I have been out today in field and wood,
Listening to praises sweet and counsel good
Such as a little child had understood,
That, in its tender youth,
Discerns the simple eloquence of truth.
The modest blossoms, crowding round my way,
Though they had nothing great or grand to say,
Gave out their fragrance to the wind all day;
Because his loving breath,
With soft persistence, won them back from death.
And the right royal lily, putting on
Her robes, more rich than those of Solomon,
Opened her gorgeous missal in the sun,
And thanked him soft and low,
Whose gracious, liberal hand had clothed her so.
When wearied, on the meadow-grass I sank,
So narrow was the rill from which I drank,
An infant might have stepped from bank to bank;
And the tall rushes near,
Lapping together, hid its waters clear.
Yet to the ocean joyously it went,
And, rippling in the fulness of content,
Watered the pretty flowers that o’er it leant;
For all the banks were spread
With delicate flowers that on its bounty fed.
The stately maize, a fair and goodly sight,
With serried spear-points bristling sharp and bright,
Shook out his yellow tresses, for delight,
To all their tawny length,
Like Samson, glorying in his lusty strength.
And every little bird upon the tree,
Ruffling his plumage bright, for ecstasy,
Sang in the wild insanity of glee;
And seemed, in the same lays,
Calling his mate and uttering songs of praise.
The golden grasshopper did chirp and sing;
The plain bee, busy with her housekeeping,
Kept humming cheerfully upon the wing,
As if she understood
That, with contentment, labor was a good.
I saw each creature, in his own best place,
To the Creator lift a smiling face,
Praising continually his wondrous grace;
As if the best of all
Life’s countless blessings was to live at all!
So with a book of sermons, plain and true,
Hid in my heart, where I might turn them through,
I went home softly, through the falling dew,
Still listening, rapt and calm,
To Nature giving out her evening psalm.
Phoebe Cary (1824–1871) was an American poet whose verse focuses on themes of religion, nature, and feminism. She grew up on a farm near Cincinnati, Ohio, the sixth of nine children. She was particularly close with her older sister Alice, also a writer, with whom she copublished a volume of poetry in 1849 before going on to publish books of her own. Buoyed by the recognition they received from such luminaries as Edgar Allan Poe and John Greenleaf Whittier, in 1850 the two sisters moved to New York City together, where they contributed regularly to national periodicals and hosted a weekly Sunday evening salon attended by East Coast literati. Phoebe was active in the early days of the women’s rights movement, serving as an assistant editor for The Revolution, Susan B. Anthony’s suffrage newspaper. She died of hepatitis at age forty-six, just six months after Alice.
“The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland . . .”
—Isaiah 43:20 (NIV)
This verse from the prophetic book of Isaiah supplies the title of artist Josh Tiessen’s Streams in the Wasteland series. Comprising seventeen paintings of wild animals inhabiting abandoned cities, it took six years to complete, from 2015 to 2021. In this body of work Tiessen weds a biblical imagination with his passion for wildlife conservation to promote ecological ethics, or what Christians call “creation care”—the biblical imperative to be benevolent stewards of the environment and all its creatures. He says he wants to represent “the majesty, particularity, and beauty of animals” (Streams in the Wasteland, p. 33)—to evoke wonder, love, and empathy, and a greater sense of responsibility.
“The whole creation has been groaning,” the apostle Paul writes in Romans 8, seeking to “be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” Creation has been damaged in large part by humanity’s sin, which has caused deforestation, land degradation, ozone depletion, and species endangerment and extinction, among other harms. Instead of enjoying the full flourishing God intended, the natural world suffers.
Streams in the Wasteland engages with the question, What would the liberation of animals from the bondage to decay look like? Some of Tiessen’s creative visual responses:
An Indian temple elephant breaks free of its shackles, no more to be prodded and paraded for the people’s religious festivals.
