Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Charles Bowden's extraordinary Blue Desert

Anyone interested in writing (or reading) creative non-fiction will be interested in Charles Bowden's Blue Desert.

Anyone interested in more than a tourist brochure of the Southwest will be interested in Charles Bowden's Blue Desert.

The book is not new. It was first published by The University of Arizona Press in 1986 but the essays are timeless. It is a collection of ten essays about bats, antelope, tortoises, fish
(specifically the Yaqui topminnow), Latinos, the opening of the Glen Canyon Dam (and the concomitant death of Glen Canyon), striking copper miners, Native Americans under pressure from a Tucson developer to lease their land, and a walk from the Mexican border through the desert to Interstate 8, the route immigrants take "for a job I would not take if offered."

Putting an essay's subject into a phrase necessarily distorts it unrecognizably. I read Bowden for the information and for his perceptions. Here is his observation of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife tracking several pronghorn antelope—for the best of reasons, to safeguard the beasts: "A kind of collision between cultures has taken place. Huge machines that fly at eighty miles per hour and drink more than seventy gallons an hour have snared an organism that has raced at fifty miles per hour for millions of years."

He writes in the first person and the present tense and is not shy about putting himself into the story. In his piece about the desert tortoise (the desert tortoise! who knew there was such a creature?), he covers a desert tortoise conference that takes place in a casino: "The women working the place are a problem also, bursting out of their britches, bending down to pour coffee and slapping my face with deep cleavage. I can think of few things more pleasurable than to sleep on the desert, watch the rabbits bounce around and then at dawn walk into a casino where time has stopped and everything always promises to be juicy."

A thread running through the book is Man's—and primarily the white man's—impact on the land, wiping out entire species either because they are a threat to commerce (like wolves) or through development. Bowden observes, "In the West, nothing done by Americans is for keeps, everything—farms, cities, towns, mines, everything—constitutes a brief raid on the dry land and then becomes tumbleweed, ghost towns, lost mines, real estate empires that go up in flim-flam, and the like."

We rip open the earth to extract the copper ore, denude the mountains of trees to fire the smelter, dump the poisonous tailings wherever, and, when the ore is gone, move on. In his piece about a copper strike in Ajo, he writes, "The copper industry is dying. The union is dying. The whole way of life based on ripping up the earth for good wages and then going home to a company house after picking up a six-pack at company store is all dying." Make no mistake; there's money to be made despoiling the earth.

The last piece in the book, "Blue," an account of Bowden's walk with a friend across the desert migrant trail, is a tour de force. "These are the rules," he writes. "Get caught and you go back to Mexico. Make it across and you get a job in the fields or backrooms. Don't make it and you die." He and Bill are pushing forty, in good physical condition (Bowden has trained for the walk as if for a marathon), carry packs with food and water. They start at the El Suguaro truck stop where they have to leave abruptly because the Mexican proprietor is about to shake them down. They walk at night, stumble, grow thirsty, are sliced by thorns on small shrubs and large trees. And yet, and yet:

"Everywhere the earth is beauty. the mountains lift sharply off the valley floor, rockpiles almost naked of plants. Beauty. The moon flashes off the stone walls. Beauty. The creosote, the much derided greasewood, stands spaced like a formal garden. Beauty. Stars crowd the sky and I can hear them buzzing with the fires of their explosive gases. I tear the wrapper from a Granola bar and crunch the grains between my teeth. I top the plastic jug up to my lips and swallow. I look on the moon. Beauty."

I am astonished that Bowden is able to record his perceptions so vividly, grateful to the friend who recommended the book to me.

No comments:

Post a Comment