Blakely Island: An artist’s inspiration

Seattle Pacific University student Emily McElheran speaks to how the natural beauty of Blakely Island is inspiring for her as an artist.

Emily, a Visual Communication and Illustration double major, went to Blakely Island with Dr. Langford’s Creation Care class in the Spring of 2024. While there, she was struck by the beauty of the island.

Sitting on Bald Bluff, looking out over the San Juan Islands, with sketchbook at the ready, Emily noted, “As an artist, I definitely feel like I can like engage with nature differently and I just, I see a lot of the details, I think.”

The view from Bald Bluff that inspired Emily McElheran. Photo: Hailey Hooper-Gray

The breathtaking landscape in front of her was more than just inspiration for Emily, it was a challenge: “I see all these different like lines or all these different patterns and I just immediately think of how I could create that.”

This stunning backdrop helped Emily intersect her faith and her art. She said, “It’s so insane the different like patterns that God can create and the different intricacies that nature has. It’s like a constant puzzle of like how I could get remotely close to recreating that beauty and like capturing that.”

When asked what her artist’s eye was most drawn to on Blakely, she said that the mountains drew her attention the most: “Specifically on Blakely I think I’ve noticed honestly like more of the mountains. In the heart of Seattle, every now and then you can see them if you’re like going across the Aurora bridge or every now and then but like here that’s kind of like any opening you get, that’s all you see.”

Emily McElheran stands on Bald Bluff. Photo: Hailey Hooper-Gray

Her time at SPU and experienced eye for art helped her to engage with this unique place in a way starkly different than the biology students who frequent the island. Still talking about the mountains, she said, “As far as you can see are all these different mountains and my brain then goes to like honestly to a color analysis of them. And then I’m like, how could I paint that? And I think of, ‘oh there’s a little bit of orange in here mixed in with that blue or there’s some yellow over there.’”

Emily sat looking out from the Bluff and commenting on it for only a moment before she put pen to paper and started sketching all that she saw.

The Bible, biology and Blakely

A hazy sunset view of Blakely Peak. Photo: Hailey Hooper-Gray

Ecotheology: crossed between faith and science.

Gethsemane was the garden Jesus prayed in. Symbolically, it reminds Christians of another garden, where sin entered the world. From Eden to Gethsemane, nature is a reflection and redemption of faith. 

Spring quarter of 2024, Dr. Mike Langford’s Creation Care course ventured to Blakely Island for a weekend trip as part of their official course schedule. The Undergraduate Catalog describes the course as “[investigating] the ecological implications of Christian faith.”

(from left) Dr. Mike Langford, Dr. Eric Long, and Brian Rodda look out from Bald Bluff. Photo: Hailey Hooper-Gray

Along with Dr. Langford and his students, Dr. Eric Long, a professor of biology at Seattle Pacific University, also went on the weekend trip to Blakely. He took the class around the island, sharing biological facts and encouraging students to look closely at their surroundings.

While the biology courses that Dr. Long takes to Blakely have an emphasis of “let’s make sure we memorize the names of all these different things,” the Creation Care class has a different aim. Dr. Long says, “The major motivation for this class is to just open our eyes to the diversity of the different things that are out there.”

The class took a trip to the tidepools on the Northeast corner of the island, “the best spot on the island for tide pools,” according to Dr. Long, where students were able to investigate the different organisms living in these pools. With a striking view of Mt. Baker in the background, students passed around a bright purple starfish that Dr. Long plucked up out of the water.

Hiking up to Bald Bluff at ecologist speed, the class stopped frequently for Dr. Long to point out the different things happening ecologically in the forest. While standing slightly off the trail, the students all circled around him, Dr. Long said, “Sorry if I’m overly dramatic—what you’re standing on right now is a carpet of death. Soil. This is dead stuff that’s getting turned into new life.” He went on to explain how the organisms in the soil help cycle the nutrients from dead plants and animals back into the trees. “That’s all part of the ecosystem.”

Dr. Eric Long talks to students on a hike to Bald Bluff. Photo: Hailey Hooper-Gray

Dr. Langford commented on the ecological importance of death from a theological stance. He says, “When we look at the rest of God’s creation, outside of ourselves, we see that actually most of creation is okay with death; it’s part of life; it’s something that happens. We actually need death to make way for new life.” He explains that “Christians believe…that death is not the last word; that there is something on the other side. And actually, if you look at creation, that’s true as well.”

Discussions like this, bridging ecology and theology, were numerous throughout the weekend. With scheduled times of exploring the island and ample free time, students were able to experience nature without the sound of the interstate throbbing in the background.

An afternoon rain shower shed doubt on the initial plans for students to hike to Blakely Peak, the highest point on the island. The class took the vans up to the peak instead, and the clouds broke just in time for them to stand in awe of a magnificent, mist-hazed sunset.

Student Ellie Jancola watches the sunset from a tree on Blakely Peak. Photo: Hailey Hooper-Gray
Dr. Mike Langford and students watch the sunset from Blakely Peak. Photo: Hailey Hooper-Gray
A view of the sunset from Blakely Peak. Photo: Hailey Hooper-Gray

When asked what he hopes his students were taking away from their time on Blakely, Dr. Langford echoed the themes that he has emphasized in lectures throughout the quarter: “You can’t love something that you don’t know. And you don’t know something that you don’t experience…I’m hoping that by coming out here we can experience a little bit of God’s creation that maybe we haven’t before.”

