Balancing Freedom with Mutual Responsibility

A picture of a man in a grayish-blue shirt holding a fish

For Eric Van Dyken (’93), who lives in Prinsburg, Minnesota, it wasn’t a grandparent who taught him the wonder of nature. It was his dad, a teacher who never quite left the classroom, even when he and Van Dyken were hiking, bird watching, camping, fishing, or hunting. “I was raised with a love for all things natural,” he says, “and a conditioning to always observe and wonder, a need to feel connected to the earth.”

The Van Dykens never went anywhere without seeing creation. “We couldn’t simply drive, walk, or otherwise move past the world around us without stopping to look closely, without asking questions, and praising God for what we saw and learned.”

And there was a high school science teacher, Dennis Plummer, who had “an infectious love of creation and was instrumental in further fueling my passion for the natural world.”

Van Dyken liked the big animals that thrive in the rural Midwest where he grew up, liked them so much that he intended to study veterinary medicine at Dordt and take up residence somewhere in the farm belt as a large-animal veterinarian. But in college, he increasingly found himself drawn toward ecology, a broader range of studies.
Dreams do shift and change with time and circumstance, so much so that vet school began to look less interesting. Instead, he says he began to envision himself more as a “natural resource professional of some sort, preferably a wildlife management position.”

Van Dyken counts his experience at AuSable Institute as inspiring and formative, an experience he undertook as something of a challenge from Professor Vander Zee. He claims Vander Zee used a little “reverse psychology” on him when he said he was applying. “You couldn’t hack it,” Vander Zee told him.

“Vander Zee sharpened my resolve to go and do well,” says Van Dyken. He did.

Before graduating, he married Sara Van Hofwegen (’93). With his diploma in hand, the two of them left for Arizona, where Sara’s brother operated a large dairy southwest of Phoenix. While Eric lacked the veterinary degree, working with dairy cows answered the urge he’d always had for large-animal veterinary medicine. On the dairy, his work involved “husbandry, nutrition, and cow health.”

When Van Dyken’s father’s health deteriorated, the Van Dykens left Arizona and moved back to central Minnesota, where he began to work as a breeding/gestation manager, later as finishing manager for a company called Holland Pork—hogs, of which there are many in central Minnesota.

In 2000, Renville County hired him as the County Feedlot Officer and sewage treatment system inspector. Four years later, he took a job for Kandiyohi County, where, officially, he is the county’s Zoning Administrator. He manages all aspects of land use planning and development in the areas of the county outside of city limits, in a county that, state-wide, has the most hybrid mix of grassland prairies and the deciduous woods so quintessential to “up north” Minnesota.

Today, his calendar quickly fills with work brought on by anticipated projects for the upcoming construction season. He’s scheduled a meeting with the County Administrator and his division director to discuss strained intergovernmental relations with a local township. He reviews permit applications, answering the phone and emails from people seeking input on their various dreams. He hopes to be completing a township-by-township review with clerical staff. Then there’s the Environmental Assessment Worksheet for an 18-hole golf course to be situated near and around a sensitive, high-quality stream. And, oh yes, that proposed convenience store/gas station, as well as an enforcement letter to a party responsible for a repeated discharge of untreated wastewater in a sensitive area.
The work is sometimes grueling. He’s discovered, as many of us have, that no one likes to be told what to do, especially when the law dictates what must be done with land—even though those same people might enjoy telling others what to do. But his work, he says, is a job he enjoys greatly.

“How do we live here without destroying that which we appreciate? How do we balance freedom with mutual responsibility? These questions are at the core of my work, but also are echoes of broader life questions that we all face in our local, state, and national contexts,” he says.