is a Tucson journalist whose work appears regularly in such national publications as Harper's
, and GQ
. A friend of the late Edward Abbey
, Bowden has written over eleven books of nonfiction, including Blood Orchid
and Blues for Cannibals
. Winner of the 1996 Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction and an outspoken advocate for the American desert since the 1970s, he writes about life in America in loose, winding narratives held together with an intense drive to understand the roots of evil and despair, often as seen through the lives of Southwestern drug traffickers, edge-dwellers, and land developers. While his recent books have garnered him more recognition than his earlier books, it's the early ones that I've read, so I'll focus on those.
The book he initially became known for is Killing the Hidden Waters. First published in 1977, this is Bowden's classic study of water's use and misuse, and what can be considered his first effort to awaken people to the costs and limits of using natural resources. Told in clean, compelling prose, Bowden's thesis is that resource problems are cultural problems whose solutions also lie in the larger culture, and the book drives home the point that years of droughts, rationing, and even water wars have done nothing to slake the insatiable consumption of water in the American West. Killing the Hidden Waters remains, in Edward Abbey's words, "the best all-around summary I've read yet, anywhere, of how our greed-driven, ever-expanding urban-industrial empire is consuming, wasting, poisoning, and destroying not only the resource basis of its own existence, but also the vital, sustaining basis of life everywhere."
Now presented in a new edition, Bowden writes that he thought the book would provide a harsh physical lesson that would lead Americans to understand the merits of conserving water, fossil fuels, minerals, and all our resources: "I did not foresee a world where my own culture...would cheerfully pay the price of a 1977 house simply for a car as the new millennium creaks along."
Another early book that captured readers' and critics' attention is the loosly linked essay collection Blue Desert. Here Bowden presents a view of the Southwest that seeks to measure how rapid growth has taken its toll on the land. Writing with a reporter's objectivity and a desert rat's passion, Bowden takes us into the streets as well as the desert to depict not a fragile environment but the unavoidable reality of abuse, exploitation, and human cruelty. Blue Desert shows us the Sunbelt's darker side as it has developed in recent times and defies us to ignore it. As Bowden says in the forward, much of this books material came from his three-year stint at the Tucson Citizen, an afternoon daily newspaper, where some of the material appeared in a different form.
Inferno, Bowden's photo-essay book, was written as an antibiotic during the time he was lobbying the government to create the Sonoran Desert National Monument, and it repudiates both the propaganda and lyricism of contemporary nature writing. In this deeply personal book, he brings the Sonoran Desert alive, not as a place where well-meaning people can go to enjoy nature, but as a raw reality that defies bureaucratic and even literary attempts to define it, a land that can only be experienced through the senses. Bowden persuades us that we need these places not to remember our better selves or our natural selves or our spiritual selves. We need these places to taste what we fear and devour what we are. We need these places to be animals because unless we are animals we are nothing at all.
Red Line, published in 1989, portrays the arid Southwest in a Kerouac-esque odyssey, betokening the death of the American frontier spirit in a landscape of broken dreams, violence, uprooted lives, and fallen idols. When Nacho, a brutal drug dealer and hitman, is murdered in Tucson, Bowden, joined by a retired narcotics cop, wanders the US-Mexico border in search of the forces that created Nacho ? forces that lie in the poverty and desperation of the border region. We meet real estate developers, sullen Indians, assorted castoffs, a Vietnam vet, a rogue archeologist, and, through historical flashbacks, gold-crazed '49ers. Miles distant from tourist-poster images of the Sunbelt, this vista of narrow greed, diminished expectations, and ecological despoliation sizzles with the harsh, unrelenting glare of a hyperrealist painting. Bowden's obsessive, detective-like quest seems at least partly an evasion of personal problems ? he'd just fathered a baby out of wedlock ? and he incorporates his own trials and fears into the reporting of Southwestern places and persons. If you're looking for a start, middle, and end, Red Line is not the book for you. This is a voyeur's ride-along where the journey is more important than any conclusions. And it's a dark, harrowing ride.
In his next book, Desierto: Memories of the Future, Bowden probes the spiritual decadence of those arid lands that knife into Mexico from southern Arizona, the desierto. What Bowden shows is a harsh land repeatedly exploited by a greedy white culture that is now ruled by drug lords and land barons. He focuses on the victims living in fearful and impoverished Sonoran villages, shifting his gaze at times to the exploiters, like Phoenix developer Charles Keating and a Tucson drug trafficker identified only as Mr. Tombstone. (Bowden's fascination with predators also informs his observations on another local kingpin, the mountain lion.) The pages brim with gore, lust, and folly. With insight and an eye for detail, he captures the simple beauty of this harsh landscape and transcends the traditional view of the desert as merely a place to survive or exploit. Although his narrative is sparse, Bowden shares his love for the region and its peoples but seems better able to accept the changes wrought by modern society as inevitable if not always desirable. Ultimately, by humanizing the complicated problems facing the region he allows the reader to decide if these developments are acceptable or inherently evil.
Lust and gore. Despoliation and greed. These are Bowden's subjects. The desert's just a backdrop.