As a youngster growing up in “farm country” in west Michigan, Tim Van Deelen ’88 spent a lot of time outdoors. “When I showed up at Calvin, I knew I wanted to major in biology, and like 90 percent of freshmen biology students, I thought I wanted to be pre-med.”
That all changed in then-professor Al Gebbens’ plant taxonomy course. “We would put on our coats, go outside, and talk about plants and how they’re organized,” said Van Deelen, “And, I just loved it.”
Following his Calvin graduation, Van Deelen was offered an assistantship at the University of Montana working with beavers. “I had more fun doing that than I ever thought I could have in an academic setting,” he said.
Researching mammals, particularly large mammals and their population dynamics, would eventually become Van Deelen’s speciality. A self-proclaimed “deer nerd,” the Beers-Bascom Professor in Conservation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has spent the last 16 years as a research scientist interested in the conservation of wildlife populations, including black bears, wolves, and, of course, deer.
What has become particularly salient in Van Deelen’s research over the last several years is the human influence on the landscape.
His recent research in the northern Great Lakes is on how mammal communities are structured based on their connectivity and how that may be altered by declining ice coverage.
“Climate change is the granddaddy of them all,” he said. “It makes everything else that we deal with worse.”
Helping to educate students and others in the repair and restoration of, and reconciliation with, the non-human parts of creation has become central to Van Deelen’s work.
“We need citizens who think about this in how they vote and in the consumer choices that they make,” he said. “We need people who are going to pay attention and mitigate and manage the problems climate change is causing.
“I think what I took away from Calvin is a burden for always thinking about ‘how does your faith integrate with how you spend your one life that you’ve been given?’ ” he said.
In addition to his work as a professor, researcher, and graduate student advisor, Van Deelen has spent more than a decade teaching at the Au Sable Institute, an educational organization based in northern Michigan that offers field-based courses in Christian environmental studies.
“I think what makes Tim such a great teacher is that the students see how passionate he is—his love for God and God’s creation is palpable,” said Calvin professor Dave Warners, a longtime friend and colleague of Van Deelen’s at Au Sable. “You can’t help but listen when he’s talking.”
Van Deelen hopes that his students take what they learn and strive to make a difference. “I believe the Christian stewardship model has people too separate from nature,” he said. “That has started to change more broadly within the culture, but much needs to be done to begin to fix the damage that we have done to creation.”
Reflecting on how to initiate change, Van Deelen said: “You have to spend your time outside—at a nearby park or a beach. That’s where you draw the motivation. That’s where you begin to battle back. For me, it links back to a kid growing up in farm country; it’s a habit of the mind.
“There is so much wonder out there; you have to take advantage of the peace it can bring you and the motivation to spur you to make a change.”