Van Wieren, Gretel. Restored to Earth: Christianity, Environmental Ethics, and Ecological Restoration. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013, 208 pages, paperback, $29.95.

[1] Imagine opening a seed packet and peering inside, to find small, unassuming, dirt-colored lumps. They look like not-too-much at first glance. This book, too, is small and unassuming, written without much flourish or fanfare. Seeds in a packet, of course, contain great potential packed into those rattling grains. Reading this book is like planting seeds – by the time readers reach the end they will realize that a bountiful harvest has bloomed and developed.

[2] Van Wieren’s project looks small at first: to examine the practice and theory of ecological restoration, with an eye to articulating its significance for Christian ethics. Ecological restoration is a practice whereby scientists determine how best to repair a damaged ecosystem, and (usually) deploy volunteer labor to do the work of planting trees, eradicating invasives, collecting seeds, conducting periodic burning of prairies, and so forth. The goal is to “restore” the damaged ecosystem to some historically coherent state of health and flourishing. Van Wieren gives her readers a clear and well-researched background into the science behind these practices, including the debates about the meaning and value of untouched vs. restored ecosystems. She also begins with careful definitions of religion, ethics, spirituality, and morality. Those are the small brown seeds.

[3] From these unassuming beginnings, Van Wieren begins to tease out fascinating implications from multiple angles. What are humans doing when we engage in restoration work – repairing the land? Healing it? Van Wieren writes that restorationists “are really more like midwives than artists or engineers” (77). This is one example of the many ways that Van Wieren and her project are much more positive than many works of environmental ethics, because she is focusing on human efforts to heal nature’s wounds, and that note of positivity is much needed in a field so wracked with doom and gloom.

[4] Her discussion then grows into a remarkable articulation of Christian sacramental, nature-based spirituality and its efficacy (or lack thereof) in encouraging environmentally friendly action. Her persistent emphasis on practice, in addition to theory, is helpful and grounding in this discussion. The practice of ecological restoration requires an understanding of ecosystem change and flexibility, its resiliency, diversity, and intricacy; spiritually, then, we are called to humility in the face of nature’s awesomeness, and diversity and flexibility in our understanding of how to relate to it (107). From here, the discussion blossoms into Van Wieren’s vision for “restorative communities of place” – the collective impacts of practices such as ecological restoration. Here she brings in discussions of justice and diversity and inclusion, new topics that both complement and exist in tension with the classic restoration questions of what to do with species that are native vs. non-native, invasive vs. non-invasive, and so forth.

[5] In her final section, Van Wieren’s seeds and blossoms begin to bear the fruit that readers of this journal will most enjoy – reflections on the symbolic significance of ecological restoration, as a ritual practice bearing (among other things) Christian meaning. Van Wieren helps the reader understand ritual theory and the possibility that something like burning a prairie on Maundy Thursday might constitute an informal, but meaningful, ritual. Van Wieren consistently argues against a romanticized view of nature or a romanticized view of restoration work. She knows that it is often paradoxical, uniting death and life: we spend exhausting hours tearing out invasive vines, killing these plants to make way for other plants; or we venture into mosquito-laden swamps with mud that sucks off our shoes in order to plant marsh grasses. Rituals of paradox, of death out of life or of abundance out of austerity, are familiar ground for Christians.  Public symbolic action can be a kind of witness to the ideal, whether it is the Pope washing the feet of a prisoner, or a homeowner planting native prairie grasses (“weeds” to her neighbors) in an area of monocropped industrial agriculture (163).

[6] Van Wieren ends with a tantalizing inquiry into restoration seen through the lens of Christian redemption theology. She, probably because of her Dutch Reformed sensitivity to usurping God’s power, is careful of statements that humans are doing God’s redeeming work on earth through ecological restoration – that seems too presumptuous (176). Rather, she proposes that “forgiveness from God is known and experienced in and through experiencing forgiveness from land” (177). Thanks to restoration work, Van Wieren declares, “Land has, in a sense, forgiven us for doing it harm. It has moved on to live its own good kind of life – and so can we” (178).

[7] Van Wieren audaciously declares that we are beginning a new age in the history of human-earth relations: the Restoration Age (181). And at this point the reader realizes that what used to seem like a small collection of hard, brown lumps has grown into a massive tree, far beyond that promised by the text on the seed packet. Van Wieren has envisioned an entirely new relationship between humans and the land, and she has the case studies and examples, the science and theory, and the rituals and stories to get us there.

[8] Many readers of this journal have probably visited Holden Village, the Lutheran retreat center in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. Holden has been going through a multi-year “restoration” project, the remediation of the old copper mine site, which contained tailings piles that leached contaminants into Railroad Creek. This project, however, is the antithesis of the ideal restoration work that Van Wieren describes. The project was initiated, in response to government mandates, by Rio Tinto (the corporation that owns the now-defunct mine) and conducted by trained professionals, not villagers or volunteers. The work of restoration involved digging deep into the mountainside to create a below-ground barrier wall, installing a new water treatment plant, and a “realignment” of the creekbed away from its original course. This is an example of “technological drift” in the world of ecological restoration, something that Van Wieren criticizes in her book (115). She dismisses this type of restoration without much discussion of it, much to my disappointment. My experience at Holden had me wondering about these types of operations, which do good for the ecosystem, but without the kind of robust community participation that Van Wieren describes. At Holden, of course, they already have a strong community and a developed sense of place. But in other locales that are not so blessed, such operations represent a missed opportunity for community development and the cultivation of rootedness. Those who live in, and care for, Holden Village would do well to read Van Wieren’s book as a source of ideas for ritual and sacred meaning to add to the industrial “restoration” of the Railroad Creek valley.

[9] As a scholar studying the intersection between Christianity and environmental issues, I can attest to this book’s incredible fertility. Van Wieren’s mighty tree of a book has dropped its own seeds in my mind, and I know I will be both quoting it in my own future work and seeking to live by some of its precepts in my life. (Confession: I started looking at real estate while reading this book – dreaming of acquiring and restoring my own patch of prairie!) Its academic approach may be a bit much for some lay readers, but undergraduate and graduate students alike would benefit from the book’s carefully researched arguments and provocative ideas. My experience of this book was nothing short of inspiring, and I hope that it may be so for other readers.

Laura M. Hartman, Ph.D. is Associate Professor in the Religion Department of Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois

© February 2015

Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 15, Issue 2