The Heavens Declare
By John A. Tvedtnes

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? (Psalm 8:3-4)

Like the psalmist, I stand in awe at the beauty of the heavens and the earth and the way in which they sustain the life of mankind and his fellow creatures. Truly “the heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Psalm 19:1), and “even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator” (Alma 30:44).

During the last few centuries, science has learned a great deal about the earth and its place in the universe. We now know the conditions that can enable us and other living things to thrive. From time to time, as I meditate and pray, I consider these conditions and thank God for them. I would like to share some of my thoughts on this matter.

The Elements

For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy; And when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy. (D&C 93:33-34)

The earth consists of all of the elements and compounds necessary to life, such as oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and others. A large percentage of the human body is comprised of water, itself made of hydrogen and oxygen. In addition to the oxygen in water, this element constitutes roughly one-fifth of the atmosphere we breathe. It is essential to the process by which the body converts sugars and fats into energy.

As we and other creatures breathe, we take in oxygen and other gases and exhale carbon dioxide (comprised of carbon and oxygen) as a waste product. Without other forces to counteract it, after eons of time this could result in the depletion of the oxygen in earth’s atmosphere. This is where plants and oceanic plankton come in. They take in carbon dioxide, use the carbon as one component of cells, and release oxygen into the atmosphere.

Even plants and animals that die contribute to life by being consumed by other creatures (ourselves included) or by leaving decomposed organic compounds that fertilize other plants. Consider how very different things would be if there were far less oxygen in the atmosphere or if there were less atmosphere. Mountainous regions such as the Andes, the Alps, and the Rockies could not support some forms of life, including humans.

The atmosphere surrounding the earth is important for more than the oxygen it provides us and the carbon dioxide it provides to plants. The size of the atmosphere is one of the factors in climate, whereby water, picked from the oceans and lakes [1] and oxygen produced in the sea by plankton can be redistributed around the globe via winds, bringing precipitation in the form of rain and snow, and sometimes sleet or hail. This, in turn, replenishes the lakes and streams on which many forms of life depend.


Climate is determined by a number of other factors, including the ratio of water to land mass, the ability of land and sea, as well as the atmosphere, to retain heat from sunlight and transfer it, [2] the coriolis effect (the rotation of the earth on its axis, which affects both water and wind currents), and the inclination of earth’s axis to the plane of the ecliptic. [3]

About two-thirds of the earth is comprised of water. Creatures of various kinds abound in the waters at all depths and on virtually all land surfaces. Some even live in the permanent ice caps at the north and south poles and in glaciers atop mountains. Even the driest deserts are home to various plants and creatures, some of which must either migrate or hibernate underground until the next rain. Some plants, rather than depending on rain, rely on water vapor known as mist or fog. The variety of plant life on the earth is due, in part, to the amount of rainfall in different regions.

The size of earth’s atmosphere is directly attributable to the earth’s gravitational pull, which holds the gases in place. Gravity, in turn, is related to the size of the globe. A smaller planet would not hold sufficient atmospheric gases, while a much larger planet would have a gravity that would crush us under our own weight. The thickness of earth’s atmosphere, coupled with the layer of ozone that surrounds the earth, is also advantageous because it screens out much of the cosmic radiation that could destroy many life forms. A thinner atmosphere would also not be warmed sufficiently by sunlight.

Earth’s magnetic field, generated by the churning action of a superheated inner core composed mostly of molten iron, causes much of the deadly solar radiation (in the solar wind) to go around the earth, with the heaviest fall to earth being at the poles. [4]

Earth’s proximity to the sun and the moon also play a role in providing an environment conducive to life. Diurnal tides are largely the result of the moon’s gravitational effect on the oceans, though solar gravity also plays a role. As the tide rises, it replenishes the water left behind in tidal pools that support various forms of life, bringing in fresh nutrients from the sea. The tides, along with the wind and water currents produce the motion that results in waves crashing on shore. This action traps air molecules in the water, replenishing the oxygen supply it needs to support sea life. Wave action at sea has the same effect.

The Forces of Nature

And every corruptible thing, both of man, or of the beasts of the field, or of the fowls of the heavens, or of the fish of the sea, that dwells upon all the face of the earth, shall be consumed; And also that of element shall melt with fervent heat; and all things shall become new, that my knowledge and glory may dwell upon all the earth. (D&C 101:24-25)

Even forces of nature that are often destructive play a role in maintaining life on our planet. For example, while thunderstorms can produce killer tornadoes, they also generate lightning, which is hot enough to fuse nitrogen to oxygen, producing nitrogen oxide, which then comes down with rain to fertilize the soil. A secondary effect of high winds, including cyclones (tornadoes over water) and hurricanes, [5] is that they pick up water from lakes and oceans to provide moisture to the atmosphere. This ultimately results in precipitation.

Volcanoes provide additional gases and molten rock (both ash-like tephra and lava) to the earth’s surface. Indeed, basalt, a black rock resulting from cooled lava, when decayed, provides some of the most fertile soil. One need only see color photos of the lush volcanic islands of Hawaii to appreciate the value of this process. Scientists got a first-hand look at how volcanoes affect life when a new island, Surtsey, was formed by an undersea volcano near Iceland in 1963. Within a few years, the island was supporting plants, insects, and sea birds. All of Iceland itself is composed of volcanic outcropping and its inhabitants trap the volcanic steam-vents to warm their homes in wintertime.

