About ten years ago I wrote an essay, perhaps my best to date, about John Muir, that was published in the spectacular nature magazine Wild Earth. (Which sadly no longer publishes, nor can it be found on-line.) I found myself in good company, with the likes of E.O. Wilson, but the best piece in the magazine that month was written by a fellow I had never heard of named Charles Bowden. The piece was called "Snaketime," about how he was befriended (sort of) by a rattlesnake who liked to hang out on his porch.
Here's an excerpt:
For the snake a few things are obvious: I am large, and this is certain because of my footfall. She can hear the footfall of a mouse. I am rich in odor. She can pick up the faintest scents, identify them, and follow a single strand as clearly as if it were signage on an interstate highway system…And I am irrelevant unless I get too close. She will ignore me if I stay six feet away. She will ignore me if I become motionless for 180 seconds.
If I violate the rules of her culture, she will work through a sequence of four tactics. First, she will pretend to be invisible and hope I do not see her. If that fails, she will try to flee. If that fails, she will rattle in hope of frightening me away. And finally, if I am completely ignorant of simple courtesy and get within a foot or so of her, she will attack me…
She herself is cultured. In her lifetime, she will attack maybe twenty or thirty or forty times. She will never attack any member of her own species. She will never be cruel. She is incapable of evil.
Bowden became a magic name for me, as he turns out to have been for many other Western writer and editor types. The last issue of High Country News had a wonderful profile of the man, fortuitously written by Scott Carrier before Bowden died recently (in his sleep). It's not fully available on-line, understandably, as High Country News needs subscribers, but here's an excerpt:
Bowden knows why I've come. This morning, before I arrived, in order to prove he's been working, he emailed a new book to an editor in New York. It's called Rhapsody and he says it's a love story about wild places…I ask him if it's true he has been hiding out.
"I just got tired of talking to stupid people on the phone," he said. "I wanted to strip everything down and start over."
He knows I understand the feeling and lets it sit for a moment with the crickets.
"I got trapped on a path," he says.
Bats are dive-bombing bugs above our heads.
"I wanted to write about nature, about animals, what it's like to be an animal, but I went into murder reporting and now I'm recovering."
I can't see him but I know he's lying on his back with his hadn on a cup of red wine, looking at the stars.
"Everything you see out there is constantly re-inventing itself," he says. "We call it evolution. It's all one big yes."
The crickets agree.
"I want to write something that matters. In order to do it you have to get rid of yourself. The lion on the hunt ceases to be the lion and becomes the deer."
I know what he's saying, but I'm wondering how to describe it the folks back at headquarters.
"In the end all writing is about adding to life, not diminishing it. that's what life is all about. there isn't a plant out here that' snot trying to take all that chlorophyll and light and trying to add to life. The book I sent today I did 15 drafts, or I stopped counting at 15. I don't know if it's any good. I just know it about killed me and it's the best I can do."
Thank you Chuck Bowden. Look forward to reading your Rhapsody.