The writer Charles Bowden died last year. In the final twenty years of his life—a period in which he wrote primarily on the horrors of the drug business in the southwest borderlands—he produced a trilogy of books, the last of which, Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing, is maybe the clearest distillation of his artistic vision. Bowden continued to work until he died, but he described this 2009 book as “the answer as best I can see it or feel it or taste it or say it” to a fundamental question that had animated all of his writing: “How can a person live a moral life in a culture of death?”
Bowden started his writing career in earnest when he made the decision to move from Chicago—where he spent the first decade of his life after being born in Joliet—back west to Tucson, where he had lived during his teenage and college years. This decision became the fundamental break in Bowden’s narrative of his life, referenced again and again in his work in mythical terms as the epochal American westering:
I want to walk across a bridge to a place where the loneliness ends, a bridge framed by trees and with a meadow beckoning on the other side and then beyond the meadow and the songs of larks is a hill and I climb the hill and go down the other side into the desert where we know ultimate matters are revealed and the snakes are everywhere.
I was receptive to this idea as someone looking for my own answers and because I was born and raised in Tucson, had moved to Chicago, and constantly wondered if a return home would get me closer to finding those answers. And I was curious about all those animals: the snakes, tortoises, dogs, cardinals, and hummingbirds that accompanied Bowden on his journey to the truth.
* * *
I remember the animals that buzzed around my life. I grew up in a house in central Tucson—far enough inside the city that we never had snakes in our yard, no tarantulas sashaying into the bathrooms. I did see those animals in the desert on the outskirts of town, but what I remember most is the activity in my backyard. Most fearful to me weren’t the black widows that clung underneath all the chairs on our porch, but the 3-4 inch long Palo Verde root borer beetles. Thick-bodied and dark brown, they would trundle awkwardly, long-antenna first, out of holes in the ground and take off flying, sometimes bashing into us with a clumsiness that I took for malevolent intent. At a party, we kids gathered together, tucking pants into socks and arming ourselves with tennis rackets, and tried to swat them down. I remember watching someone smash one beetle with a brick, which left a mealy gob of eggs smeared on the ground, looking like half-cooked rice.
Another time, when aphids overran several plants, my dad brought home a small burlap bag of ladybugs. My recollection is of him dumping the beetles over the bushes and the ladybugs uncooperatively rising skyward in a column, just like the bats under the concrete bridges did at sunset. Then there was my next-door neighbor Mr. Kelly who, like Bowden, was born on an Illinois farm but had found his way west. He’d call me over to the wall and find a horned lizard (we called them horny toads) in his woodpile, saying they could squirt blood out of their eyes if threatened, but I never saw it happen. Later on, my sister brought home a school project chick for us to raise, and when it grew up to be a resplendent, nasty-tempered rooster we dubbed “Fritz,” some neighbors called the cops on account of its crowing. A sheriff came to Mr. Kelly’s door first, and asked if he knew about any rooster; Mr. Kelly didn’t want to say—he liked the pastoral reminder of home.
When I came to Chicago for college, I discovered that the setting of my childhood and its animals were exotic to people. I learned to repeat the bit about getting stung by a scorpion in the city park near my house, and talk up the danger posed by the black widows. I started following the hometown news, keeping an eye out for weird animal stories, and was glad to read about the surly packs of javelinas moving farther into Tucson, hanging out in the alleys like teenagers. I loved the remarkable story of Macho B, a jaguar roaming into Arizona from Mexico, and felt indignant fury when wildlife managers killed him. All these accounts led me to believe I had made a definitive break, from a wild home to a tame city. Sure there was the mountain lion slain in Roscoe Village, but that felt—still does—like an urban legend. In this place? With all the lawns and snow, the America that looks like the America I only saw in movies growing up?
I always assumed I would return home after I finished college, but a job and friends kept me here in Chicago. I was in the position of having built up my sense of being a man of the open-space west—I’d even taken to wearing western shirts—only to turn my back on a chance to go home, to live again in the wide cradle of those mountains. This choice confused me, so I started to read. I wanted to get a handle on this wildness I felt I was lacking. I honed in on nature writers, and I found Bowden.
* * *
“Nature” is a word that Bowden actively disparages, but his books are filled with dirt, plants, woods, rivers, and oceans, and Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing teems with animals. And while he couches his move west in all the seductive mythos of going to an untamed land, the animals that make the greatest impression on him are the ones he can see from his back porch, the city creatures. He admires a pair of cardinals nesting in his yard, noting approvingly that they belong to a species flourishing and expanding its range in the human-ravaged world. He recounts how his dog came to the defense of a familiar desert tortoise when a neighbor’s pet dog attacked the poor animal. But the creature that commands Bowden’s most sustained attention is the snake. In particular he gets to know a western diamondback rattlesnake that rests on his porch during the daytime. He calls her Beulah.
The many hours Bowden spends in contemplation of and in companionship with Beulah are productive ones in his philosophical quest. He wonders about humans’ fear and hatred of these reptiles and notes that the human experience of snakes is informed largely by being bitten by them: “for thousands of years, human contact with rattlesnakes in the wild has gone like this: we collide with rattlesnakes or we have no contact with them at all. It is as if we based our entire knowledge of automobiles on head-on collisions.” From this narrow range of experience, we’ve concluded that snakes are avatars of violence, some evil incarnate. Bowden recognizes the utility of this conclusion: it creates a “strange comfort zone” in which we feel justified in our hatred of snakes and therefore righteous when we slaughter them with impunity.
