BLUES FOR CANNIBALS: THE NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND
by Charles Bowden
North Point Press
February 2002, 293 pages, $24.00(US)
PopMatters Film and Book Critic
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As the state of our planet grows ever more dire, it is hard to imagine that an individual addressing environmental issues could adopt anything but an immoderate voice. When our chump in chief fails to believe that global warming is something more serious than a researcher’s flight of fancy or treats the exploitation of the Arctic Preserve as one more glutinous trip to the petrochemical smorgasbord, one cannot reasonably think of any attitude other than rage. The average citizen, however, finds that sentiment hard to assimilate, as righteous furor reminds them of the rants of the Unabomber or the monkey wrenching acts of sabotage inspired by the writings of the late Edward Abbey.
How is one, therefore, supposed to make sense of the latest person driven by uncontrollable rancor to cross the front page of our consciousness, the Wisconsin bred college Senior Lucas J. Heider, who bombed planted 18 pipe bombs in five states, injuring six people in the process? Roommates and home town acquaintances speak of his rambling diatribes about religion, the government and the environment, yet some tripwire in his cortex led Heider to choose his targets in a pattern that, so the latest reports read, amounts to a cross-country smiley face. Go figure.
If rants and rhapsodies about the extermination of our species are difficult to assimilate as part of our public discourse, they are even more dubious as reading material. Few but the most hardcore kept a copy of the Unabomber’s manifesto on their bookshelf, and rereading the works of even a skilled ideologue like Abbey can be a numbing experience. Most of us, I imagine, prefer to watch the images of a landscape we don’t expect to do anything more than decay during the course of our lifetime in the form of National Geographic travelogues. Unless we choose to be militant in our defense of the preciousness of the planet, it is almost reflexive to adopt an elegiac mode about our surroundings. Watch the beauty as it flees.
The extensive body of work by Charles Bowden about the desert habitat of the American Southwest is particularly noteworthy in this context. Not only for the skill with which he uses language but also the ardor he possesses for a landscape in peril from the attrition of its natural resources and the devastation wrought by those he mocks as “cementheads.” Bowden was born in Chicago, started an academic career as a historian, but then ditched the cloistered life to work as a journalist and freelancer. He has resided in Tuscon, Arizona and part-time in Mexico ever since.
His credits reach back over a more than twenty-five year stretch, starting with a footnote-laden study of the Papago tribe of Arizona, masters at coexisting with an arid climate [ Killing the Hidden Waters (University of Texas Press, 1977)]. Bowden celebrates the Papago for their skill in adapting to one of the most uncompromising stretches of North America, bordered on one side by the Gulf of California and on the other by the San Pedro River. These hardy individuals never allowed their population to exceed the available resources. They comprehended that “these facts of water and deserts form a touchstone that must constantly be referred to - not because they change, but because they never change.”
Perhaps the most academic and least overtly personal works by Bowden, Killing the Hidden Waters nonetheless remains a template for the rest of his body of writing in that the Papago adapted themselves to their surrounding in a way few others have managed then or since. They engaged in an agricultural practice called akchin: no fertilizer, no pumped groundwater, no insecticide, no herbicide. “Because nature was not regular,” Bowden states, “the ways of man had to be. The desert of change, surprise, uncertainty produced very steady humans.”
The Papago made all decisions by consensus, developed resilient bodies through hard work and discipline, passed down a spare tradition of endurance to their young, and realized that when risk was the only constant, one must share and not hoard limited resources. The influx of Spanish missionaries in the 18th century devastated this balanced ecosystem, and the Papago were consigned to memory and the annals of history. From them, and their home place, we learn, Bowden concludes, “the Sonoran desert was an enormous casino where a man could get an edge, but never savor control. Power came from toil and could only be stored in other human beings.” Instead, we treat the land as a crap shoot and keep on pitching, no matter how many times we come up short.