He went on to say, “Hopefully, by experiencing that a little bit, we’ll get to know the vastness of God’s creation a little bit better, at least from a certain vantage point. And hopefully, by getting to know it better, we can love it better. And we want to love it better because we want to love the things that God loves, and God wanted us to love all of creation.”


Back on campus, ecotheology enters a wider territory. It finds itself wedged between two seemingly different disciplines. To its left is a copy of the Bible and to its right is a McGraw Hill 10th edition of Ecology Concepts and Applications. But at Blakely, browsing the bookshelves inside the dining hall or upstairs in the dormitory’s common room, botany beside beatitudes. 

As a Christian university with many STEM opportunities, science is a faith conversation. The Christian biologist and the eco-theologian must ask questions that demand intersectionality and challenge faith. 

Dr. Rodney Stiling is a retired Associate History Professor at SPU whose specialty focused on the history of science. Stiling has only been once to Blakely, but it was to answer the faith and science question for the honors program. 

“I’ve been there one time. Interestingly, it was for the purpose of gathering with students and faculty of the honors program all involved with the faith and science curriculum, and we had a retreat out there. We talked about what kinds of things should we have in the courses and what things are superfluous,” Stiling said. 

Stiling used to teach an honors class with physics professor Dr. Wade Grabow, covering the history of science, religion and cosmology.  

Stiling helped design the faith and science curriculum as part of the SPU Honors program. Source: 

Theological questions of eschatology and apologetics are age-old questions, but the world they respond to is always different. Historical case studies reveal that the tension between the observable world and scripture never finds relief. 

“There’s a famous one about Copernicus. He was a devout Catholic, and yet he postulated based on very good information that the earth was in motion around the Sun and not the other way around. And the Bible seems to assume and speak in a very geocentric manner. The Bible speaks of the Sun moving around the Earth. So what are we going to do with that?” Stiling said. 

Well, we live with it. Our best theories about the sun and space become true once proven.  Satellites and space crafts give our naked eyes access to the world as is, and as Christians, we reconcile the past with the present. 

“I’ve never heard of even one case of a person, a Christian believer today, losing their faith, because it turned out that the Earth goes around the sun and not the other way around,” Stiling said. “A well-informed person of faith acknowledges that the world is, is created, and that our place in the world is as creatures that we are also created.”

But when today’s science gives us gene splicing, particle colliders, mRNA vaccines, and ice core carbon dating, discernment calls Christians to the pulpit and the laboratory once again. Sometimes, it calls us back to the classroom. 

Dr. Lisa Goodhew is an assistant professor of physics at SPU. While she has yet to teach a class at Blakely, Goodhew was once a student who visited the island. 

“I was a student at SPU and I went to Blakely as part of an alternative and sustainable engineering class, one of my favorite classes of my physics major. We got to build our own wind turbine and go to Blakely to learn more about hydroelectric power because that’s how they power a lot of the stuff on Blakely,” Goodhew said. 

Goodhew teaches physics and climate change at SPU.

From assignments and lectures, the principal moves to practice, giving students a sense of tangibility in their work. But there are other principles to test in life, principles of faith

“Another thing that was really big for me when I was in college as a physics major was this understanding that all truth ultimately comes from God from a Christian perspective,” Goodhew said. 

This notion of truth informs Christian spirituality. That the spirit is embodied in the real world of being created human. And as we understand the world, it is getting worse. 

Goodhew teaches an upper-division physics class titled “Global Climate Change: Scientific, Social and Moral Implications.” Throughout the class, the physical causes of global warming are taught, but its knowledge is equipped and calls students to moral action. 

“Christians have a big role to play in science because we have this history and a whole set of resources for making world decisions and developing virtue,” Goodhew said. “That comes into the climate change part of it especially because a lot of what we see with climate change data… is there are going to be hard choices we make now that may require some personal or systematic sacrifice that is going to ultimately lead to better things.”

And Christians can either look forward to revelation or backward to the garden for an ideal vision. Stiling sees ecotheology as God’s command to humanity. 

“No matter how you take the Genesis account, even if you take it as completely figurative, the lesson is very clear… The lesson is [that] humans are expected to serve in the role as stewards of the earth to keep and to tend the garden, to protect [it], and to live well,” Stiling said. “For agriculture, forestry, and animal husbandry, how should our attitudes be? Is it okay to do mining? Yes, it probably is if we clean up afterward and have those discussions. And then I would hope that a person of science if they are not also a person of faith, would approach their work as the investigation and exploration of God’s handiwork.”

Blakely is not self-contained. It is part of a global system: the ocean, the air, and the biosphere. To leave our homes and retreat to the island is not an escape; it’s a calling. As students leave the island, they sail back to their communities.

“Climate change, and the evidence we have that it’s caused by humans, provides us a new opportunity and a new calling to show love in a different way. This is on a global scale that really requires cooperation, and that’s something Christians can do,” Goodhew said.