Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Reflections on the Sustainability Summit

(November 8-10, 2013)

The gathering was all about sustainability! Not only was that true of the name of the conference, but I could feel it emanating from the participants as I entered the meeting room. I could sense a positive energy running very deeply in the 33 college students who had come together from 7 different institutions for the weekend.

It was fitting that the Sunday morning session I led was taking place in the Barn at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center. The sturdy oak beams of the Barn ––erected 111 years ago –– wonderful represent the enduring quality of sustainability. I often reflect on the timeframe portrayed by the beams knowing that the trees from which the beams came began to grow long before Europeans settled the landscape that is now Merry Lea.

The beams bear the marks of the axes that carved out their shape from the once living trees. These hand-hewn beams have a 111-year history of supporting the Barn throughout its many phases of use –– from cows and hay to people and hardy meals. At the same time the beams remind us of the verdant forest that once dominated the landscape. The degradation to the land caused by humans is in full evidence even as restoration activities are part of the Merry Lea mission. The Barn symbolizes the tension between human activity and the resilience of the Earth systems.

My dialogue with the students gathered in the Barn centered on how our faith commitments should be congruent with our sustainability goals – and vice versa. I believe that we each have a belief system that influences our actions – and if we haven’t thought about that intersection, it is time that we do. My personal Christian faith commitment is deeply rooted in the Christ who is Creator, Sustainer and Reconciler (Colossians 1:15-21). This threefold action set inspires me to be a creative companion with Christ in caring for all of creation.

A central theme in my presentation was the concept of regeneration –– an even higher calling than the pursuit of sustainability. This is the act of bringing life back to a system, not just keeping if from further degradation. It is a holistic term as it calls to mind actions ranging from the ecological to the spiritual. The practice of regeneration will build the common good for all parts of the Earth’s systems. Jesus named this concept many times in his earthly ministry. One of my favorites is in the Sermon on the Mount as he names birds, flowers and grass as models of regeneration and health (Matthew 6:25-34). How richly our beliefs can undergird our commitment to care for creation!

I appealed to the listeners –– and now the readers –– to examine our beliefs, values and philosophical frameworks (regardless of faith tradition) to see what the intersection is with the call to care for the Earth. I believe that naming and owning these foundational principles will inspire and motivate us when the going is hard. The synergy that emerges from this gives me a realistic and powerful hope. It is this hope that will aid me in holistically contributing to the regeneration of systems we have harmed.

It is this hope that I could see in the faces of the students and advisors as I photographed the group at the end of the conference with a restored wetland at Merry Lea as the backdrop.  Just as the wind was blowing hair in multiple directions, the energy from the gathered group was moving individuals to many hopeful actions as they departed for home.

by Luke Gascho

Friday, November 1, 2013

Fall: A Reflection on Dark and Light

Dateline October 27, 2013
The latest IPCC report on Climate Change was out Sept 30th and it indicates that indeed we are in climate trouble.  Big trouble.  No news to many of you tuning into this blog.  But the piece that is making the most news is that the report concludes that HUMANS are largely responsible for the earth and oceans warming. 

Incredible as it may seem, it appears that releasing tons and tons of carbon from fossil fuels over the last couple of centuries has had a net effect of increasing CO2 in the atmosphere. Fossil fuels tied that carbon up for 200+ million years and we’ve released it in the geological blink of an eye.  I guess there was bound to be a complication or problem with fossil fuels.  Glaciers and arctic ice melt combine with warming and expanding water to raise the oceans, hurricanes hurl their might onto shorelines, fires rage in the tinder dry steppes of Russia, Australia has the worst drought and fires in recorded history and floods pour out of the Himalayas. For the most part, the report is a dark and troubled prediction for climate changes in the next 100 years.

