Death All Around

Charles Bowden sounds an alarm about our world and its future

I'm attending a professional conference in Oregon about managing utility right of ways.

These conferences are all the same—the schmoozing, the endless dull PowerPoints, the cheap trinkets handed out by vendors, the expensive and copious alcohol, the crappy food. The single streak of passion shared by these conference participants is their love of the energy business—the wires, the pipelines, the power plants. No one questions this thing, this business that feeds the dreams and desires of the world while at the same time killing it.

These people are certainly alive and breathing. But speaking with them, it's apparent that something is wrong, that something in their hearts is dead—which brings me to Charles Bowden's Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing.

"How can a person live a moral life in a culture of death?" Bowden ponders in this new book. It's the last salvo of something he calls an "accidental trilogy." (The previous two books, which you should track down and read, are Blood Orchid and Blues for Cannibals.) He claims the three are really a single book revolving around this nucleus, this core question of morality in a time of death.

And this death business—it's no metaphor, he warns. It is the "actual death of other peoples, of other living things."

As evidence of this great dying, I submit to you the Oregonian newspaper. An article describes how the orcas of the San Juan Islands are doomed because of their odd preference for chinook salmon, which themselves are dying off. Orcas can and will eat everything from herring to gray whales. For reasons unknown, these particular animals choose to feed much of the time on the chinook. Another article in the same paper describes the Northwest salmon themselves. We're told their numbers are now less than 10 percent of their pre-1850 levels. More than two dozen salmon species are threatened or endangered. The articles are like obituaries.

Bowden observes that this sort of thing is our future, and that future is happening right now.

Later, at a break in the conference, we are served platters of delicate pink salmon hors d'oeuvres, tastefully arranged and garnished.

If anyone is washed in the blood of the future, it is Bowden. He writes of early memories in Illinois—of men back from the war, drinking with the dead. The endless killing of animals for the table. Pies cooling on a counter. Golden sunlight streaming down. And fireflies.

Bowden's brilliant roving mind is unable to stand still, yet yearns for home. He reports from Venezuela, the land of huge breasts (a deal at only $22 a month). And from Bali, after the bombings. New Orleans after the flood. He takes us to Yaqui country, the Chiricahuas, the White Mountain rez, New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, Australia, the killing fields of Juarez.

Bowden is a sort of post-modern Loren Eiseley, that other writer who wrestled with the ideas of past, present and future. He writes of Herman Melville and Paul Watson, both chased by the ghosts of Ahab and his white whale. There are also women aplenty, and red wine, and sex and drugs, and music. And love.

There are dark moments of violence and blood in this book. And then this: "Sometimes I wonder about the birds. What do they think of us?"

Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing is a love song to a world of ruin. It's a long, Beatnik rap about the end of the current journey and the beginning of a Mad Max future. It's a book about life, and death, and the world as it is, not some remembered fantasy about the future or the saccharin stories of a dead past.

Ten of us at the conference have dinner at Jake's, a famous Portland seafood house. We gorge on plate after plate of every kind of seafood imaginable. Expensive wines flow in a torrent. The bill is $1,500. I thought of Bowden and his book and the dead sea-creatures arrayed on my plate. I thought of that ark of lost creatures, departing without even saying hello, much less goodbye.

I fly home to Arizona soon, and the shadow of my carbon footprint grows long.

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