Tunes for a Monday Morning
Preserving what's common

The secular sacred

Herring Gulls by Ekaterina Bee

Here's another lovely passage from Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore -- a book that I keep returning to over the years, and love afresh with each re-reading. In her essay "The Time of the Singing of the Birds," Moore writes:

"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 another. 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 the night, and finally he went home.

''Realm of the Seychelles'' by Thomas Peschak

Weddell seals by Laurent Ballesta

"I'm not sure what he hoped to hear. The sound of the wind bringing rain, the rattle of surf-driven stones -- these didn't 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 have been and yet is. Stinging sand, the storm-driven waves, the swirling gulls --they are all cause for surprise and celebration.

Sperm whales in Sri Lanka by Tony Wu

Night of the Turtles by Ingo Arndt

"Instead of standing still and waiting for instructions, what if he had laid 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?

Female humpback whale  by Wade Hughes

"I don't want to say he would have 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 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 I live in a sacred place and time.

"I want to say there is a secular sacred, that this phrase, paradoxical as it seems, makes good and profound and important sense.

Nesting leatherback turtle by Brian Skerry

"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 plane) is irreplaceable, astonshing, contingent, eternal and changing, beautiful and fearsome, beyond human understanding, worthy of reverence and awe, worthy of celebration and attention.

"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, is the natural world is sacred and 'sacred' describes the natural world; of there are not too 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 of birds."

Great Crested Grebes by Knut Erik Alnæs (Norway)

If we allow for the concept of the "secular sacred," then I suppose that Wild Comfort is one of my sacred texts -- along with books by Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner, Patricia McKillip, John Crowley, Jane Yolen, Lloyd Alexander, David Abram, Lewis Hyde, Rebecca Solnit, and so many others. They honor the mystery. Restore my sense of wonder. Remind me to be astonished by the world, and call me to gratitude and joy.

Spanwing brook trout David Herasimtschuk

Pictures: The glorious photographs above are from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, running at The Museum of Natural History in London until the May 28th. They are identified & credited in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) You'll find more on the NHM website.

Words: The passage above is from Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore (Trumpeter Books, 2010); all rights reserved by the author.


So beautiful. I will definitely be seeking that book.

I agree with every single word of this beautiful passage and I'm so glad that it is for some, a secular sacred text and states the beautifully obvious, that this world is everyones temple, church, mosque, Synagogue and whatever other term is used for sacred spaces. And being an old Pagan I am also glad that not one word of it excludes the possibility of worlds and existences within and beyond the purely physical.

Yes, as an old Pagan myself, I love that too. She embraces, rather than excludes.

I should add (not for you, but perhaps for others here) that I don't believe Moore intends to dismiss religious faith -- and I hope readers who do believe in a God in Heaven won't read the passage that way (or will at least seek out and read the full book before making a judgement, since her thoughts about faith and prayer are nuanced, thoughtful, and complex). Rather, she is generously extending the concept of the "sacred" to include those of us who don't believe in a Biblical god, but who do find wonder, awe, and meaning in the world around us.

There is room at the table for all of us.

I think you'll love it. It's a quiet book filled with deep wisdom.

Ah! I ordered this book last night after it came into my life twice yesterday into totally different ways... and a third time today... I love it when there are “ pay attention” signposts in my Life.
Yes! I love the way she crafts room enough for each individual reader’s tenent, to dance between her words.

Bare Facts

“. . .profoundly moved by the bare fact that we live
in the time of the singing of birds."
--Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore

In the morning,
in the soft early morning,
the sun not yet risen,
birds outside my window
begin to sing

small chirrups of sound,
hiccups of waking.
They sing of night over,
of dew in flower cups,
the rising mist from the grass.

They sing of snow melt,
and nest making,
of small brown eggs,
sky colored, rosy.
They sing of scattered seeds.

We do not need to know
what they sing about,
we only need to listen,
pay attention to their psalms,
more beautiful than our own.

Profound is not a word
I use easily, it is too deep.
But lying here in my bed
I am moved to tears
by this moment of birdsong.

I do not parse my prayers.

©2018 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Beautiful, "I do not parse my prayers." Different senses involved when we wake with wild abundance and attendance. Lovely prayer poem, Jane.

There definitely is room at the table for all of us. Pass the potatoes please...

Oh yes...that resonates to the very bottom of my soul. And I don't feel excluded in the least, but recognize that our world, our view, my heart, even, is expanded, exponentially, by the secular sacred. To me it is all one and the same...I'm a pantheist, I suppose, and this feels so right to me...thank you.

I would add Gerald May's The Wisdom of Wilderness to your list of books...


the magic of our beautiful broken world is always here when we slow down enough to listen with our hearts

Thanks, Mokihana. Terri's posst always bring out the neo-pagan in me. That's where I worship.


Hi Jane

We do not need to know
what they sing about,
we only need to listen,
pay attention to their psalms,
more beautiful than our own.

I could not agree more than with the premise of this wonderfully, beautiful poem. Birdsong is a gift from the wild and we do not have to understand the song but simply listen. I love the way you celebrate the presence of and song of birds. They uplift and almost mesmerize us with their vocals, their flight and sheer existence. They are sacred and they help to make nature more sacred. Thank you for this, as always, I so deeply enjoy your poetry and your perspective.

Take care

Hi Terri

Beautiful post with gorgeous photos and images. I find comfort in the wild species and environs of nature. Especially now, the high desert. We have a variety of birds that inspire and comfort with their presence and their spiritual magic. Often when the day has been particularly chaotic and hard with unsettling news or events, when Fate sings her songs of discontent or angst into our bones/veins, disrupting the ordinary rhythms of an everyday routine, seeing a northern goshawk on a pine branch near dusk can bring immense solace, it can change one's outlook and let the frenzied nerves remain only splintered for the moment. Recently this happened upon sighting a goshawk on our backyard spruce. It may have flown down from the snow-capped St. Gabriel mountians that loom in the distance. I don't know except it appeared and made a very strong impression, enough to make me forget a day I quite rued.


A large hawk lands on a bough
and begins cleaning her feathers.
First the right wing then the left.
When finished, she remains
on the blue awning of pine
and inhales the wind. Its breath

a mix of balsam and snow melt
that has been trickling
throughout the mountains.
What lasts and what dissolves
in the veins of tree or rock.

I like to think of the day
as that raptor settling down
and plucking any stress from her plumage
of hours. And then with her, we rest
watching dusk branch into shadows. The light
echoing a candle's strength
as we retain the closeness
we've always shared, shaped into love

and relinquish those songs
that have been sung
so intensely into our routine. our nerves left
(briefly) as splintered glass.
Again thankyou
all my best

As ever, Wendy, thank you for your thoughtful analysis and joy in my words.


Please, please send this gorgeous poem and others to Turtle Island Quarterly, saying I suggested you send it there.


Hi Jane

Thank you so much for the suggestion; and I definitely will send it out to them mentioning in my cover letter that you suggested I send it there. . I checked out Turtle Island last time when you mentioned it to me on this blog; and found out that they open for submissions this April. I will include this poem and others. Also, I deeply appreciate your interest in my poetry and your wonderful counsel. It does inspire me and keep me encouraged.

Please take care
my best always

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