Charles Bowden has been an outspoken advocate for the desert Southwest since the 1970s. Recently his activism helped persuade the U.S. government to create the Sonoran Desert National Monument in southern Arizona. But in working for environmental preservation, Bowden refuses to be one who "outline[s] something straightforward, a manifesto with clear rules and a set of plans for others to follow." 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, that can only be experienced through the senses.
Inferno burns with Charles Bowden's passion for the desert he calls home. "I want to eat the dirt and lick the rock. Or leave the shade for the sun and feel the burning. I know I don't belong here. But this is the only place I belong," he says. His vivid descriptions, complemented by Michael Berman's acutely observed photographs of the Sonoran Desert, make readers feel the heat and smell the dryness, see the colors in earth and sky, and hear the singing of dry bones across the parched ground.
Written as "an antibiotic" during the time Bowden was lobbying the government to create the Sonoran Desert National Monument, Inferno repudiates both the propaganda and the lyricism of contemporary nature writing. Instead, it persuades us that "we need these places not to remember our better selves or our natural self or our spiritual self. 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. That is the price of being a civilized dude."
- How This Book Came to Pass
- fair warning
- strike a match
- bones singing
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They'd suddenly realized they were nothing and so had come to my ground to find a way to be something. At that time, the administration of the moment was scheduled to fall dead in two months and then become nothing but memoirs, lies, lobbyists, and lost opportunities. This is the nature of our government—the ruler can live four years or even eight years, but then he must go away and be a has-been forever.
The easy part of building a last-minute legacy is by creating national monuments with the flick of a president's pen, a kind of hastily scribbled deathbed note that says: We care.
So with a bunch of other souls, I was suddenly in cahoots with the Secretary of the Interior and various faces of the faceless bureaucracies. I wanted around five thousand square miles. In the dying breaths of that administration, the effort resulted in close to a half million acres of my desert being born again as a national monument.
I would come at night during that period with the sensation of a coal miner endlessly scrubbing to get rid of the grime. I felt I was doing the right thing with the wrong people in order to preserve a place the government would never understand or care about. And a piece of ground my government deemed so worthless it could afford to preserve it.
This book began as my effort to set the record straight. I wrote it in a white heat, the basic temperature of the land I love. It states what I know about a place I will never really know.
Consider it a testament to something far greater than myself and far greater than the government that made a little piece of it official lines on the map and a pleasure ground for the people of the United States.
There will come a day when this monument will be lost to history. There will come a day when this nation most likely will be a ruin puzzling future archaeologists.
And yet the ground will still burn with the honest face of life.
By Charles Bowden
Photographs by Michael Berman
Charles Bowden is one of today's premier writers on the American environment and social issues along the U.S.-Mexico border. His recent books include A Shadow in the City: Confessions of an Undercover Drug Warrior; Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family; Blues for Cannibals: Notes from Underground; Blood Orchid: An Unnatural History of America; and Desierto: Memories of the Future. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.
Michael P. Berman is a photographer and artist who lives in San Lorenzo, New Mexico. His work is in the permanent collections of many American museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, and the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego.
"Inferno is wonderful—reminiscent of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire and Terry Tempest Williams' Leap, as well as some of Joy Williams' essays. I am also reminded of Annie Dillard's amazing work, For the Time Being. . . . I think the book is incredibly timely—there is a lot of chatter about 'the death of environmentalism,' and this work catches perfectly and passionately the sterility or lack of dirt and earth that has helped contribute to the extreme weakening of the movement. There is no one answer to the problem, but this is a beautiful and compelling treatment of the weakness."
Southwest Book Award, Border Regional Library Association
Honorable Mention, Orion Book Award