Together with Lew Kreinberg, Bowden subsequently brought out an analysis of the complications of urban existence: Street Signs Chicago. Neighborhood and Other Illusions of Big City Life (Chicago Review Press, 1981). There he writes about how we engage in self-deception if we conceive of cities as simply the sum of their citizenry, for “to understand cities it is also necessary to think of them as abstractions - economies, demographies, and ecologies. Besides being the place people live, they are the place where resources congregate and energy is devoured.” Urban life, Bowden and Kreinberg assert, operates on the basis of four unequivocal principles:
Cities are not about neighborhoods.
The city that worked is losing the work.
The city forgets.
We are redesigning a city for a set of
appetites that are doomed.
It is the gnawing of that unappeasable hunger that has preoccupied Bowden in all his work ever since. One of the most fascinating and prescient elements in his writing results from Bowden’s inability to separate his desires, both for good and ill, from those of his fellow citizens. He may castigate them as “cementheads,” but Bowden recognizes their thick natures are laced with the sediment of hopes and wishes for something, anything, that might fill the vacancy they feel erode their very souls. The body of works Bowden published through the course of the 1980s— Blue Desert (University of Arizona Press, 1986), Frog Mountain Blues (University of Arizona Press, 1987), Mezcal (University of Arizona Press, 1988) and Red Line (Norton, 1989) - delineate how he acts as a “student of hunger,” drawing lessons from the how “we share the blackness, the silence, and the hunger, the grinding appetite in our gut that says that there is always something better ahead, a reason to move on and taste new ground.” Each of us, he believes, remains on the prowl, “trolling for something solid, a place where all the fornication, digestion, defecation, and sunrises keep adding up.”
Not separating himself from the follies about him, Bowden rarely engages in the kind of unappealing conceit that many in the environmental movement, for all their good intentions, fall prey to. He realizes that righteous rhetoric can become a club to pummel others into ideological submission. Even the worst developer, someone for whom preservation amounts to a left-wing fantasy, possesses a drive and passion that, however misguided, Bowden has to admire. The appeals made by the morally superior fail to reach him.
These are the words I mouth: conservation, ecology, wilderness areas, national parks, endangered species, diversity, ecosystems, biome, biosphere. I approve. Yes, yes. I’ll sign your petition, write the congressman maybe, join the organization.
But these matters are a kind of polite conversation in a clean, well-appointed room. The chairs are comfortable but the air lacks scent and things feel dull to the touch. These things do not move me and do not bring me to the mountain.
Little about life, Bowden believes, is clean, well-appointed or neat. Little about himself is either. Therefore, while he has one eye on the red desert, the other remains fixed to the red line of human excess as he, and we, charge down the highway of our hormones, hyped on power and passion. Bowden assumes, “another part of me feeds off the fact that I am a fool for my time and place in the history of this planet. The world is crackling with energy - electrical, nuclear, fossil - and with booze, drugs, and tires screaming around dark curves, and I am drawn to this thunder.”
The pages of Bowden’s books detail therefore not only the dissolution of our species, but also his own attraction to, and damage by, drugs, sexual desire, money, and fame. At times, this rhetoric echoes the kind of knee-jerk fantasies of the counter-culture: the path to wisdom is paved with excess. However, the lucidity of his language and the skill with which he marshals details, both public and personal, into deftly interwoven patterns amazes me time and again. Even when Bowden succumbs to the urge to rant, he never debases his anger into rhetoric. If nothing else, the concrete existence of the desert compels him to remain connected to bedrock principles and inescapable realities.
I lost track of Bowden’s work in the 1990s, following the release of Desierto. Memories of the Future (Norton, 1991). In it, he continues to trace his desire “to locate some kind of heartbeat beneath the modern world I live in.” Ample as the volume is with the virtues of his earlier work, one felt Bowden not so much tiring of the indignities man commits upon one another and the earth, but aware more and more of how dire our circumstances have become. The theme of death and extinction began to play an increasing role in his prose, and the solace to be found in the desert seemed to start to pale in the face of what surrounds it. “All space is now temporary as the vise grip of our appetites tightens against it,” he asserts. He introduced the figure of the renegade financier, Charles Keating, in this volume, the fervent crusader against pornography who raped the nation of billions in the financial scandals of the early 1990s. Bowden cannot feel superior to this scoundrel, yet he admits how “those huge hard plates we call cultures are grinding me up into a very fine dust. I wince from the pain and then look into the mirror and see my real shame - I love both of the cultures that are slaughtering my dreams.”
