Charles Bowden, 1945-2014

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By David Rothenberg

Charles Bowden
Charles Bowden, circa 2009.
Photo courtesy Tucson Weekly.
“Imagine the problem is not physical. Imagine the problem has never been physical, that it is not biodiversity, it is not the ozone layer, it is not the greenhouse effect, the whales, the old growth forest, the loss of jobs, the crack in the ghetto, the abortions, the tongue in the mouth, the diseases stalking everywhere as love goes on unconcerned. Imagine the problem is not some syndrome of our society that can be solved by commissions or laws or a redistribution of what we call wealth. Imagine that it goes deeper, right to the core of what we call our civilization and that no one outside of ourselves can effect real change, that our civilization, our governments are sick and that we are mentally ill and spiritually dead and that all our issues and crises are symptoms of this deeper sickness….

This is how the future comes to me, how I stumble down unmapped lanes and suddenly am in front of that cathouse where she waits unloved, the face of indeterminate colors, the lips smiling and the eyes knowing far too much. I am always walking sometimes in a forest with pink amapas leaning over me and the petals carpeting the ground, sometimes in the desert with every shrub and tree and plant raking my skin with thorns. It is very quiet soft purr of a breeze, brief bursts of bird song, whirr of insects, and I hear this roar, she comes as a locomotive is flying across the ground, smoke belching, steel wheels screaming, no engineer in the cabin, and behind this engine is and endless strand of boxcars—no tramps looking out because the doors are closed—and there are no tracks, never a single length of track, this express goes its own way. It will all happen too fast for me to react, too fast for me to close my eyes, shut my ears, turn my body and I will briefly face the future. I cannot remember it and be honest because this future is unlike the pasts I like to pretend will be the future. This time the future is alive. And then it will be gone. Sometimes this happens in the night and I see the glow of the lights as it vanishes into the land. This future is palpable, and no charts of economic growth or of population growth can possibly suggest its routes or cargo. There will be no first hundred days for this future, there will be no five year plans. There will be no program. Imagine the problem is that we cannot imagine a future where we possess less but are more. Imagine the problem is a future that terrifies us because we lose our machines but gain our feet and pounding hearts.”

— from Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America, by Charles Bowden (North Point Press, 2002)


When I started my literary magazine Terra Nova in the mid-90s I used to comb the streets of Manhattan looking for ideas, forgotten yellowed paperbacks for sale by various vagrants on sidewalk tables. One day I happened to find an intriguing book, Desierto, by a writer from the Southwest I had never previously heard of, Charles Bowden. I immediately loved it, the rhapsodic, weird emotionality, the strange mix of an Ed Abbey and a William Burroughs, just over the edge but still rooted in the Earth. Since I was looking for material for my magazine, I called information and found a phone number for a Charles Bowden in Tucson, Arizona (yes, this was in those ancient days before the internet) and I just called him up and asked if he had any writing I could use in my soon-to-launch publication. “Hah!” he laughed, “you’re starting a magazine. You are the one who’s insane. I know. I’ve been there. I did it myself a few years back. Hell yes I know. I was you. I was you.”

So I took this whole interesting speech in and I said yes, I would certainly like to publish an excerpt from his upcoming book Blood Orchid, some of which you have read above, and I do think still it is his finest work, with the possible exception of that interesting essay in Harper’s from about ten years ago where Chuck started to reflect and wonder why he was so obsessed with all those young girls being murdered in the drug wars of Juarez, Mexico. “Why,” he wondered. “Why am I so interested in all this evil, all this hurt, all this despair? Why the sick fascination with all this stuff?” and then I remembered once he called me from his publisher’s office in Manhattan and I asked him, “How are you liking your trip to the bowels of the publishing world here in New York?” and he whispered to me softly, “These people are savages.” “Oh really?” I laughed. “You should know. You’re one of them. We all are.” is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.