Released from aquarium amusement parks where they were exploited for entertainment, a pod of orcas journeys down a canyon river into the ocean past their ancestors’ skeletal remains, which will one day rise.
A jackalope—the mythical horned rabbit of North American folklore—sheds its antlers, a passing shadow of the old world. Rabbits with hornlike protrusions on or near their heads have actually been found in nature, the cancerous growths a result of a papillomavirus.
Tiessen calls his style “narrative hypersurrealism,” as he renders the animals with technical precision and great attention to naturalistic detail (hyperrealism) but places them in a postapocalyptic context, revealing strange beauty in the unexpected (surrealism). And in contrast to traditional wildlife art, Tiessen’s art tells a story. For Streams in the Wasteland, that story is one of reclamation and healing—but also one of warning for those who neglect God’s laws.
In preparation for this series, Tiessen wrote a research paper on zoological motifs in the book of Isaiah. He found that in several prophecies of judgment, God gives animals dominion over human civilization—an ironic reversal, the “weak” shaming the powerful.
Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the pride and glory of the Babylonians, will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah. She will never be inhabited or lived in through all generations; there no nomads will pitch their tents, there no shepherds will rest their flocks. But desert creatures will lie there, jackals will fill her houses; there the owls will dwell, and there the wild goats will leap about. Hyenas will inhabit her strongholds, jackals her luxurious palaces. Her time is at hand, and her days will not be prolonged.
In addition to Babylon, Isaiah indicts other unjust nations: in Cush the fruit of the vine “will all be left to the mountain birds of prey” (18:6), and in Edom “the desert owl and screech owl will possess it; the great owl and the raven will nest there” (34:11). Concerning the kingdom of Judah: moles and bats will take over idols of silver and gold (2:20), lambs will feed on the food of the rich (5:17), and Jerusalem will become void of human activity and instead be “the delight of donkeys, a pasture for flocks” (32:14). It’s not just nocturnal animals and scavengers that crop up, but also harmless ones like foals and sheep.
Returning to the opening quote of this article, we see that Isaiah describes an eschatological reality in which God’s abundant provision elicits thanksgiving and praise from the animal kingdom. But they are Israel’s foil: whereas the animals are sensible of God’s goodness, God’s people are not. “Yet you have not called on me, Jacob. . . . You have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your offenses” (43:22, 24).
Tiessen understands such animals “as the Creator’s special agents worthy of intrinsic value and a role in history. I caught a glimpse of Isaiah’s larger vision for animals serving as co-workers with the Creator to confront humanity, calling from within the ruins of human moral decay” (Streams in the Wasteland, p. 22).
I’m very familiar with the Isaiah passages where creatures are presented as blessings of Edenic hope for the future, existing peaceably with humans (e.g., Isa. 11:6–9), but I had never really stopped to consider all the places where they are said to overtake what we deem human domains. Such passages are certainly more uncomfortable for us humans!
Though humans’ neglect or mistreatment of animals is not specifically what prompts God’s pledged use of animals to shame the rebellious nations, surely our disregard for the creation mandate in Genesis—to rule the earth with care and compassion—is a form of rebellion against God. And so Tiessen extends his reading of Isaiah to address that call in particular, which is echoed in other parts of scripture, such as Proverbs 12:10: “The righteous care for the needs of their animals.” By placing animals in human habitations, Tiessen compels us to remember our obligations to our nonhuman neighbors.
Perhaps my favorite painting from Tiessen’s series is Whale Hymn. The setting is the ruined shell of St. Dunstan-in-the-East, a twelfth-century church that once towered over the city of London but that was irreparably bombed during World War II. It has since been converted into a public garden. In his futuristic vision, Tiessen imagines it surrounded by floodwaters, a humpback whale swimming by. This giant of the deep sings its song to the Creator in the same place where generation after generation of Christians sang their praises until human violence rendered the building unusable.
