* Note: Bowden’s essay originally appeared (in excerpted form) in High Country News (2014), and was published as a chapter in the book Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century (2015) by John A. Murray. It is recommended that readers listen to Ives’ first piano sonata before reading Bowden’s essay.
Charles Bowden was one of the fiercest literary voices to emerge from the American Southwest. Readers and aspiring writers alike stand to benefit from careful attention to the way he weds form to content in this essay and the qualities that lend his voice such a powerful presence on the page. The essay blew me away the first time I encountered it. It grabs me in a visceral way, sweeps me up in its discordant musicality, its painstaking questioning, its vivid, haunting imagery. It leaves me feeling as if I’ve been hit with a brick of truth, the magnitude of which I can’t quite absorb.
This was one of the last essays Bowden ever wrote and it brings his talent as a writer and voice of harsh truth into high relief. It’s about dissonance, about the impossible predicament we’re in as a species on this planet, and about the search for meaning and beauty in the midst of so much noise and chaos.
In just under 2,000 words, Bowden crafts an essay with rhythmic language and form that mimic Charles Ives’ first piano sonata. His powerful metaphors draw connections between the human and natural world, revealing Bowden’s complex questions and insights about the moral dilemma facing us as individuals, as a nation, and as a species.
Dissonance refers to a lack of harmony among musical notes, a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious elements. On a thematic level, the notion of dissonance is integral to Bowden’s essay; he invites the reader on a journey through the Southwest landscape and his own mind as he struggles to make sense of two conflicting desires: to help immigrants along the Mexico border, and to protect the wildlife and natural habitat that suffer from a swelling human population. Bowden realizes that he can’t do both at once, but like a wolf trapped in a snare, he wrestles with how to escape this predicament.
In the essay’s opening lines, Bowden confesses that he’s decided to give American composer Charles Ives a second chance. Despite the fact that “for years, I heard nothing but noise,” he wants to know whether he still disagrees with his friend Ed Abbey, who saw brilliance in Ives’ music. This is an important rhetorical move to set up the essay, because as readers we, too, are suddenly keen on discovering whether there’s something worth hearing.
Bowden goes on to discuss an essay of Abbey’s that “begins with a roar” and “gets louder, railing against all immigration and its contribution to overpopulation.” Bowden says, “Ives blasts in my head, and I can hear Ed’s voice chastising me.” By setting up these comparisons at the beginning, the reader understands that Bowden is searching for meaning in Ives’ music, and that in doing so, he’s also examining whether he agrees with Ed Abbey, whose stance on immigration was based on what Bowden calls “an argument without a heart.”
Like Ives’ music, Bowden’s essay opens slowly and softly, in a quiet voice, and roots us in scene near the Sonora/Arizona border, a place of human migration and drug trafficking for “the drugs humans need to face their dread.” He establishes a tone of despair, and he’s introspective as he wanders along the creek, armed with ‘binoculars and a bird book.” Yet Bowden’s voice — and the essay — grow steadily louder and more desperate throughout the piece. We hear Ives’ music and Abbey’s voice blast in Bowden’s head as he wrestles with the fact that when it comes to human migration, drug trafficking and trying to protect grizzly bears or beleaguered wolves, “things are not simple.”
Three quarters of the way through, Bowden’s essay erupts into a chaotic crescendo, in the section that begins “I am crazed about cranes.” The rhythm changes as Bowden’s tone and syntax become increasingly urgent, almost panicked, in the lines describing the inevitable knock on his door:
The wingbeats, Ives, I think, Ed, you were on to something with this Ives stuff, and the cranes beat overhead, and there is a knock at the door, and this is not heaven’s door, no, this is my door and a poor face looks at me with hunger eyes and my God there is no room in the house and I look past the face at a battered land, the ground on fire, the streams boiling, the sky black with dread, birds falling dead from the heavens and I should say no.
At this point, Bowden’s voice is blasting in the reader’s head. His sentences grow long and chaotic, mimicking Ives’ “hard low notes” that clang and a sound that “flows but halts and then leaps, marches then ambles.” This creates a heightened emotional experience for the reader, who can hear and feel the discordant notes of Ives’ music and the brimming urgency of the questions Bowden grapples with.
After the crescendo, the calm arrives. In the first lines of the next section, music lingers in Bowden’s mind and “the door is open, a summer breeze rustles the cottonwoods, the ash, the sycamores along the creek.” It’s a serene, quiet moment where beauty sneaks in: “Then, amidst the clatter of the sonata, I hear the quiet and watch a full-grown bobcat stroll past the French doors as if nothing exists save his beauty.” Bowden’s essay — his coda — falls to a fading note, with Bowden standing in a valley near the border, remembering the region’s last wolf run and lamenting that “everything I need and love is now an outlaw.”
There’s a sense of vanishing, of disappearance, of a desperate last attempt to save what’s worth saving. In the essay’s final lines, this is precisely what Bowden tries to do, against all rational argument and reasoning. With Ives still banging away at the piano in the background, Bowden confesses, “My God, he’s good. Ed, you were right. We gotta get Ives into the lifeboat” and of the migrant woman knocking at the door, Bowden says, “Move over, Ed, she’s climbing aboard.” It’s a definitive statement and moral stance.
As for the significance of Ives’ music in the essay, the answer takes shape for me in the following lines, where Bowden compares Ives’ piano sonata to sandhill cranes passing overhead — “a measured thing against eternity.” The sonata and the cranes — which have the oldest fossil history of any bird — represent a contrast to the ephemeral quality of human life. Ives music is “a noise that becomes notes and then somehow becomes beauty with warring chords banging against each other, old hymns erupting and vanishing again” and what emerges is a pattern delineating human civilization on the earth as if from a birds eye view. We’re in the eruption phase, Bowden would argue, with the world’s population spinning wildly out of control, and the result is a discordant mess. Ives’ music embodies the reality of discordance, of harsh truths, of beauty and death, all at once. There is no justice for the wolf or the Mexican girl.
Music relies upon measured pace and rhythm — like good writing, like sustainable population growth. Ives and Bowden seek meaning and beauty in dissonance, but the lingering question we’re left with as readers is whether there’s any hope to be had for a dissonant world. Even Bowden himself, who devoted his life to writing, admits, “Look into the eyes of a frightened Mexican girl in the desert trying to reach her people in some small town in America and all the clever words fall into the dust.” Bowden forces his reader to consider the role of words and writing. It’s important to note that the essay ends not with a thought or a lasting image, but a concrete action: “Move over, Ed, she’s climbing aboard.”
Eerily enough, after writing an essay that concludes with a rhetorical move acknowledging the possibility that the lifeboat he’s on may sink, Bowden himself passed away.
Bowden brought dissonance and uncomfortable truths to the page. It seems only fitting that he chose to frame this essay with a piece of music that many, including Bowden at first, cringe upon hearing. Why do we listen to music? Often, it’s to escape or indulge in pleasant sounds. Music makes us feel good. We tend to ignore what we don’t like or want to hear. The same might be said, at times, about writing. It’s no wonder Ed Abbey and Charles Bowden, two writers committed to bringing their raw, abrasive voices to bear upon American society, found beauty and brilliance in Ives’ clanging, clattering sounds.
Like Ives’ piano sonatas, Bowden’s essay will haunt me for some time to come.
Megan McInerney is a writer and educator currently living in Missoula, Montana, where she is pursuing an M.S. in Environmental Studies. She holds a B.A. from Reed College and an M.A. in Literature from the Bread Loaf School of English. Her work has also appeared in Camas: The Nature of the West and Flyway Journal of Writing & Environment.