No Boundaries

Charles Bowden and photographer Michael Berman strip the border to its essence in 'Inferno'

Welcome to the edge. There is this thing the biologists call an ecotone, a place where different habitats mash up against each other. The writer Charles Bowden is a historian of human ecotones--he's made a career of exploring the dark, jagged boundaries where our dreams and hungers slam into the real world.

"I have lost my fear, my sense of boundaries ... " Bowden acknowledges early in his new book, Inferno. No one is more qualified to search out the edges of human knowledge and belief along that invisible line called the U.S.-Mexico border. For the book, he teamed up with New Mexico photographer Michael Berman, a brilliant and talented man with a camera and a vision.

You open the book, and an image of sharp, slashing stone teeth along a mountain ridge, forged in the fires of hell, confronts you. It's a photo that gets in your face. You wonder, where is this Berman guy taking us?

Bowden writes: "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."

And then a single giant ball of cotton is floating high above the desert floor. The dream of rain in a land of none whacks you over the head in a black-and-white image.

And that's just the beginning of the book.

Inferno resulted from Bowden's involvement in the creation of the half-million-acre Sonoran Desert National Monument. He also wanted to see Berman's photos get into print, because, in Bowden's words, "Berman's a fucking genius."

Bowden had come to the realization that simply drawing a line on a map and saying "here there be a monument" is not enough, that this exercise was not what was going to save either us or the land we say we care about. And forget about actually saving our souls. Inferno was written as an "antibiotic" to ward off cooties or other psychic vermin he might have picked up from dealing with so many feds and tree-huggers at the same time while helping to create the monument.

Bowden: "The cries of biology, ecology, recreation, nature--none of this matters. They are all a way of talking rather than knowing." By walling something off in a park or monument and drawing a line on a map, we set ourselves apart and cease to actually know the place.

The Sonoran Desert is home to the sidewinder, the fringe-toed lizard and small black beetles that will strip you of your flesh if you lie in one place too long. You don't learn about this until you go out and actually see it happen--it sure as hell isn't in any guidebook. This book is about the beetles, not the maps.

With razor-sharp prose and a wit drier than any drought, Bowden is a human verb, knifing his way through the murk of words like desert, nature, ecology, the West. It's about figuring out what it means to be human in this place. To be human and to be alive. To taste, lick, feel, sweat ...

Bowden may be our most heroic and honest American writer. He's spent 30 years not only bearing witness to our passion and folly, but also ripping apart the world, getting to understand it, smashing through its boundaries and trying to get at the hot, bloody meat inside. He has written well-respected academic texts, collections of essays, autobiographies, biographies, histories, geographies, photo criticism, coffee-table books and crime nonfiction in addition to a huge body of magazine and newspaper articles. The founder and editor of the dearly missed Tucson City Magazine and a one-time reporter for the Tucson Citizen, he's also won numerous awards and honors for his work.

Then there are Berman's photos, the glorious photos. They are a perfect complement to Bowden's narrative. Like the writing, there is simply nothing else on Earth like these harsh, glaring, graphic black-and-white images. You can taste the dust, feel the heat and touch the craggy black lava rock and fine sand. There are no words with the photos--just naked images. Words like Mexico and the United States and Sonora and Arizona are irrelevant here. The boundaries are gone, and you are left with pure feeling.

This book is a poem and a love song. Forget the categories, the bullshit of fiction, nonfiction, nature writing, science writing, whatever. This book is the missing link.

Inferno is the border; it is all the borders; it is no border at all. It's love and death and hope and pain. It harbors the juices of love and passion and the stench of corruption and decomposition. It is life, and it is home.

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