Isaiah is not the only biblical source of inspiration for Tiessen. Ezekiel’s vision in the valley of dry bones inspired Can These Bones Live?, which shows a monarch butterfly gliding through the ribcage of a human skeleton, and its sequel, Rise Up—the only two paintings with human figures.
Tiessen was born in 1995 in Moscow to Canadian missionary parents. His Russian nanny, Lena Zhuk, taught him drawing basics, like perspective and shading, and, when he showed aptitude, bought him his first set of tempera paints, brushes, large heavy paper, and other materials. When he and his family moved back to Canada, Valerie Jones, a fellow church member and artist, noticed his talent and got him his first public art exhibition at age eleven. Then when Tiessen was fifteen, Canadian wildlife artist Robert Bateman took him on as a student and mentee. He graduated from high school at age sixteen and began exhibiting throughout North America while working on a bachelor’s of religious education in arts and biblical studies at Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener, Ontario, which he earned in 2020. His professional memberships include Artists for Conservation, the Society of Animal Artists, and the International Guild of Realism.
He currently lives in Stoney Creek, Ontario.
Tiessen has self-published a hardcover, glossy-paged, full-color book that collates all the works from Streams in the Wasteland, providing commentary on them (additional to that on his website), which includes engagement with scholarly interpretations of the Isaiah passages. Through sketches and more, he sheds light on his artistic process and also provides autobiographical information. The book comes with a CD of instrumental compositions by his brother Zac Tiessen that respond to each of the paintings—an atmospheric soundscape. It would make a great gift.
Instead of saints from the Homo sapiens species surrounding the Lamb in worship, Tiessen shows a giant panda, a double-wattled cassowary, a narwhal, and other animals paying homage to Christ. They, too, are drawn up into God’s awesome story of redemption. They, too, participate in the “new thing” God is doing.
“My painting is . . . a critique of the human-centric bias within Western art history,” Tiessen writes. “This is best seen in Renaissance paintings where animals seldom appear, and if they do, it is simply for allegorical purposes. By enlisting wild animals as protagonists with intrinsic value amidst the wasteland of human existence, I endeavor to revise Western art history through a zoological lens, liberating the Judeo-Christian worldview from its perversion at the hands of anthropocentric Greek philosophy.”
This final image shows animals liberated from the effects of the fall, honoring the One whose atoning death and resurrection reconciles all to God (Col. 1:19–20).
Blogger’s note: I’m fascinated by the history of hymns—all the creative hands they pass through (lyricists, translators, composers, harmonizers, arrangers, hymnal editors, church musicians, worship pastors, recording artists, etc.) to become what we use in our churches today. In this essay, poet, translator, and literary critic Kimberly Johnson traces in fragments the history of “All Creatures of Our God and King” [previously], interweaving that history with snippets of the authors’ biographies, musical analysis, personal confession, and observations from the time she spent in and around the hymn’s origin place of Assisi in the Umbria region of Italy.
Copyright credit: The essay “On ‘Laudes Creaturarum’ (‘All Creatures of Our God and King’): A Polyphony” by Kimberly Johnson is from Stars Shall Bend Their Voices: Poets’ Favorite Hymns and Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey L. Johnson (Asheville, NC: Orison Books, 2018). It is reproduced here by permission of the publisher. I’ve added in the photos for visual reference.
