A Clear and Just Thing

Cooper's Gap Hidden Language

Jay walks amongst the ancient trees of Rothrock State Forest to explore his, and our, relationship with wilderness.

Music: “Sunset” by Kai Engle

JAY: Charles Bowden is credited as one of the first journalists to predict that Mexico’s brutal drug wars would wash across the desert landscape and spill into America. He authored four books about Juarez, the cartels, and the human cost of the war on drugs. He also wrote books about the deserts outside of Tucson, Arizona, the Colorado Plateau, blood orchids, and coyotes.

Bowden once told a reporter from The Guardian this: “My great pleasure is to go into the wilderness, get myself lost under the big sky out there, and I’ve written books full of words trying to capture that feeling and describe that landscape.”

He thrived in liminal spaces, in both the literal and metaphorical sense. He had an uncanny ability to tell a truth that was sometimes far from pleasant. His 1998 Harper’s essay “Torch Song” asks us to question what, if anything, makes an average man different from those we define as criminals. His graphic descriptions of heinous crimes and thoughts chilled my blood but he spelunked into the darkness of the human condition with such vivid, clear prose. I couldn’t stop reading.

Bowden was a place-based writer–in fact, he was a disciple of naturalist, advocate, and writer Edward Abbey. Bowden, like his mentor, seemingly allowed nature to set his internal moral compass. And that’s why I’m thinking about him today. I’ve been wondering how the first place I ever knew—Central Pennsylvania—calibrated how I think and view these United States of America. Because, well, these United States of America don’t seem all that united at the moment.

Bowden died in 2014 but his work endures, as do several YouTube interviews. In one of those videos, he smokes unfiltered cigarettes and fiercely holds onto his coffee cup. Despite a cantankerous and blunt persona, he’s generous and honest as he answers questions about writing and living.

“Americans think they can change their life. Americans think, ‘I’ll move here and be a different person.’ Americans are on a false quest. The only voyage of discovery is to go back where you started. It isn’t to flee something. It’s to face something and comprehend it.”