless “called” in some way to make them by what AA refers to as “a higher authority.”

Dueck and I talked a little about that, and then—surprise—right before me were two people who closely resembled the God’s Gardeners of my fiction. Leah and Markku Kostamo are walking the God’s Gardeners walk—through A Rocha, a hands-on creation-care organization. A Rocha’s origins go back to the Christian Bird Observatory (cf. St. Francis) founded on the coast of Portugal by Peter and Miranda Harris in 1983. Leah met the Harrises in 1996 when she took a class they were teaching at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, and A Rocha Canada was born. It was soon augmented by Markku, an environmental scientist. A Rocha is now running 20 projects around the globe, engaged in everything from habitat restoration to organic community farming.

Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling, and Community (Cascade Books) is Leah Kostamo’s telling of the story of A Rocha: how it began, how it grew, and its struggles along the way—spiritual, physical, emotional, and, of course, financial. The mystical vision of the heavens filled with the grandeur of God and Blake’s angel-covered tree may be in the background—how could they not be?—but in the foreground of this well-told story is much practical hard work and a clear-sighted and often humorous view of the enormous challenges facing anyone who has ever set foot in the daunting world of conservation and environmental activism.

Reading through Kostamo’s tight, informative chapters, I encountered a lot of old friends, both alive and dead: Brian Brett, Bill McKibben, Annie Dillard, Mary Jo Leddy, Richard Louv, Wendell Berry, alive; John Muir, John Wesley, Aldo Leopold, dead. More are alive than dead: Much of the work on which she draws is from the past 20 years, and that is a hopeful sign. Momentum is gathering, hearts and minds are changing, and not all Christians see environmentalists as hippy weirdoes or cloven-footed enemies.

When Leah and Markku first began, they were not allowed into some Christian conventions because—they were told—their work was not Christian. “But why?” I asked them. “Oh, you know,” they said. “It’s all going to burn, so why bother?” They looked sad: Such a view is hardly a good example of Christian love for one’s neighbor. But the “stewardship” model is gaining some ground, and the “dominionist” model—God said it’s ours, so we can trash it—is losing some. Leah and Markku are firmly in the stewardship camp. They also know that loving one’s neighbors means loving their sea-, soil-, and tree-generated oxygen supply. And they see their work as an offering of praise for the wondrous life we all share, as does evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson of The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, in his own way.

If bad news about the planet is getting you down, read Planted. You’ll feel better, because you’ll feel more hopeful. I certainly did.

And Leah and Markuu are very welcome on the God’s Gardeners rooftop, anytime. If all Christians were like them, ours would be a radically different world.

Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and more than 40 other works, lives in Canada. Her latest novel is MaddAddam (Random House), the third in a trilogy.

Image: Small plant growing in human hands, MitarArt / Shutterstock.com

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