Charles Bowden, who died at 69 in 2014, wrote dozens of books, hundreds of magazine articles, and left eight manuscripts scheduled to be published over the next few years. Why has this titan of nonfiction been so overlooked by the writing establishment in the United States? Is it because his work has been difficult to characterize? Even Bowden admitted that bookstores never seemed to know where to put his books. Here in Phoenix, the Burton Barr central library consigns most of his books to the Arizona Room where they are not available for check out.
I was introduced to Bowden in a curious way. Cal Lash, a retired Phoenix police officer who had read my blog, emailed me about a book he was reading: America’s Most Alarming Writer — Essays on the Life and Work of Charles Bowden. He described it as being about his friend “Chuck.”
The book he was reading is filled with essays by Bowden’s collaborators, sources, and other writers — among them Jim Harrison, Leslie Marmon Silko, Luis Alberto Urrea. All spoke of Bowden’s unique window into the problems besetting the Southwest.
Lash knew I was on a mission to put together a reading list about the Southwest and Arizona. He offered to help, suggested that I start with Killing the Hidden Waters (1977) Bowden’s first book. A slim volume, it predates by nine years Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, which is widely considered the bible on water woes in the West.
Bowden’s approach in Killing the Hidden Waters is different than Reisner’s. (See https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2020/05/30/) He writes as an historical anthropologist, with copious references, notes and a bleak humor that belies the seriousness of the region’s disappearing water table. Bowden makes an irrefutable case for living in balance with our depleting natural resources, the most important of which is water. Where goes the groundwater, he argues, there goes the planet.
I was hooked by Bowden’s simplicity, honesty and charm; I began to think of water as “fossil fuel.” When it’s gone, we’re gone.
It made some sense for me then — a would-be historian myself — to proceed to Bowden’s second book about the West, Blue Desert (1986). In the interim between the publication of the two books, he had worked as a reporter for the now defunct Tucson Citizen, a daily newspaper. Some of the material that appears in Blue Desert, appeared in the Citizen in another form.
The copy of Blue Desert I read (2018) appears with a foreward by Francisco Cantú, whose border patrol memoir, The Line Becomes a River, was the winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award in 2018 and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award that same year.
In his introduction Cantú contrasts the way the book had appeared to him the first time he read it as a young man in his 20s to his second reading now. Certain references, such as calling the region the Sunbelt — an 1980s marketing lure of residential developers — and those we now call “illegals” as wetbacks, are now outdated. Also jarring is the occasional all-boys’ club winking by Bowden when he goes beyond simply recording women’s breasts as “spilling out of halter tops” to savoring bodies that “squirm with pleasure against the cloth.” The women in his accounts are mostly matriarchs with wills of iron, abused children or sex objects. But Blue Desert is also filled with Bowden’s self-condemnation of secret hungers. He recognizes his animal appreciation of all the senses and his own accountability in equal measures.
Organizationally, Bowden structured Blue Desert to hit all the issues facing Arizona in the 1980s — and today — down to eleven essays. Not a small feat, given the hundreds of people and stories he reported over the years he worked for the Citizen. Additionally, he couples the entries with italicized anecdotes that give readers a spooky foretaste of books that would follow. Books such as Juárez: the Laboratory of Our Future (1998); and Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder and Family (2002).
Blue Desert is divided into three parts: Beasts, Players, and Deserts. Bowden is at his most viceral in his descriptions in Part I. In “Bats,” he writes:
“My mouth chews the darkness like a thick paste. We stand in feces, hills of feces, and the grey powder slops over our running shoes and buries our ankles. . .The rock walls feel like cloth to the touch; a wilderness of fungus thrives in the warm room. We climb. The hills of feces roll like trackless dunes. .The dunes toss like waves and in between the dark mounds writhe masses of beetle larvae.”
We are stuck in a cave near two eastern Arizona mining towns, Clifton and Morenci with Bowden and Ronnie Sidner, a scientist with a special love and knowledge of bats. Here, as elsewhere, Bowden first focuses tight, then more broadly to story of bats and man, starting with the heyday of bat guano marketing in the early 1900s through the devastation caused by their swarming in the 1960s — 98 pounds of insects in a single night — to their own depletion through the application of DDT.