Fall is an incredible time of year. When the sun shines, the warmth oozes under your skin and stellar blue skies make the lakes sparkle, fall flowers leap in color, and even the wind rattling trees and grasses is a bit more fantastic.  When the grey clouds rip across the sky they bring geese formations, migrating birds and, for a few of us, the joyful promise of winter snows.  Fall is a time to be outside. I make every excuse to get outside in the fantastic weather.

In the fall, our SSR classes are outside daily. Students need no excuse to go out into the real classroom. They go outside every day! They go out into the classroom where the wind blows, the rain sprays, toes freeze, sun warms, mud sticks, stars twinkle and the river flows onward past forest, field, fen, agriculture, industry, town and city. 

So what connects the first dark section with the light and promise of the second?

The energy and brightness of studying sustainability in a cohort of dedicated and creative students shines light on those dark predictions.  Last year as I worked with the SSR cohort, my optimism grew as the daylight shortened. Seven students tackled problems big and small.  Each one took on personal challenges to reduce their own carbon footprint while as a group we investigated ecosystems around Merry Lea, unsustainable practices and ethical choice making. We also tackled my favorite, the thorny challenges to creating policies that can guide our society into better living.

Right now there is more hope and positive vibes running around as K-12 students explore Merry Lea. Our master of environmental education program fills me with light as our students share their passion to preserve and protect the environment. Whether the students are giggling and running with 1st graders, or pushing and prodding 7th graders to make connections and learn about the natural world, I am buoyed to the surface of hope and optimism.   Our world, all the people, all the animals, all of creation is going to need the light that shines from each student. Every day I am reminded of that light and Fall is a great time to soak it up.  Cool, bright, refreshing Fall.

These weeks of fall remind me of the beauty that is all around us.  In fact fall carries me into the beautiful coldness of winter and the life-giving grey rains of early spring.

-Dave Ostergren 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Exploring a Community through a Common Resource - Canoeing the Elkhart River

In a society that so prizes individualism and private rights, it is easy to forget how many things we hold in common.  Air is the primary example.  It is easy to forget about air since it is largely invisible and we really only feel it when it moves around or is polluted.  Water seems more tangible. Yet, to those of us who are fortunate enough to live within the watershed of the five great lakes, where rain, groundwater, and surface water are all abundant, it is even possible to forget how much human and non-human life are depending upon and using this common resource. 

This past weekend 17 students and two professors from Goshen College took a “Sustainability Canoe Trip” to explore the communities of Goshen and Elkhart from the perspective of the Elkhart River.  This 48 mile long unassuming river rises from the “lake country” of northern Noble and southern Lagrange counties in Indiana.  Its two branches converge before it runs (generally northwestern) through the city of Goshen before it enters the St. Joseph River in the City of Elkhart.  Though many bridges carry people on county roads and highways over the Elkhart river, it seems to go largely unnoticed.  The purpose of this trip was to notice.  What does the river look like? What plant and animal life are using this river corridor for food and shelter?  How are the human residents of these cities making use of this common waterway? 

Aerial view of the land between Goshen and Elkhart
One of the surprises about this trip is how wild the river feels.  Driving between Goshen and Elkhart on US 33 you are assaulted by a barrage of strip malls and suburban sprawl.  A look at an aerial photo, though, does reveal large portions of the land in residential and agricultural use and there is a forested riparian greenway along much of the length of the river that gives the canoeist a very scenic experience.  Because humans are heavily using so much of this land, this riverway is an important wildlife corridor.  Certainly, there lots of herons, kingfishers, and ducks all long the river’s length.  We also saw mink, beaver, turtles, fish, and hawks on the trip.  The wild feel of the river is most impressive as you approach downtown Elkhart.  Despite the industrial heart of Elkhart surrounding the river, there is a large riparian corridor all the way until you reach downtown Elkhart where we had to portage around a dam and the river ways become solid concrete.

