History of Hymns: 'Touch the Earth Lightly'
By Katie Jarrett
“Touch the Earth Lightly”
by Shirley Erena Murray
Worship and Song, 3129
Touch the earth lightly,
use the earth gently,
nourish the life of the world in our care:
gift of great wonder,
ours to surrender,
trust for the children tomorrow will bear.*
* ©1992 Hope Publishing Company. Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Shirley Erena Murray (1931–2020) values clean, clear language. Describing her journey as a hymn writer and writing style, she noted: “I am,” she says, “in knitting parlance, a plain rather than purl sort of writer. I like language with crunch and bite that gives a jolt of reality” (Wootton, 2010, 297). Her hymns abound with short, one-syllable words, often jarring words, such as “gun” or “bomb,” or surprising words like “twinkle,” “spark,” “crumbs,” or “hug.” Another common element in her hymns is the use of Maori words that reflect her culture: “whenua,” “Aotearoa,” “aroha.” She writes for real people in a real place, at a real time.
Mrs. Murray’s writing reflects a lifetime of responding to the worshiping context of God’s people in New Zealand, her native land. She is a fourth-generation Kiwi of Scottish heritage, born in Invercargill in 1931. She describes her initial forays into hymn writing as an attempt to help her husband John, a Presbyterian minister, who wanted hymns that would reinforce the messages he was preaching. The available hymnbooks overflowed with hymnody that, to Shirley’s perception, had little to do with the world of their congregation. Christmastime, for instance, takes place during high summer in the far Southern Hemisphere, and many of the traditional European carols that describe snow, a chilly stable, and bleak landscapes had nothing to do with the way New Zealanders celebrate the season.
Shirley considered the language of many hymns to be sentimental, obscure, or obsolete. She had a ready testing ground for her first attempts at hymn writing – her husband and champion of her hymns, John Stewart Murray (1929–2017). He was pastor of a Presbyterian congregation at St. Andrew’s on the Terrace, Wellington, New Zealand, in the late 1970s and founder of the New Zealand Hymnbook Trust. She would offer new texts and see what stuck.
As she continued to write, wider themes opened up to her consciousness: stewardship of the earth, justice for the poor, peacemaking, equal treatment for women, care and respect for children in all places, urban problems, respect for the disabled, and the plight of refugees. She has written many hymns about Christmas and Jesus’ incarnation, drawing connections between all kinds of marginalized people and Jesus as a human being.
“Touch the Earth Lightly” (1991) is a “green” hymn written about human stewardship of creation. It draws upon Genesis 9:7–17, the passage where God establishes a covenant with Noah following the flood. This hymn expresses Murray’s typical writing style with strong, one-syllable tactile nouns and imperative verbs. The meter has the feeling of a three-beat pulse, which makes the poetry feel waltz-like. Murray frequently uses word repetition to highlight certain key themes, displaying her wordcraft beautifully.
In the first stanza of “Touch the Earth Lightly,” she touches the word “earth” lightly. The change from “earth” in lines 1 and 2 and to “world” in line 3, gently broadens the concept of God’s whole creation. The theme of this hymn is stewardship of the earth, our responsibility to what God has made. She calls creation a “gift” – the only gift that we can give to another generation.
Murray repeats the word “who” three times in the first four lines of the second stanza. “Who” are these dangerous ones she speaks of? The singers themselves. She turns this stanza into a confession and cry for help. The paradox of the third line—“agents of death for all creatures that live”—is followed by the apocalyptic image, “foster clouds of disaster.” The gentle beginning gives way to foreboding, implying that by “creating” and “endangering,” we have mistreated creation by evil intent and idiotic blundering, sins of omission and commission. The last line is a cry, a petition to God, to “forestall” or physically restrain us.
