Megan McInerney writes about Charles Bowden’s “On the Edge with Edward Abbey, Charles Ives, and the Outlaws”

* Note: Bowden’s essay originally appeared (in excerpted form, here) 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.

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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.

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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.

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1-Megan Bio Pic 2Megan 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.

Jenna London on Terry Tempest Williams’s “Refuge”

Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams braids several primary story lines to illustrate the author’s love of and affinity to nature, particularly birds, and the rising water level of the Great Salt Lake, with the narrative thread of her mother’s battle with and eventual death from cancer. Williams also illustrates the intrinsic connection the women in her life—Mormons in Utah—have with the land. Throughout the book, the author uses various elements of nature to gain personal perspective. Williams provides the reader with scientific, anthropological, biological and historical information told through strong language and vivid scenes.

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Like The Shepherd’s Life and The Nine Mile Wolves, animals are an integral part of Refuge. Williams shows her connection to wild animals without anthropomorphizing them. Instead, her scene-driven book presents birds as an essential aspect of the ecosystem as well as a source of solace and education.

Williams uses birds as a metaphor for her own life throughout Refuge, as illustrated in the following quote:

“With each breath, it threw back its head, until the breaths grew fainter and fainter. The tiny chest became still. Its eyes were half closed. The barn swallow was dead.

Suffering shows us what we are attached to—perhaps the umbilical cord between Mother and me has never been cut. Dying doesn’t cause suffering. Resistance to dying does.” (53)

Williams writes the scene in which a barn swallow dies. Next, she analyzes the act of suffering and dying. Rather than applying human tendencies to birds, Williams does the opposite. This technique empowers nature and builds on the idea that humans and birds are intrinsically connected. The above reflection occurs after a scene, making the passage more complex and meaningful. If no musing was included and the chapter had simply ended with the sparrow dying, the bird may not have represented the narrator’s mother. By adding the three sentences of meditation where she did, Williams serves to make a self–discovery and prompts deeper thinking on the part of the reader.

Primarily, nature’s role is to represent a higher power and therefore provides a source of comfort for the narrator. Williams presents the spiritual yet circular relationship she has with the birds: she prays so their presence will give her peace. But she also uses the solace to strengthen her own character by learning to listen to the world around her—human, animal and inanimate. Williams frequently demonstrates her spirituality and commitment to the Mormon faith. She does so in a manner that portrays nature as a primal and spiritual entity that is not idealized. Immediately after a passage in which Williams quotes the Mormon scripture, she writes:

“I pray to the birds.

I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the messages of my heart upward. I pray to them because I believe in their existence, the way their songs begin and end each day—the invocations and benedictions of Earth. I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.” [149]

She immortalizes birds without either anthropomorphizing them or including scientific background. Additionally, Williams pays homage to nature without romanticizing it. Isolating the reflection in this manner reveals the spiritual aspect of the author, separating her from the organized religion to which she subscribes.

Williams’ infatuation with and wealth of knowledge regarding birds is the most obvious way nature is empowered throughout Refuge. Williams is a reliable narrator as is clear from her descriptions and concise writing. In one instance, Williams begins a new section in her chapter entitled “California Gulls” with the following:

“The gulls were flying to their nesting colonies on the islands of Great Salt Lake. What they gain in remoteness…they sacrifice in food supply… Round trips are made from Hat and Gunnison Islands to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Daily. White pelicans, double-crested cormorants and great blue herons, also colony nesters, must make these same migrations to the surrounding marshes of Great Salt Lake.” [71]

Her desire to provide scientific information in a manner that the non-informed reader can enjoy and use as a learning resource is also empowering to nature. The inclusion of background intertwined with scene shows that the narrator has a relationship with nature beyond the spiritual. This aspect may make her more believable to some readers, which not only empowers nature, but also shows the realistic aspect of it.

Nature’s oppression is most strongly represented via descriptions, backgrounds and scenes about the rising lake levels and habitat destruction in and around the Great Salt Lake. The author’s father recounts the cloud that resulted from the atomic bomb testing conducted in Utah when Williams was a baby:

“I remember the day…It was an hour or so before dawn, when this explosion went off. We not only heard it, but felt it…We pulled over and suddenly, rising from the desert floor, we saw it, clearly, this golden-stemmed cloud, the mushroom. The sky seemed to vibrate with an eerie pink glow. Within a few minutes, a light ash was raining on the car.” [283]

Williams could have easily idealized or give human-qualities to the non-human in this passage, but she picks a superb moment to remove herself from the scene. She presents this life-altering moment from the point of view of someone who is not be as attached to the natural world, which emphasizes the severity of the experience. Again, Williams validates the narrator to the reader, which in some aspects empowers the environment. However, igniting chemicals in the middle of the desert to be absorbed by the atmosphere or ground is an extreme example of humans suppressing the environment. Williams subtly provides a contrast through the non-subtle event of the mushroom cloud. This technique certainly distinguishes the writing as a realistic portrayal of nature.

In Refuge, nature is regarded as a source of learning, strength, healing and peace. Williams focuses on birds to illustrate her passion for science, nature and spirituality. She describes her role in a matriarchal family and demonstrates how the women pass their belief in the land on to younger generations of girls. When an author, like Wiliams, is most committed to offering a unique perspective and deeper level of analysis of nature, the intrinsic connection between nature writing and humans become most obvious. When these aspects are either not in balance or are absent altogether, nature writing can become unbalanced and can be perceived as weak or unbelievable writing. Nevertheless, it is the presence of balanced contradictions of the environment that make for the strongest and most complex works of nature writing.

 

Editor’s Note: This completes our three-part series by Jenna London. This analysis of Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge pairs particularly well in the classroom with London’s analysis on Rick Bass’s Nine Mile Wolves here. You can read Jenna’s first piece in our nature-writing series on The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks here.

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j_london_picJenna London lives and writes in upstate New York. She is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in E the Environmental Magazine, AMC Outdoors, Berkshire Living and others under her pre-marital surname of Kochmer.