Goshen's new retention basin to treat the CSO water
Despite the trees and wildlife, though, there were lots of signs of human usage of the river.  Storm drains abound.  The city of Goshen now has a retention basin so its combined sewer overflow (CSO) is treated at the wastewater treatment facility before it is released into the Elkhart.  The city of Elkhart still has CSO entering the river in many locations.  Many of the residents have pipes drawing water from the Elkhart to irrigate their lawns and many manicured lawns come right down to the river edge suggesting that the river is washing away the fertilizer and herbicides that are used on these lawns.  There is a lot of evidence of people trying to protect their land from the ever-changing river.  Piles of concrete blocks or stone walls are used to try and stem the eroding river banks, often with limited success.  We also encountered people fishing in the river and many of the shoreline residents had boats and docks along the river suggesting a recreational sharing of the river.

On this trip, each canoe was given a “stakeholder” or group of people who would have interest in the river and they were supposed to view the river with those eyes and take photos of things that might be important to this group.  Some were open space advocates, some were highway engineers and others were farmers.  It was interesting to see how different the river might appear depending on ones interests and needs. 

I came away from this trip marveling again at the “ecosystem services” that the natural world provides that we so often take for granted.  As we go happily about our day; taking showers, flushing toilets, fertilizing our fields and lawns, this river is always there, -largely out of site - carrying away our waste, bringing us water we need for our fields and industries, and even draining the water off the land so we can plant our crops.  I am more thankful for this little river and hope that we will all pay a little more attention to this precious common resource. 

Friday, September 6, 2013


On a recent Sunday afternoon, the Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College hosted the hundreds of incoming 1st Year students on its lush trails. The sun beamed, the cicadas buzzed, and the students broke down the barriers of unfamiliarity and began forming relationships that will grow over the next four years.
One student remarked, while hiking toward the station with wetland muck and creepy-crawly macroinvertebrates, “This is awesome. If my high school did something like this, everyone would have run away screaming.”
And thus begins the Goshen College transformation. Here at GC, we seek to engage students with the natural world – to help students understand the intricate ways in which the Creator has linked us all to the people, plants, and animals with whom we share the earth.  We use the core values of Christ centeredness, passionate learning, servant leadership, compassionate peacemaking, and global citizenship to inform and guide the education we provide and the actions we take. These ethics have led Goshen to become a leader in creation care and sustainability.
The proof of this is evident at both campuses: main campus in the town of Goshen, and the 1,189-acre satellite often referred to as Merry Lea. In the newest example, GC committed to purchasing 100% green electricity which will be supplied primarily by solar and wind sources. That single action has cut the college’s carbon footprint by 45%. Other main campus initiatives include solar water heaters on The Roman Gingerich Recreation-Fitness Center (a.k.a. “Rec-Fit”), a student-run composting facility that turns food waste into a fertile soil additive which is then used to grow more food for the dining hall, and native prairie plantings that have greatly reduced rainwater run-off and gasoline use by the Physical Plant’s lawnmowers. For more, visit
College President Jim Brenneman, Sustainability Coordinator Glenn Gilbert, as well as numerous other GC faculty and staff have unquestionably made exemplary strides in promoting and practicing creation care and sustainability at the main campus. Serving as a perfect complement to these efforts, Merry Lea provides opportunities for students to learn and practice such skills in a unique, intensive, and hands-on way. Most recently, Merry Lea initiated a fall semester program that takes an interdisciplinary look at sustainability issues – the Sustainability Semester in Residence (SSR). Another residential program takes place during the summer months, focusing on sustainable agriculture – the Agroecology Summer Intensive (ASI). Of course, Goshen College hopes that each and every student gains skills that simultaneously serve God and foster a sustainable future, so both of these programs are open to students from any major. For more, visit

So, 1st Year students, welcome to GC. May the next four years bring enrichment, enjoyment, and positive change. Admire and be inspired by the forward-thinking actions that you see daily on campus. Visit Merry Lea, whether it be to learn, or simply to retreat and reconnect with God and nature. It supplies the kind of spaces and opportunities that few college students have access to. Make the most of it.