This view is one small rationalization of many that together form the “culture of death” that Bowden badly wants to understand and transcend. Between the peaceful hours with Beulah and a thorough investigation into the scientific literature and field studies on snakes, he finds a more honest perspective. He learns that they spend most of their time in stillness, capable of going months between meals. That they avoid confrontation at almost all costs. Like many nature writers, Bowden finds nobility and undeniable authenticity in such animals and tries to mimic the snake’s simultaneous repose and raptness. He writes about how he “would slip into snaketime for hours, doing nothing as the snake beside me did nothing. It was not simply losing track of hours or days. It was diving deep into the moment and yet at the same time finding each moment immense and full.” Bowden isn’t a sentimental writer and doesn’t pretend to understand what it means to be a snake, nor does he accept that any scientific observation can bridge the human-reptilian gap. Snakehood is, in the end, an alien culture.
And yet Bowden can’t abide such a bloodless, resigned conclusion either. Snakes might teach stillness and patience beyond comprehension, but they are not neutral observers. They kill, procreate, and survive with an intoxicating vitality. Bowden writes, “Snakes are alert to what is out there. The smell of this world, the play of light, the sound of a faint footfall, the sky, and the sun. And certainly the moon given the hours they keep. But it is impossible to think of neurosis in a snake. They live in a great amphitheater of sensations, we live in a stale closet of concerns.” Here and elsewhere in Bowden’s work, animals serve as a barometer against which humans can measure themselves. Their heightened sensory abilities, lives spent in unbounded time, and freedom from worry and guilt throw humans’ fundamental alienation from the world into higher relief.
But having articulated what seems to be an inescapable trap, Bowden commits himself to fighting it anyway. The way to escape, he concludes, is by rejecting the rationality and exalted self-awareness that closed us off from the world and corrupted our moral lives in the first place; in other words, to become more like the creatures all around us. This decision to the leave the “closet of concerns” becomes a crucial pivot for Bowden, a metaphor for his move back west, and the impetus of his lifetime literary project. He attempted to write an account of the world conveyed through primary sensations, animal-like in its immediacy. His books became more and more elliptical and fragmented, and, by the time he wrote Some of the Dead, his words unroll in a cascade of images. Frank memories of sexual encounters are juxtaposed with quiet scenes of nesting birds; a plainspoken recitation of the damning facts of modern civilization’s resource use shares pages with the “old house, limestone in the sun, the creek, the barns, that first dog.” Bowden is a central character, and he is unembarrassed to describe his own desires for sex and violence, drawing parallels between his own life—and, to the extent that he makes himself a stand-in for all humankind, human society at large—and the procreating and death-filled world of animals. He refuses routine questions and analysis, but an argument unfolds all the same: we always already were animals. We were born as creatures, no better or worse than a snake; the culture of death is our shared fate. Bowden suggests that in admitting this fact, we’re on our way toward a clarity of vision that might not get us out of the mess we’ve created—he’s not rosy about the long term—but will at least allow us to survive without fear, to “live in the future.”
* * *
I wrestle with Bowden’s books and his conclusions. Showing the true ferocity of human hungers seems to me as sound a starting place as any for a reassessment of our moral lives, but it led him to dark places. The work he produced is a headlong chronicle of murderous drug deals, domestic violence, and sexual assault; of the destruction of the world’s creatures and old-growth ecosystems; and, notoriously, of the indulgence of his own appetites and lust for flesh. I think sometimes that his obsession with documenting the darkness of the world made him ignore the light for too long—relentless bleakness, after all, has its own allure and hazards as a “strange comfort zone,” like humans’ reassuring caricature of snakes. But for all his visceral passion, Bowden clearly calibrated the doom-and-gloom levels to address a specific target: “There is an industry peddling solutions, and these solutions insist no one must really change, except perhaps a little, and without pain. This is the source of the fear, this refusal to accept the future that is already here.”
But if his earlier work, full of apocalyptic fury, addressed itself in part to that political end, Some of the Dead marks a turning point for Bowden, the “moment when yes became more important than no.” He writes, “I am tired of counting things, tired of mounting losses in my tally book. Everything I wished to avoid has come to pass…And that is why I say yes. No has lost its value.” Bowden closes the book—and I hope, his life—singing a lullaby, with this “yes” as the refrain. It is a kind of rapture, a state of mind that weds the best of human and animal, taking Beulah the snake’s poise and sensorial virtuosity and adding the human capacity for memory and affection. Bowden sings in remembrance of all, from his departed parents to the “mammoths [that] come out of the ice with bellies full of flowers,” and in praise for the places where “the breeze comes up, the sky blue, grass green, fish jumping in the creek and the garden is big and the snakes are here and the apple orchard fronts the farm and no one fears the offer.”
* * *
I expected in reading Bowden’s work to find reasons to go home, to find someone to follow back into the wilderness. Instead, his writing showed me that, if anything, the wildness I missed is a state of mind, and that it is accessible anywhere we are. And, ironically, Bowden’s books rebuffed my open-space chauvinism: the animals—our foils, our companions, and our fellow travelers—that demonstrate wildness by example can also be found anywhere we are. Indeed, in the last few years, I’ve noticed movement in my adopted home where I didn’t before: murders of crows darkly roosting in the branches of my street; paw tracks like whispers in the snow. Just last week I was sitting in my chair reading when I looked up. A rabbit sat outside on the windowsill, leaning close to the glass for ambient heat. I hope he comes back. It’s cold out there and I’m happy to share the warmth.
Photo credits: rattlesnake (istock.com); cactus in winter (Will Gosner).