Altissimu onnipotente bon signore tue so le laude la gloria e l’ onore e onne benedictione. Ad te solo altissimo se konfano e nullu homo ene dignu te mentovare. Laudatu si mi signore cum tucte le tue creature spetialmente messor lu frate sole lu quale iorno et allumini per loi. E ellu è bellu e radiante cum grande splendore de te altissimu porta significatione. Laudatu si mi signore per sora luna e le stelle in celu l’ ai formate et pretiose e belle. Laudatu si mi signore per frate vento e per aere e nubilo e sereno et onne tempu per lu quale a le tue creature dai sustentamentu. Laudatu si mi signore per sor aqua la quale è multo utile e humele e pretiosa e casta. Laudatu si mi signore per per frate focu per lu quale n’ allumeni la nocte e ellu è bello e iucundo e robusto e forte. Laudatu si mi signore per sora nostra matre terra la quale ne sustenta e governa e produce diversi fructi e coloriti fiore e erba. Laudatu si mi signore per quilli ke perdonano per lo tue amore e sostengono infirmitate e tribulation beati quelli ke ‘l sosterranno in pace ke da te altissimu sirano incoronati. Laudatu si mi signore per sora nostra morte corporale da la quale nullu homo vivente po skappare guai a quilli ke morranno in peccata mortale. Beati quelli ke troverà ne le tue sanctissime voluntati ke la morte secunda no ’l poterà far male. Laudate e benedicete lu mi signore e rengratiate e servite a lui cum grande humilitate. Amen.
Francis of Assisi, c. 1225
Praises of the Creatures
Highest, omnipotent, good our Lord, yours are the praises, the glory, the honor, and all blessing. To you alone, Most High, they are owed, and no mortal is worthy to mention you. Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my Lord Brother Sun, who brings the day, and you shed light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in his grand splendor! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness. Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in heaven you formed them, bright and precious and beautiful. Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Wind and through the air, cloudy and serene, and through all weathers by which you give your creatures sustenance. Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water, who is so useful and humble and precious and chaste. Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you illuminate the night; and he is lovely and playful and robust and strong. Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us and who brings forth varied fruits with vibrant flowers and herbs. Be praised, my Lord, through those who give pardon for love of you, and bear infirmity and tribulation; blessed are those who persevere in peace, for they will be, by you Most High, endowed a crown. Be praised, my Lord, through our sister, Death-of-the-Flesh, from whom no living mortal can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Blessed whom death finds abiding in your most sacred will, for the second death shall do them no harm. Praise and bless my Lord, and render thanks to Him, and serve Him with great humility. Amen.
Translated from the Italian by Kimberly Johnson, 2018
All Creatures of Our God and King
All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing: Alleluia, alleluia! O burning sun with golden beam, and shining moon with silver gleam, O praise Him, O praise Him, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
O rushing wind so wild and strong, white clouds that sail in heaven along: Alleluia, alleluia! New rising dawn in praise rejoice; you lights of evening find a voice, O praise Him, O praise Him, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
Cool flowing water, pure and clear, make music for your Lord to hear: Alleluia, alleluia! Fierce fire, so masterful and bright, providing us with warmth and light, O praise Him, O praise Him, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
Earth ever fertile, day by day, bring forth your blessings on our way: Alleluia, alleluia! All flowers and fruits that in you grow, let them his glory also show, O praise Him, O praise Him, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
All you who are of tender heart, forgiving others, take your part: Alleluia, alleluia! All you who pain and sorrow bear, praise God and on him cast your care, O praise Him, O praise Him, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
And thou most kind and gentle death, waiting to hush our latest breath: Alleluia, alleluia! Thou leadest home the child of God, and Christ our Lord the way hath trod. O praise Him, O praise Him, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
Let all things their Creator bless, and worship Him in humbleness: Alleluia, alleluia! Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son, and praise the Spirit, Three in One! O praise Him, O praise Him, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
Translated from the Italian by William Henry Draper, 1919
In Assisi, the sky vaults clouded and serene against the foothills.
Pietro, known as Francesco, devoted brother of his order, put quill to thirteenth-century parchment and began to praise. His inspiration was Psalm 148, whose Hebrew exhortations spur the sun and moon, the stars and highest heavens, tempests and mountains and wingèd birds to sing their Lord’s splendid name. Barchu and Hallelu.
In the trees that ring the great cathedral at Assisi, birds trill an antiphon in the innumerable dialects of their collected species.
“Laudatu si mi signore per sora nostra morte corporale,” Francis wrote in his backwater dialect, “da la quale nullu homo vivente po skappare.” Be praised, my Lord, through our sister, Death-of-the-Flesh, from whom no living mortal can escape.
