by Scott Gast
Charles Bowden has seen the future and it’s dressed in black, carrying a water jug, and walking north under mesquite trees and impossible heat. The future, in other words, is migration: As the world gets poorer, hotter, and more crowded, the drive to find luck elsewhere will become a force of nature–a crush of uprooted plants, animals, and human beings trying to survive on a planet that’s been nearly sucked dry.
Bowden, whom writer Edward Abbey has called “the best social critic and environmental journalist now working in the American Southwest,” has been walking both sides of the roiling U.S./Mexican border for decades. He’s produced stacks of books, a clutch of magazine features, and reams of newspaper articles. The Charles Bowden Reader, pulled together and edited by a few of the writer’s close friends, is a wonderful cross section of all this work today. The collection includes excerpts from books, magazines, and newspaper articles spanning his career—from his first book, Killing the Hidden Waters, which shined a damning light on the mining of groundwater in the Southwest; to 2008′s Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing, a gritty meditation on Mexican gang killings, strong coffee, and the companionship of a rattlesnake (among other things).
Bowden’s writing is at its best when he’s dealing with the border. His rhythm, voice, and turns of phrase are surprising, cutting, beautiful. Of migration, he writes:
At the moment, human beings are moving all over the planet to save their hides. Things have been upended, the moon rises at a strange hour, it is blood red, and dripping with hunger.
The kind of journalism Bowden churns out from this war zone is both brave and enveloping, his experience inseparable from the stories. It’s clear, too, that walking the streets of Ciudad Juarez—as Bowden does—with a pretense of objectivity is, well, far from easy:
I’ll be standing at a murder scene, the shooter will be feeding on a fresh corpse, and as I make notes I can hear the gang kids murmuring about me. When I look up I see very hard eyes, and I know everyone but me is packing. There is nothing to be done about this. I am like everyone else here: I simply go about my business as if death were not a few feet away disguised as some twelve- or thirteen-year-old with a gun and eyes older than I can ever hope to be.
Juarez itself is shocking: death threats to cops printed publicly in the newspapers, AK-47s pumping rounds into the middle of downtown, eviscerated bodies with notes folded in their pockets left as warnings on city plazas. The place is truly terrifying. Meanwhile, El Paso and El Norte sit calmly across a bridge, faces turned, and the global economy roars on.
North of the border, too, Bowden scratches beneath the polished surface of life in an economic powerhouse—and the stories he tells are a kind of eerie photographic negative of the hunger seething out of Juarez.
As a reporter for the Tucson Citizen, Bowden was charged with investigating the utterly black world of sexual violence, a reality of American life that, like Juarez, our culture pretends not to see. Like the human beings pouring through the desert, and the young women showing up at maquiladoras in lean dawn light, we discard these stories. They threaten our easy notions of progress; they challenge our clean moral legitimacy; they deny our independence.
The toughest and most powerful of these pieces is a long article recounting the story of Maggie, a 60-year-old hospice worker who was tied, beaten, and raped—in her own home, in the middle of the night—and survived. Bowden details Maggie’s newly vacant eyes and flat voice. She’s a person whose soul has been thrown on the floor. Here’s proof that all is not well in the global North, either.
Why dwell on such things? Why not just write a pleasing book about desert life and call it a day?
In Walden, Thoreau inked a famous quote:
I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life… to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world.
Charles Bowden is on a similar mission, and it has him standing in all the burning parts of the world, trying to parse what, exactly, is fanning the flames of rape, forced migration, slaughter in the streets, species depletion, and a warming climate. The Charles Bowden Reader lays out the results of that digging and standing and parsing, and the marrow—our marrow, it turns out—gleams with an appetite for authentic and dignified connection to the world, as well as a kind of scared, scraping desire to possess the things in it. It’s a drive that will not be bridled, he writes, but it can be twisted into both ugly and beautiful forms.
Look, he says, here’s the deal:
[The world] can only be saved by appetite and appetite of one kind is what is killing it, the appetite to possess things. And the lack of appetite of another kind, the appetite to feel things, is what is killing it.
Author Charles Bowden on the era of global migration
Scott Gast wrote this review for Human Goods. Scott is a writer and activist from Chicago, Illinois. He currently works at Orion Magazine, with previous positions at YES! Magazine and Chicago’s Waste to Profit Network. He’s intrigued by the deep and systemic questions that life on a finite planet puts into play and the bewildering way they’re all connected – from the economic to the cultural to the existential. Scott is a graduate of the Environmental Science program at Allegheny College.
Header photo by Olivier Lalin, adapted by Michelle Ney