Alongside myths about the Alamo or the cowboy, Texans’ proud self-image is bound up with tales of white settlers conquering a hard and stubborn land, breaking it like a horse, and making it productive to the enrichment of a few, by means of the plow, the drilling rig, and the bulldozer. That narrative still dominates the Texas psyche, crowding out a very different and more venerable Texas tradition: one of deep reverence for the land, its flora, and its fauna.
In that vein is The Shimmering Is All There Is: On Nature, God, Science, and More, by Texas activist and author Heather Catto Kohout, who died in 2014. Her poems and essays are animated by her profound love for the Texas Hill Country, where she lived on the 1,500-acre Madroño Ranch with her spouse, Martin Donell Kohout, who edited this posthumous collection. The latest addition to Texas A&M University Press’ Women in Texas History Series, the book, published on August 10, focuses on the natural world, humanity’s place within it, and Kohout’s sense of the presence of God in nature. In its best moments—and there are many—Kohout’s work attains the richness of expression and insight found in the nature writing of Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Aldo Leopold, and Bill McKibben.
The essays cover a wide range of topics, from feral hogs to ancient Christian monks to the problems with corporate personhood—even a meditation on manure. The lyrical vividness of Kohout’s writing draws readers into her own deep communion with the natural world. “The copper and golden grasses of the pasture in front of the house blaze as the sun drops behind the western hills, each shoot seemingly sharp enough to pierce the chests of the bison passing across it,” she writes. Such vibrant and evocative passages bring to mind classics of Texas nature writing like John Graves’ Goodbye to a River or Roy Bedichek’s Karánkaway Country.
Like Graves and Bedichek, Kohout confronts nature’s brutality as well as its beauty. In one particularly poignant passage, she writes that the cancer that would later take her life is as much a part of her as coyotes, wolves, and other predators are integral to the Hill Country ecosystem.
Though a faithful Episcopalian, Kohout is not shy about calling out the Christian tradition when it goes astray. For instance, she criticizes the “powerful riptide” within Christianity that pulls its followers toward spiritual concerns (like the soul and heaven) and away from the natural world. And she doesn’t hesitate to denounce the hypocrisy of politicians who wear their Christianity on their sleeve but apparently ignore the gospel—as in an essay on an August 2011 prayer rally where she dresses down then-Texas Governor Rick Perry for praying for leaders who can’t see the light in the darkness, without acknowledging he might share that problem. By contrast, Kohout openly wrestles with her own moral issues, as in two essays, written two years apart, on the ethics of eating meat. A meat eater herself, she nonetheless writes that by abetting “the suffering of animals and ecosystems to feed ourselves, we whittle away at our own humanness.”
Like Dillard and McKibben, or theologians like Rosemary Radford Reuther and Sallie McFague (and, for what it’s worth, this reviewer), Kohout rejects Western Christianity’s tendency to radically separate God and humanity from nature. Finding God’s image in nature, she writes, obliges us “to love that image with the same constancy and self-discipline required to love our irritating fellow humans.” Indeed, the survival of our planet depends on it: “We have to love the world in order to preserve it.”
Kohout wrote those words a decade ago, yet they’ve never been more timely. In her beloved Hill Country and elsewhere in the state, oil and gas companies and real estate developers run roughshod over nature in the name of profit and “progress.” Multi-billion dollar energy company Kinder Morgan is using eminent domain to run an oil pipeline through a pristine section of the Texas Hill Country; opponents say the project threatens not only endangered wildlife habitat, but also the area’s streams and rivers. In the Permian Basin, light pollution from oil drilling operations has become a concern for the state’s famed McDonald Observatory. And in my hometown of Fort Worth, a real estate developer has bulldozed acres of lush old-growth Cross Timbers woodland to make way for a residential development.
The news isn’t all bad: Recent decades have seen the rise of religious movements such as ecotheology and ecofeminist theology, which rethink traditional religious beliefs about nature in much the way Kohout does, as well as secular movements such as deep ecology. Tragically, however, these movements haven’t made much of a dent in humanity’s headlong pursuit of “progress” at the cost of environmental destruction. As our collective assault on the natural world continues, Kohout’s work offers a much-needed corrective.
Shimmering isn’t a perfect book. In a few spots, Kohout’s prose seems a bit contrived. While she can be quite funny, some attempts at humor likely work better as family inside jokes rather than for a general audience. And a few selections, such as “Lenten Reflections,” or her poem “What She Knew,” about mystic Julian of Norwich, may appeal mainly to those within the Christian liturgical tradition.
Yet if, as Annie Dillard writes, “What is important is the moment of opening a life and feeling it touch…this speckled mineral sphere, our present world,” then Shimmering is surely an important book. Her often eloquent and yes, shimmering, prose reveals the opening of one woman’s life to this hard and heavenly land that is our home.