William Henry Draper lost his first wife in childbirth. He lost his second wife in her youth. He lost three sons in World War I and a daughter in her childhood.
In Francesco’s hymn, the psalm’s call to worship forges familial bonds, each voice enfolded into the household: My Lord Brother Sun. Sister Moon and Sister Water, Brother Fire and Brother Wind.
Twice widowed, four times unfathered, William Henry Draper served as rector of the parish church in Leeds, where, in 1919, he translated a centuries-old poem by an Umbrian monk for a Whitsunday children’s concert.
On Whitsunday, the Assisi cathedral is afire with cloven tongues, pilgrims murmuring a babel of prayer.
Thou rushing wind that art so strong
At the wind of the day I walked the fortress wall on Assisi’s hilltop as the houselights came on below. “A mighty fortress is our God,” another word-dazzled monk would write three centuries after Francesco threw open the enclosures of monastic care to the lazar-house, the beggars, the birds.
At a piazza dinner in the hilltop town of Perugia, against which the young soldier Pietro called Francesco marched impenitent and won a year in prison for his pains, I overhear a tourist family at the next table. In New Jersey cadence, the mother suggests a next day’s trip to the basilica in Assisi. She sells it: “It’s where St. Francis is from.” Her son whines, “Who’s St. Francis?” The mother pauses. The pavement birds are belled into the evening sky. “He’s this really famous Franciscan monk.”
In the basilica, the nave vaults with sky, a gloaming blue clouded with verdant green. Gold stars fan out like finches. Like gilt notes on an ethereal staff.
Ralph Vaughan Williams, son of a vicar, took up an old German tune, “Lasst uns Erfreuen” (“Let Us Rejoice”), harmonizing his Anglican to that melody’s spare Jesuit. And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?
It’s not the repeated alleluia. It’s not the catalogue of earthy beauty. It’s not the open-throated Ptolemaic chime. What undoes me is the single minor chord.
The minor chord: unheard in the tune’s Teutonic plainchants, unheard before Vaughan Williams’s harmonies. It falls at the end of the penultimate line of each verse—in some versions of Draper’s English text, the minored syllable is Him, and in some it is Jah; either way, God takes the fall.
Vaughan Williams’s minor chord is the musical cognate of Francesco’s steadfast praise in and through the death of the flesh: a gut punch that refuses to be redeemed by the next line’s joy.
Confiteor: The next line’s return to D major requires a resolve that, many days, I don’t have.
In the Upper Church in Assisi, the fresco cycle attributed (probably wrongly) to Giotto includes San Francesco d’Assisi predica agli uccelli. There are doves, of course, in the saint’s congregation. There is a woodcock, I think. A robin. They will not fly until his sermon is finished. Until he follows the downpour with worms.
Nearby, another fresco shows Francis struck with stigmata; each wound an asterisk, a caveat. A flurry of wings above his head.
You lights of evening
At the altar in Assisi, my vespers are belled into the vault, where they flock and cloud.
Outside, rain. The birds tangle among the leaves, sustain their refractory antiphon. All with one accord in one place.
“perdonano per lo tue amore / infirmitate e tribulatione”
Pardon and love, weakness and wrack. Blame and whine, and worms and no escape. O praise Him.
A creaturely hymn for us creatures: Pietro called Francesco, faux Giotto, bereft William, Ralph, the variant birds, and myself. Each of us cloven by major and minor, each our own Pentecost.
Lately I’ve been delving into the writings of the Egyptian American poet, aphorist, and essayist Yahia Lababidi. I love his Barely There collection of poems on such topics as poetry / the poet, spiritual longing, virtue and vice, hope, surrender, the quiet beauty of nature, attention and gratitude, and pain as a gift. It’s such a wise and tender collection. His latest book, released last month, is Revolutions of the Heart: Literary, Cultural, and Spiritual.