The Shimmering Is All There Is: On Nature, God, Science, and More
Texas A&M University Press, 2021. $27, 280 pages.
HAD HEATHER KOHOUT BEEN ALIVE during the Winter 2021 Texas deep freeze, which left millions with no running water or power for days, I suspect she would have written about it. The short essay would have touched on infrastructure, but it might also have drifted into other topics—climate change, big corporations, and perhaps a walk into the hills that surrounded her ranch, to see how the flora and fauna were bearing up under the cold. Her mind, a palace, simply couldn’t satisfy itself with one subject; to her, everything was related.
Texas A&M University Press posthumously published Kohout as part of their Women in Texas History series. The book features her Madroño Ranch website writings, edited and compiled by her husband, Martin Kohout, as well as a small selection of her poems. The Kohouts owned Madroño, a Center for Writing, Art, and the Environment, which was a fifteen-hundred acre ranch in Texas Hill Country, near Medina (the family sold it after she died). In the five years before Kohout’s death from cancer in 2014, she and her husband hosted a wide variety of artists, stewarded the land and raised bison, and traveled between their home in Austin, family in Colorado, and Madroño. The heat, dry dirt, wild boars, and rattlesnakes of Hill Country radiate from the pages. Interludes in other places still feel as if the Texas sun is drilling down from above.
Kohout was the daughter of a diplomat and granddaughter of a society woman and a state governor. Born to privilege, she spent her life thinking, writing and engaging with the world around her, giving back as a philanthropist, artist, teacher, and land steward. This could have made The Shimmering Is All There Is into the musings of a dilettante; it is not.
The short essays in this book range between a thousand and two thousand words, and flit effortlessly from idea to idea. Though they are the length of blog posts—one takes about ten minutes and would make good reading aloud—their subject matter bears deeper attention. Kohout is an excellent writer; musings about purple martins or dogs turn effortlessly into a treatise about sin or an investigation of human responsibility in the world. The result is not capricious but rather, as described by her son, a sustained and thoughtful “dialogue with the world, whether the world knew it or not.” That dialogue is in turns hilarious, reverent, frustrated, cajoling, and always intelligent.
Kohout’s primary preoccupation is thinking her way through the quandary of being alive (I refer to her in present tense, because the energy of her writing makes it hard to acknowledge that she left this world seven years ago). What is our relationship to the planet and its various species? How must we do better? What relation or concord can science and religion come to? Or science and environmentalism? To these questions she brings environmental writers who have asked similar questions—Wendell Berry, Catherine Mary Bateson, Emma Marris, Kathleen Dean Moore, John Muir, Bill McKibben, David Abram—and puts them in conversation with the heat and drought of Texas Hill Country, with literature (Milton, Pope, Gregory Orr), with religion, and with spirituality. Kohout read the Bible regularly in a group after church; her essays examine her own beliefs in the light of the connection she feels to place and her respect for scientific knowledge. However, the book never comes across as prescriptive. Instead, Kohout is persistent, self-deprecating and full of care for the ways in which people live various sorts of lives and endanger or tend to the world through their choices. She circles many of Texas’ contentious topics – gun ownership, ranching, hunting, politics, oil, religion, environmental management. Her charm, grace, and guileless curiosity keep the conversation and possibilities open. Part of each essay’s success is its lack of satisfaction with the answers that either science, environmentalism or religion are giving on their own.
Before Kohout’s final year of struggle with metastatic cancer of the spine and pelvis, her essays are lighter. She addresses her frustration with large corporations that threaten small farm producers like her family. She explores her love of and frustration with the various dogs she has owned, travel companions on her long walks into Texas Hill Country (Kohout’s family nickname was Deathmarch). There are dialogues with herself and with others on the concept of private property, how a community should react to climate change, and the role of beauty in the world as gratuitous and collaborative. This is not to say the essays are glib; writing of morality and beauty, she argues, “We have to love the world in order to preserve it. . . . when we know—really know—the beauty of nature, we know our own beauty and thus will be saved.” In a couple of sentences, she’s rolled together thinking on place, aesthetics, divinity, and environmental ethics. This happens all the time.
In the final third of the book, the tone deepens. Entries are more sporadic (the dates widen from once or twice a month to once or twice a season, with a six-month gap around what seems to be her terminal diagnosis). The essays and poems turn more and more to her essential topics: how to reconcile her Christian beliefs with her interest in other kinds of spirituality, and how her beliefs might clash or carry her through this unexpected turn toward death. In her poem, “Proof,” migrating monarchs unglue the “surface of reality” to expose “some thicker world beneath it,” while cicadas’ song collects, “dissolves,” and “gathers . . . to a single/pulse once more,” undoing “earth’s divide from heaven.” The essays segue from the lively “interstices that link the living and the dead,” to the Nicene Creed, which she struggles with even as she writes her own version, “. . . I believe this mostly at night, in poems and music, and when I don’t think too hard.” Again and again, she questions how to heal the world:
In a culture that so often measures itself by efficiencies of scale and measurable, predictable outcomes, I wonder if we wouldn’t be well served to seek out irregular marriages between powerful and humble enterprises, between unlikely partners like science or technology and the arts, rather than seeking to separate them, as so often happens in times of economic stress. In these unlikely partnerings perhaps we’ll see some repair of our moth-eaten world.
Kohout provides a path forward, a way to heal the divisions that mark so many parts of America: by talking, by thinking, by conversing with and offering love for everything we do and don’t understand.
Maleea Acker is a poet, environmental journalist, and geography postdoctoral fellow in Victoria, BC.