The poet offers an explanation of the title of the hymn—“Touch the earth lightly”—and a disturbing image – “clouds of disaster”: “The title line is borrowed from an Australian aboriginal saying. ‘Clouds of disaster’ for those of us who live in the Pacific refers to the continuing nuclear testing by France, against which New Zealand has protested at the United Nations for many years” (Murray, 1992, n.p.). Murray points out elsewhere that the testing of nuclear devices in the Pacific Ocean has dire consequences for many of the small Pacific Islands (Murray, 2008, 158). France’s nuclear exercises in the Pacific Ocean near New Zealand began in 1966 in the area of the Moruroa Atoll. Testing was suspended starting in 1992 during the presidency of François Mitterrand but resumed in 1996 under Jacques Chirac. In other conversations, Murray has also referenced the detonation of twenty-three nuclear devices in tests conducted by the United States between 1946 and 1958 at Bikini Atoll, an area relatively close to countries in South Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.
The third stanza is rife with alliteration: “be . . . birth; burning...blesses”; “health . . . hope”; “God’s garden.” Birth as a concept opens up many ideas and is accessible to women. Murray describes birth as coming out of burning, a cycle of life. Agriculturalists can prompt new growth by burning sections of field, forest, or farm in a controlled burn. The time during human birth when the child’s head is pushed out of the mother’s body has been called the “ring of fire.” Murray could also be referring to the slow environmental healing that occurs to radiation-poisoned environments that have been abandoned by humans, such as the Chernobyl (Ukraine) nuclear disaster in 1986.
In contrast to the evil human actions in stanza 2, stanza 3 describes blessing coming out of the water and air of the earth. The last line brings humanity back into the equation; this rebirth of the natural world will be complete only as humans act for peace toward one another.
The final stanza, a direct prayer to God, uses anaphora, a poetic device that employs repetition at the beginning of successive lines for emphasis. In this case, anaphora emphasizes that God is (“God of . . .”) the foundation of the natural created order. She follows the naming of God with an alliterative and gradually intensifying list (seed . . . snow . . . sun) of created elements from small to large, representing creation as a whole. These three words also suggest three seasons, recalling again the cycle of life (seed = spring, snow = winter, sun = summer). The second part addresses Christ, requesting actions that seem oppositional (“deflect us . . . reconnect us”) for the ultimate purpose of unity; human peace is integral to earth’s peace. Murray ties the last stanza to the first one by returning to the words “use . . . Gently,” asking the Healer to treat us as we know we should treat the earth.
Murray has said that she prefers irregular meters and unison singing. This text has been published to TENDERNESS by fellow New Zealander Colin Gibson (b. 1933). Gibson’s setting suggests that the second stanza be sung in the relative minor mode of Bb (g minor), as a reflection of the apocalyptic “clouds of disaster.” The composer returns to the major mode for the remaining stanzas, offering a refreshing musical contrast in stanza 3 on the words “Let there be greening.” Other settings include EARTHGIFT by John Carter (b. 1930); AI HU, written by Swee Hong Lim (b. 1963); REGENERATION by Jane Marshall (1924–2019); and an unnamed tune by I-to Loh (b. 1936).
For another poignant hymn by Shirley Murray on the theme of earth care, see “I Am Your Mother” (“Earth Prayer”) found in The Faith We Sing, 2059.
(Also see the History of Hymns article at https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-i-am-your-mother).
For further reading:
Colin Gibson, “Touch the Earth Lightly,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology.
Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/t/touch-the-earth-lightly (accessed September 28, 2020).
Shirley Erena Murray, In Every Corner Sing: The Hymns of Shirley Erena Murray (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Company, 1992).
_____, Touch the Earth Lightly: New Hymns Written between 2003 and 2008 (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Co., 2008).
Janet Wootton, ed., “Shirley Erena Murray,” This is OUR Song: Women’s Hymn-Writing (London: Epworth Press, 2010), 295–307.
Katie Jarrett received a Master of Sacred Music degree at Concordia Seminary (Chicago). She studied hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.