For lo, the winter is past. The rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth. The time for the singing of birds has come.
—Song of Solomon
This is a story a friend gave to me. I am giving it to you.
There was a man who searched and searched for the sacred in nature—in the forest, at the beach—and sure enough: one day as he was walking along the coast, he heard a voice, loud and clear.
“Stand here,” it said, “and God will speak to you.”
The man stood. What else could he do? What would you have done? He stood for a very long time, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. His back stiffened up. A flock of brants flew down the trough between the breakers. The wind came up and died back. The tide flowed in. He zipped his jacket and unzipped it, zipped it again, as the sun went down and gulls cried out and flew to their roosts. He shivered in fog that came with night, and finally he went home.
I’m Not Sure What He hoped to hear. The sound of wind bringing rain, the rattle of surf-driven stones—didn’t these tell him what he needed to know? That he is alive in this place, at this time, alive in the midst of all this life. That he is aware in the midst of all that is mysterious, every fact that might not have been and yet is. Stinging sand, the storm-driven waves, the swirling gulls—they are all cause for surprise and celebration.
Instead of standing still and waiting for instructions, what if he had laid on his back in the midst of the mussels, laid there with barnacles poking his scalp, felt—in the hollow echo chamber of his ribs—the breakers pound against rock, listened to the shouts of faraway children and the pop of sand fleas next to his ear, as all the while tide crept in around him and surf exploded closer and closer to his brain?
Then what would he have heard?
I don’t want to say he heard the voice of God.
I want to say he would have heard—really heard, maybe for the first time—the squeak of mussels, the smash of surf, the peeping of sandpipers. Maybe a fish crow cawing or a chainsaw cutting cedar drifted in on storms.
And I want to say that this is enough. I want to say that this is astonishing enough—the actual Earth, the extraordinary fact of the ticking, smashing, singing, whistling, peeping Earth—to make me feel that I live in a sacred place and time.
I want to say that there is a secular sacred, that this phrase, paradoxical as it seems, makes good and profoundly important sense.
Here Is What I Believe: that the natural world—the stuff of our lives, the world we plod through, hardly hearing, the world we burn and poke and stuff and conquer and irradiate—that THIS WORLD (not another world on another planet) is irreplaceable, astonishing, contingent, eternal and changing, beautiful and fearsome, beyond human understanding, worthy of reverence and awe, worthy of celebration and protection.
If the good English word for this combination of qualities is “sacred,” then so be it. Even if we don’t believe in God, we walk out the door on a sacred morning and lift our eyes to the sacred rain and are called to remember our sacred obligations of care and celebration.
And what’s more, if the natural world is sacred, and “sacred” describes the natural world; if there are not two worlds but one, and it is magnificent and mysterious enough to shake us to the core; if this is so, then we—you and I and the man on the beach— are called to live our lives gladly. We are called to live lives of gratitude, joy, and caring, profoundly moved by the bare fact that we live in the time of the singing birds.
Gladness lifts the natural world out of the merely mundane and makes it wonderful, and reminds us that when we use the sacred stuff of our lives for human purposes, we must do so gratefully and responsibly, with full and caring hearts. That’s what I want to say.
My Mother And Father Were biologists. When I was growing up, there were sprouting beans tied to the hands of the clock, growing in circles as time revolved. Fairy shrimp flutter-kicked through jars of pond water on the sunlit window sills, butterfly eggs hatched in the living room, little mirrors angled over bird nests so we could see the babies without disturbing the nest, a frozen woodpecker rested in the freezer for reasons that escape me now, purple eggplants were grafted with white polka dots.
Everything in the house gloried in the moment, the fact of things. Everything focused on how things are, and why, and how wonderful. All the joy-filled facts. All the astonishing connections. All the irresistible questions. We went to church on Sunday mornings, but in the afternoons we traipsed through bogs and creeks and buzzing meadows, tapping stones against dead trees to call in downy woodpeckers.
And now I’m married to a biologist. You should see us in a canoe in the dark—philosopher in the bow, biologist in the stern. I’m rejoicing in the sounds of the night, awash in metaphors, and Frank is explaining the biomechanics of frog song.
“Imagine blowing up a balloon,” he says.
“Now imagine blowing up a balloon made of your neck skin.
“Now imagine blowing it up twice your size.
“Now hold that and tremble all night.
“The energetics of this music are so tough, so much energy expended, that it could kill a frog. Some tree frogs have only enough energy to sing for three nights. Three trembling nights. Imagine that.
“Imagine the silence of the frogs on day four.”
I sit quietly, imagining. What else can I do?
Then Frank says, “Now imagine swallowing a moth so big that you have to push it down your throat with your eyeballs.”
And then we look across the lake, where the path of the moon glitters on the discarded wings of a trillion flying ants. We look at the moon itself, bulging out between black mountains. And we note in passing that we ourselves are sailing at however many zillion miles per hour through the darkness, spinning in a spiral galaxy slung across space, slung out with all the singing frogs and the quiet ones, all of us up to our eyeballs in swamp.
And if we even think about our own sparkling minds on that sparkling lake, the molecular structure of awareness, the biochemistry of celebration, the universe singing its own praises in the languages of philosophy and science, then we have to hold on to keep from falling out of the canoe. Astonished, yes. And shaken.
The secular sacred. Secular: living in the world. Sacred: worthy of reverence and awe. Reverence: profound respect mixed with love and awe. Awe: fear and admiration.
Some People Suggest That science is the enemy of the sacred. This puzzles me. I suppose the argument is that the more we understand or think we understand, the smaller the realm of mystery becomes; under the hot lights of scientific knowledge, the sacred warps and shrinks, like Styrofoam in flames. But this argument won’t work because mystery is infinite, the only natural resource that humans can’t exhaust in this giant fire sale we call an economy. The physicist Chet Raymo thinks of scientific understanding as an island in a sea of mystery. The larger the island, the longer its coastline—that area where the deep sea of what we don’t understand slaps and smacks at the edge of what we think we know, a rich place of bright water and dark, fecund smell.
If so, then this is our work in the world: to pull on rubber boots and stand in this lively, dangerous water, bracing against the slapping waves, one foot on stone, another on sand. When one foot slips and the other sinks, to hop awkwardly to keep from filling our boots. To laugh, to point, and sometimes to let this surging, light-flecked mystery wash into us and knock us to our knees while we sing songs of celebration through our own three short nights, our voices thin in the darkness.
Kathleen Dean Moore is an environmental activist and nature writer; her recent work focuses on the moral urgency of climate action. Moore recently left her position as a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Oregon State University in order to work full-time on the climate emergency.
From Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature. Copyright 2010 by Kathleen Dean Moore. Reprinted by arrangement with The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Trumpeter Books, an imprint of of Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, MA.