His attraction even to Keating’s rapaciousness led to co-writing Trust Me: Charles Keating and the Missing Billions with Michael Binstein (Random House, 1993), and there I lost him for a while. The recent publication of Blues For Cannibals. Notes From Underground and republication of his previous full-length work Blood Orchid. An Unnatural History of America (1995) happily brought Bowden back upon my radar. Little about his ardor or aptitude for impeccably constructed prose has faltered in the interim. If anything, the work has grown richer in its command of an almost sermonic rhetoric, one that combines the passion of a rant with the specificity of a government report.
In both books, Bowden continues to examine the intertwining of beauty and decay, yet the latter seems increasing to predominate. Much of these two volumes is turned over to elegies for lost friends and companions, the winding down of lives lost to cancer or brought short at the edge of maturity by suicide. The ability to find balance, to allow the appetites that once fascinated him to compensate for the tragedy about him grows more and more dim. In Blues For Cannibals , he mourns,
There is something missing, some vivid touch that the cool computer screens we now all stare into at work and at home cannot deliver. The last common feeling we have left is depression, and it is so common, we only notice it when we cannot bear any longer to go on. We can grow hair on our heads and stuff new breasts in our chests and suck fat from our hides but we cannot seem to paste a smile on our faces. We are not the people who will die of laughter.
This passage should not dissuade people from the volume, or any of Bowden’s work for that matter. These two additions to his considerable achievement furthermore help to elucidate the origins of Bowden’s perspective on life. He explains how his early experience as a newspaperman covering sex crimes peeled away the curtain from the upbeat boosterism of the developing Southwest. “In the core of our being live impulses, and these impulses are not all bright and not all comfortable as an old shoe.” Many of those impulses reek of the sweat, spit and semen expelled in the course of abusing those weaker than ourselves. Similar impulses drive the heinous crimes committed by individuals engaged in drug trafficking in his alternate home of Mexico. The butchered bodies dumped in the streets are not any easier to assimilate than the women who torture themselves to death when faced with poverty or physical abuse. Little can protect us from harm, whether we are poor graced with plenty. Bowden remarks, “There is a floor under modern live, and this floor is hard, and more and more people fall and hit it and this thud, thud, thud is denied or ignored. Or never happens. The floor has been removed, placed so distantly that no one can hear the thud.”
Bowden hears every beat of that disturbing rhythm, and captures the impact of each thud upon his resonating consciousness in both these volumes. Balancing that horror remains the bounty of nature and the wonder of friendship, food and the fount of memory. If the earth continues to be abused, Bowden refuses not to appreciate its remaining glory. The trees he plants about his home or the food he cooks permit him to treat the environment not as booty to be ravaged but the source of some of the chance moments of rapture life affords us. Some may feel that Bowden’s rhetoric is all too familiar. A reviewer in Salon dismissed Blues For Cannibals as engaging in the worn-out assumption that “a vein of depraved authenticity throbs beneath an anodyne surface that only rubes mistake for reality.” For me, Bowden’s work amounts to something more cogent and commanding that what this reviewer dismisses as a “fever-gush” of hackneyed sentiments.
The balanced appreciation of our appetites that has consumed Charles Bowden for over twenty-five years has become an increasingly demanding enterprise. In both these works, his equilibrium may be at risk, but his assurance with words and command of thematic articulation remains compelling and commendable. At the conclusion of Blood Orchid , Bowden assesses what he has learned from casting a steady eye upon dissolution.
That the land is good, bad, and indifferent, but this never matters because it is all we have or ever can have. That people vary except in one fact - they are all coming out of an illness now, a fevered delirium that almost killed us and everything around us. That I am a coward and must learn to be brave. That I am cold and diminished and must learn to be warm and larger. That we have lost the war and for this fact must be grateful.
And so must we, too, be grateful for Charles Bowden’s continuing communiqués from that battle zone, for few other writers I know can depict the casualties that mount about us without abandoning a belief that there is evidence of our humanity even amongst the carnage.