A less dramatic destructive process is erosion by both wind and water, which is the major means whereby rocks decay, producing soil in which plants can grow. In many places, diurnal temperature changes also help speed up this decay process by causing the rocks to expand when heated and contract when cooled, producing fissures into which water can work its magic. [6]

In the face of danger from lightning, heavy rains and hail, snow, floods, winds, and other phenomena of nature, the earth provides us and various creatures with shelter, in the form of caves and rocky overhangs; houses built of stone, wood, or brick; both high and low ground when needed. [7]

The Medicinal Value of Plants and Animals

But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee: Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee. Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the Lord hath wrought this? In whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind. (Job 12:7-10)

In addition to being a food source, plants and animals provide medicines used by humans to ward off disease and disability. The Book of Mormon includes a passing reference to this topic, in Alma 46:40: “And there were some who died with fevers, which at some seasons of the year were very frequent in the land-but not so much so with fevers, because of the excellent qualities of the many plants and roots which God had prepared to remove the cause of diseases, to which men were subject by the nature of the climate.”

Mankind has used herbal remedies for thousands of years. Even our modern pharmaceuticals are largely based on derivatives of plants and other organisms that heal or prepare the body’s immune system to resist disease. Take, for example, the most commonly-used medicine, aspirin, is derived from the bark of the yew tree. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the natives of Peru used an infusion of the bark of the cinchona tree to treat fever. From it comes quinine sulfate, used to lessen the symptoms of malaria. In the ancient Near East, poultices of grapes or figs were placed on wounds (cf. 2 Kings 20:7). [8] Alcohol, fermented from various plants, is still used as a disinfectant (cf. D&C 89:7). [9]

Microorganisms are frequently used to fight infections of other microscopic creatures. For example, dead forms of flu and smallpox virus can be used to inoculate against the live forms that cause disease. One of the most widespread medicines used during the 20th century was penicillin, which is a living mold such as one finds on stale bread. (Egyptian history professor Aziz Atiya believed that stale bread, which was the staple diet of early Egyptian Christian hermits, was the reason they lived up to a century, with the mold fighting off diseases.)

For the Beauty of the Earth

Another major benefit that we receive from the earth is its beauty. Consider how you feel while seated on a bed of grass, watching the clouds drift by, listening to the sound of water gently falling over rocks in a riverbed and birds singing in the trees and other creatures feeding nearby. Can anything be more relaxing? There is more to nature than the food and shelter it can provide. The beauties we perceive by the senses, especially sight and sound, overcome anxiety and fear, lowering our blood pressure and causing the brain to release the endorphins that provide a sense of well-being.

Man’s Stewardship

For it is expedient that I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures. I, the Lord, stretched out the heavens, and built the earth, my very handiwork; and all things therein are mine. (D&C 104:13-14)

In view of all the gifts that God has provided us on the earth, should we not treat our planet with the greatest respect and love? Should we not do all in our power to sustain it as it sustains us? If God observes even the fall of a sparrow (Matthew 10:29), can we be any less concerned about the welfare of his creatures? Should we not, as stewards of God’s creation, thank him for all he has given us?

Mortality is a testing-ground, a place of training where we learn to do God’s work. If we cannot take care of the earth and God’s creatures, how can we expect that he will trust us to take care of other planets? If faithfully fulfill our duties as God’s stewards, he will say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matthew 25:21).

And again, verily I say unto you, he hath given a law unto all things, by which they move in their times and their seasons; And their courses are fixed, even the courses of the heavens and the earth, which comprehend the earth and all the planets. And they give light to each other in their times and in their seasons, in their minutes, in their hours, in their days, in their weeks, in their months, in their years-all these are one year with God, but not with man. The earth rolls upon her wings, and the sun giveth his light by day, and the moon giveth her light by night, and the stars also give their light, as they roll upon their wings in their glory, in the midst of the power of God. Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms, that ye may understand? Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power. (D&C 88:42-47)

[1] The most well-known means by which surface water is lost to the atmosphere is evaporation, but there are other factors at work as well.

[2] In recent years, the American public has become aware of the El Nio and La Nina, whereby tropical waters in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America affect our own weather by means of sea water that is either warmer or colder than normal.

[3] The ecliptic is the plane along which most of the planets in our system move around the sun, making it possible to depict their orbits on a two-dimensional map.

[4] As these tiny charged particles fall into the polar regions, they produce the aurora borealis (“northern lights”) and aurora australis (“southern lights”).

[5] Pacific hurricanes are usually called typhoons.

[6] Water that freezes overnight in such fissures expands, making the fissures larger.

[7] High ground enables humans and animals to escape floods and tsunamis, while low ground is best during a lightning storm because lightning more often strikes trees, ground, and structures that have a higher profile.

[8] A number of medicinal records from the ancient Near East give formulae for the making of various remedies.

[9] D&C 89:8 informs us that “tobacco is not for the body, neither for the belly, and is not good for man, but is an herb for bruises and all sick cattle, to be used with judgment and skill.” I knew a farmer who, when one of his dogs had worms, would give it a plug of chewing tobacco, which killed the worms and left the dog healthy

2005 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.