He spends time with E. Lendell Cockrum, a professor in the University of Arizona’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, to learn that of the 850 species of bats in the world, 24 of them live in Arizona. He/we learn that bats can fly as high as 9200 feet and at eighty miles an hour. Cockrum banded and tracked the movements of more than 88,000 bats from Arizona to Sonora to Sinaloa and back. He learned why they were dying off by examining their dead and tracking the sale of DDT in Arizona. Just like humans, the bats are mammals. They suckle their young and the chemicals are passed on through their milk.
The first section includes equally informative essays entitled Antelope, Tortoise, and Fish. Each adds a piece of the region’s history and its current prospects.
In Part II, Players, we spend time with a man named Frank Escalante in search of the burying place of a sibling who died as an infant. Escalante’s story of his family’s land-holding in Tucson and its “nibbling” loss provides a sobering look at the story behind that urban center’s hispanic forebears.
We travels with Mike Rios to visit the Agua Caliente of Palm Springs tribe to see if they could tell him any success stories from the deal they made with a developer. Everywhere he encounters abuse, exploitation and human cruelty that reveal the darker side of development in contrast to the myths of the Winning of the West. Rios is a Papago. He is convinced, as Bowden tells it, that the “Bureau of Indian Affairs in particular and whites in general have crushed Indian families with their care and meddling.”
Bowden communes with Dave Foreman of Earth First! at the twentieth anniversary of the death of Glen Canyon. And amidst the merry-making, he traces the history of the environmental movement and disses the happy bedfellows of business developer and government in the persons of Del Webb and Secretary of the Interior James Watts.
A Company Man drives Bowden around Ajo in the midst of a prolonged copper strike between the Phelps Dodge copper company and the Union. This was not new territory for me since I had read Barbara Kingsolver’s Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983. (See https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2020/04/15/) But Bowden’s quick historical thumbnail of Arizona’s mining history and the realness in his portrait of Ajo is beautiful in its simplicity.
Proceed with caution when you read Part III: Desert. In Bone, we learn how one last grisly story leads Bowden to leave his job at the newspaper and head for a desert “uncluttered by rest areas, trail signs, water fountains and short cuts.” In Black and Blue he records two long hikes with naturalist and marathoner Bill Broyles, who co-edited America’s Most Alarming Writer. In each Bowden narrates border crossings made by immigrants to the north, recreating how painful a life it would have to be to make such a journey.
Having already read The Devil’s Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea (2004), I had relived an accurate description of the real thing: a tragic crossing made by 14 Central Americans that ended in disaster. (See https://skayoliver.wordpress.com/2019/05/01/.)
Bowden’s essays are something else. Although they included details of the physical deprivations of such journeys, they focus primarily on the author’s own relationship with the desert and inner monologues about his personal struggles.
I found a few objections about the final piece, Blue. It is dominated by Bowden’s distress over the collapse of his marriage and self-recriminations about the part he played in its demise. Let me enumerate: 1. He chooses to describe his wife’s body coldly, objectively: “She has large breasts hanging from a thin body.” Her female attributes are soon to be mutilated by surgery for cancer; 2. He decides to absent himself for a story assignment the day of the surgery instead of being by her side — a morally reprehensible decision; 3. Again he provides an objective description of what he imagines the surgery will entail: “They will cut off her breast and will search her tissue to see — to see if more needs to be hacked off her body.”
He explains he will include nothing about his marriage or his wife’s surgery in the story he produces for the newspaper. (“There will be nothing about the cancer, the scalpel incising the soft white flesh topped by the faint pink nipple.”) Well, bully for you, Chuck. Enough already. Permit me here, dear reader, to cry TMI: too much information. This was an invasion of someone else’s privacy.
Bowden admits that he has no simple handle on the desert. “I haven’t got much theory on why I go to dry, empty places.” As I see it, Bowden uses the desert as a retreat from the enemy within. It’s a healthier one than climbing inside a bottle of red wine.
The problem with the desert is that no matter how vast and empty a panorama it presents, everywhere you go, there you are.