we need beauty as well as bread

Over the past year I have found renewed joy, nourishment, and a profound sense of place in nature. Working in both northern and southern California has put me close to some of the country’s best national parks and I have been grateful for the resources and the time to visit several of them. 

Driving and especially hiking through such varied topography – from giant redwoods to high desert, and seaside cliffs to peaks in the Sierras – has filled me with wonder. I have been humbled by the astounding variety of plants and trees, of landscapes carved from the slow movement of glaciers or the fiery power of a volcanic eruption. The expansiveness of sky and sea has inspired prayers of gratitude. The sound of an ecstatic bird chorus or the twilight gurgle of frogs have motivated me to lift my voice in praise of the Creator.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,
places to play in and pray in.

Where nature can heal and cheer
and give strength to body and soul.”
 - John Muir

While walking through the visitor’s center at Yosemite National Park late last summer, I saw this quotation by John Muir on the wall and knew I had to set it to music. His words name my experience profoundly. The beauty, the mind-boggling variety, the immensity, and even the ‘otherness’ of nature, have invited me into a mystical encounter with the Creator. Nature has become a sort of living icon, a medium through which I gain renewed perspective on life and faith. As Henri Nouwen wrote, "Icons are created for the sole purpose of offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible. Icons lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us close to the heart of God." Nature has indeed brought me closer to the heart of the Creator.

It took almost a year to write but I’m pleased to share this setting of Muir’s words. The expressive melody has a wide range and if you trace the shape of it with your finger it looks a bit like a mountain range. It’s an unintentional detail but seems important given the song’s inspiration.

We Need Beauty As Well As Bread could be used as a response or prayer song for Earth Day, the feast of St. Francis (whose writings also reveal deep love for nature), or for outdoor worship services. It could also be used as part of a litany celebrating the work and witness of John Muir, the prophetic spirit who founded the Sierra Club and helped awaken a deep sense of responsibility for our planet and its natural resources. 

I invite you to listen to the track below and click here to download copy of the score. It will be available free of charge for the next few months and then I’ll add it to my online store, which I’m slowly populating with more sacred music that names the Holy in creative, expansive, and inclusive ways.

We need beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in.
Where nature can heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul.