“The future isn’t what it used to be”
–Charles Bowden (7/20/1945-8/30/2014)
By James Bishop Jr.
He savored hikes deep into the Sycamore Wilderness. He treasured the Cottonwoods along the Verde and the elk antler he once spied under some leaves off the trail in West Beaver Creek. All the while, he wrote dozens of books- from Killing the Hidden Waters to Sicario The Autobiography of a Mexican Assassins. They are powerful tomes brimming with a fierce love for Arizona and the people who have left their mark on the land, the missions, developers, sacred rock art, as well as the wild borderlands and the drug lords he wrote to expose.
“For a hundred years,” he penned in 2001”, life in this state has been a steady, humming war with the land itself. The rivers and aquifers have been quietly murdered; the desert floor scrubbed by bovines and destroying Arizona has always required stronger sons and daughters, since the work here is harder.” Some of his images stay with one forever. “We live with bones and this is not an easy way to live. Up on the Colorado Plateau, big cliff dwellings wink at us and say, with a smile, you’re next.'” He will be remembered especially for his writing about the drug wars and the culture of violence it created. He once told a friend that he was so very proud of the voices he gave to people “who didn’t have a voice”. Rumors persist that he had a price on his head and that he had to have a bodyguard and always faced back to the wall in the saloons he favored.
Some say miracles happen all the time in The Verde Valley. I am a believer. Arriving with the Arizona Republic newspapers on my Old Sedona porch some 25 years ago just when sunlight was sneaking beneath early morning clouds I stopped up short. Standing on my porch was a large man, ruggedly handsome in a windblown sort of way, dressed in worn, green cowhand shirt and a well-worn brown vest. “Names Bowden, have a beer? We need to talk. I hear you may be doing a book about Ed Abbey?”
My throat went dry! Was this heavy literary hitter up here to discourage my book idea?
On the other hand, was he just checking me out?
Neither, he came all the way from Tucson to give me a head start. To understand Ed Abbey, he told me. you need to do two things—read The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca magnificcent for its descriptions of flora and fauna he captured wandering with a handful of other half-starved Spaniards in the 1530s by some means surviving through the deserts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona. Somehow, he reached home to write about their amazing, scary discovery of what later became North America. Then he said I should read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural in which he states that citizens should go through life with “malice toward none and with charity toward all”. With that, the legendary man bade me goodbye, said he would be seeing me one of these days. We did see each other again drinking red wine in a Tucson dive and another time up at NAU. Thankfully, he did write the Epilogue for my biography of Ed Abbey, Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist.
To many businesspersons and developers, Bowden was just another goo-goo-eyed, bleeding heart tree-hugging environmentalist. Truth be told, he cannot be dismissed so easily for the young author once struck the word “environmentalist” from the dust jacket of one of his books. “Environmentalism”, he told me in a conversation long ago “is an upper-middle-class white movement aimed at absolution and preserving a lifestyle with a big Volvo.”
So if he was not an enviro then where does he come from? To be sure he was insulted by smog in the Grand Canyon and the wild desert being asphalted over. However, he goes deeper to sounding like an Andrew Jackson Democrat for whom the definition of a true patriot is one who is prepared to defend his country against his own government.
As his companion and co-editor, Molly Molloy told the Arizona Republic, “I have never known a person who could talk about almost any subject and make you want to listen all the time because he would always say something you hadn’t thought about or did not know”.
His books are like that.
“I live in a time when the imagination is dead and everything is memories,” he wrote in Desierto. “We call these memories the future.” He will be remembered because his writing enables him to join the ranks of Kentucky poet Wendell Berry and Edward Abbey. They believed that the true destroyer of the American Dream is neither the greedy politician, nor the Wall Street con man from Yale. Rather, the threat comes from a bad way of life in the culture that has developed since Word War II; the politicians we elect are merely the expression of our appetites.
In Zane Grey’s The Vanishing American, he ends this powerful work with one who was left on a darkening horizon, a melancholy figure, “unreal and strange against the dying sunset, moving on, diminishing, fading, vanishing, gone, the last of his time. The last of his kind.
So long Chuck.
Your words have tantalized me into finding out more about Charles Bowden. Thank you.