Next to myths about the Alamo or the cowboy, the proud self-image of the jeans is tied to tales of white settlers who conquer a hard, stubborn land, break it like a horse, and make it productive for the enrichment of a few, by plowing. , drilling platform, and the excavator. That narrative still dominates the psyche of Texas, bringing together a very different and more venerable Texan tradition: one of deep reverence for the land, its flora and fauna.
In that sense it is The glow is everything: about 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 deep love for Texas Hill Country, where she lived on the 1,500-acre Madroño Ranch with her husband, 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, the place of humanity within it and Kohout’s sense of God’s presence in nature. At its best — and there are many — Kohout’s work achieves the richness of expression and vision found in the natural writing of Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Aldo Leopold, and Bill McKibben.
The essays cover a wide range of topics, from wild pigs to ancient Christian monks to issues related to corporate personality, even a meditation on manure. The lyrical vivacity of Kohout’s writing draws readers to their own deep communion with the natural world. “The copper and golden grasses of the pastures in front of the house blaze when the sun falls behind the western hills, each bud seemingly sharp enough to pierce the chests of the bison that passes by,” he writes. Passages as vibrant and evocative are reminiscent of Texas natural writing classics as that of John Graves Goodbye to a river or Roy Bedichek Country Karánkaway.
Like Graves and Bedichek, Kohout faces the brutality of nature and its beauty. In a particularly poignant excerpt, she writes that the cancer that would later take her life is part of it like coyotes, wolves and other predators that are part of the Hill Country ecosystem.
Despite being a faithful Episcopalian, Kohout is not shy when it comes to calling the Christian tradition when it deviates. For example, he criticizes the “powerful tide” of Christianity that draws its followers into spiritual concerns (such as the soul and heaven) and away from the natural world. And he does not hesitate to denounce the hypocrisy of politicians who carry their Christianity up their sleeves, but apparently ignore the gospel — as in an essay on an August 2011 prayer rally where he dresses as then-governor of Texas, Rick Perry, to pray for leaders who cannot see the light in the dark, without acknowledging that he could share this problem. By contrast, Kohout struggles openly with his own moral issues, as in two essays, written two years apart, on the ethics of meat consumption. As a meat eater, he writes, however, that by inciting the “suffering of animals and ecosystems to feed us, we reduce our own humanity.”
I like Dillard i McKibben, or to theologians Rosemary Radford Reuther i Sallie McFague (and, for what it’s worth, that reviewer), Kohout rejects the tendency of Western Christianity to radically separate God and humanity from nature. Finding the image of God in nature, he writes, compels us to “love this image with the same perseverance and self-discipline that are required to love our irritating human fellow human beings.” In fact, the survival of our planet depends on it: “We must love the world to preserve it.”
Kohout wrote those words a decade ago, but they have never been so timely. In their beloved Hill Country and elsewhere in the state, oil and gas companies and real estate developers are running on nature in the name of profit and “progress.” Billionaire energy company Kinder Morgan uses eminent domain to run a pipeline through a virgin section of the Texas Hill Country; Opponents say the project threatens not only endangered wildlife habitat, but also rivers and streams in the area. In the Permian Basin, light pollution from oil drilling operations has become a concern for the state’s famous McDonald Observatory. And in my hometown, Fort Worth, a real estate developer has scattered acres of lush old Timber Cross forests to make way for residential development.
The news is not bad: the last few decades have seen an increase in religious movements such as this ecotheology i ecofeminist theology, which rethinks traditional religious beliefs about nature in the same way that Kohout does, as well as secular movements such as deep ecology. Tragically, however, these movements have not caused many blows in the pursuit of humanity’s “progress” at the expense of environmental destruction. As our collective assault on the natural world continues, Kohout’s work provides a much-needed corrector.
Brilliant it is not a perfect book. At some points, Kohout’s prose seems a bit contrived. While it can be a lot of fun, some humor attempts are likely to work better as family jokes rather than for a general audience. And some selections, such as “Reflections of Lent” or his poem “What He Knew,” about the mystic Julia of Norwich, may appeal primarily to those of the Christian liturgical tradition.
Still, like Annie Dillard he writes“What is important is the moment to open a life and feel it touch … this mottled mineral sphere, our current world,” then Brilliant it is certainly an important book. Her often eloquent and yes, brilliant prose reveals the opening of a woman’s life to this hard, heavenly land that is our home.