Blood Orchid—An Unnatural History of America, by Charles Bowden, published in 1995.
Buying this book was serendipitous. I purchased it a few years ago because I liked the title and the first paragraph, which starts, “I am not of sound mind. I cannot seem to stop moving…” Also, it was on a sale table—cheap. I eventually read it and afterward I thought my brain needed a shower.
The title of this book refers to the hammer orchid which seduces the male Thynnid wasp into believing its labellum is the female wasp, inviting glorious sex when, in reality, all its doing is procreating it’s own species in Darwinian simplicity. It’s a metaphor for America’s obsessions, illusions and love affair with violence and all things that depress us. One of Bowden’s messages seems to be that we should distrust our institutions—they all lie, but their words are pretty. He comments that he gives away the little money he has but none of it is tax deductible. “I’ve gotten it into my head that if the government will sanction my giving, then I am giving to a cause or place or thing that is either ineffectual, malignant, or the enemy.” He says he believes in the future: “I have visited the future. She lives a mile or two away in a cheap cathouse. No one likes her and hardly ever will a customer take her upstairs. This is odd—most of my life has been spent in an America that loved fucking the future.” A happy guy, this writer Charles Bowden, born in 1945. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed his style, his crisp sentences.
His reference to Hemingway struck a particular chord since I still like to read the old master: “Maybe this is the place to begin, the reviled Hemingway hero, the figure who faces the collapse of democracy and civility during the First World War and retreats into a self where a man takes his own measure by an internal code of conduct—silence, slaughter of large animals, risk, strong drink, but never, never belief. No, never believe again because belief leads to betrayal. That is why the Hemingway hero is capable of a romantic outlook chugging through the green hills of Africa…but this same figure is incapable of sentimentality—always death comes to one alone…Life becomes a sterile act of defiance and what is defied is sham whether in the guise of communism or capitalism.” Bowden sees the old Hemingway model as having been useful in confronting an uncontrollable world. “Oddly enough, this hero is now attacked for hygienic reasons, for the messy murder of animals, for seeing women as sexual utility devices, for the boozing, for failure to nurture, support, and listen to the wail of the inner child.” The real failure of the Hemingway model for today is that “the struggle has gotten too vast.” I’m not sure this is true. I’ll bet the sixteenth century Englishman contemplating poaching the King’s deer for dinner had a lot to think about also. Not just a few twenty-first century Africans have much to worry about, much to fear.
Bowden says he doesn’t really fear the decline of this culture but rather paralysis—his own. “I cannot imagine a life without an act or an act without a support of belief. I must believe… in order to be.” He’s not cut out to brood, is fed up with those given to posturing, and seems full of rage, and puts it to paper in sharp stream-of-consciousness writing. He certainly hit me with thoughts never thought before: “the two groups I know who are most alike are environmentalists and pornographers.” His explanation is long, graphic and believable! And I had never considered this matter before: “I prefer Frederick’s of Hollywood to the Nature Store. My favorite fossil fuel is body oil.” Or more seriously, “Entropy has captured the attention of every sane person for at least a century—it is the ultimate nightmare of industrial culture, running out of energy, putting the pedal to the metal and having nothing happen.” Contemplating a writing career that never happened, Bowden made me laugh: “I make visitations at conferences and share my artistic angst with audiences sedated by large suppositories of Literature.”
He tells of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa meeting in 1912 with their armies in a suburb of the Mexico City they had just conquered, discussing their future. “Both men were of peasant stock, suspicious of anything larger than family or town or known faces. And now they had to create a government, in their eyes an act akin to implanting a cancer. Their conversation…is often cited to show how little they knew or could imagine. I think they understood it all, they simply couldn’t figure a way out of the trap of the powerful state.”
He writes of his travels in drug economy villages of the Sierra Madre mountains where Uzis, revenge killings (with names on lists), beautiful horses, and much alcohol are commonplace. Yet he does put it in perspective with life North: “I come from a place, a culture, where there is much trouble, but we do not carry lists in our pockets, we carry causes in our minds. Gun control…recycling.” He speaks graphically of the violence toward anyone asking too many questions in these places, of the history of five centuries in Mexico where no group has ever achieved power through the ballot box. “In that time, wealth has never been divided except by force or the threat of force. What you want you take. What you take you share. What you think, you will tell no one. What you are…is alive.”
He can be profound, although I wondered whether he was sober when he wrote his best, which is fodder for a good sermon: “Imagine that the problem has never been physical, that it is not biodiversity, it is not the ozone layer, it is not the greenhouse effect, the whales, the old-growth forest, the loss of jobs, the crack in the ghetto, the abortions, the tongue in the mouth, the diseases stacking everywhere as love goes on unconcerned. Imagine the problem is not some syndrome of our society that can be solved by commissions or laws or a redistribution of what we call wealth. Imagine that it goes deeper, right to the core of what we call our civilization and that no one outside of ourselves can effect real change, that our civilization, our governments are sick and that we are mentally ill and spiritually dead and that all our issues and crises are symptoms of this deeper sickness…. Imagine that the problem is not that we are powerless or that we are victims but that we have lost the fire and belief and courage to act.” Bowden at least admits that he isn’t above it all. “My guts roil with fear.” What he fears is the future. “Imagine the problem is that we cannot imagine a future where we possess less but are more. Imagine the problem is a future that terrifies us because we lose our machines but gain our feet and pounding hearts.”
Okay, what is to be done? Bowden doesn’t really give any answers but he does suggest that maybe “there is nothing to fear.” It’s almost biblical; he rants like Jeremiah then says, “fear not” like Jesus.
Maybe this helps explain Bowden (a little): “Spotted Tail is the great chief, the wise man, the one who sees what is ahead clearly and never flinches. He stares out of the rubble of Lakota life and offers this thought: ‘There is a time for all things. Think a moment how many multitudes of animal tribes we ourselves have destroyed; look upon the snow that appears today—tomorrow it is water. Listen to the dirge of the dry leaves that were green and vigorous but a few moons before! We are part of that life and it seems our time has come’.” Maybe our time has come. And he wrote this in the mid ’90’s. I wonder what he’d say now, after 9-11-2001, Homeland Security, and the War in Iraq? (I need to read more of his work.)
Bowden predicts, if we’re not careful, that the new “generals” of our future will be very active protecting whales and woodpeckers—in a green war. “Our cause will be sacred… The blood will flow for the good of the creatures of the planet. We will not seek booty but ecological management, resource management, human management. We will, of course, slaughter, we will sweep islands, plains, mountains…and nations.” He describes a draconian world where we are simply asked to “trust” those new to having the power. “Still we could be free… We can, actually do anything… We tell ourselves that we live in a global village. But then why do we have no neighbors?”
Bowden covers the tribulations of Charles Keating, Viet Nam, the disappeared in Argentina, the life of his skid row Sioux friend, Robert Sundance: “a big man on this ground. Because he fought the booze and won. Because he fought the government and won.” He quotes Lincoln (1838): “If destruction is our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” He quotes Clint Eastwood: “Do you feel lucky, punk?” He tells jokes: “If Jesus was a Jew, how come he has a Mexican name?” He talks with “the buffalo man” up in the land of the Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee, a Sioux with a past and a belief:
“How many buffalo do you have?”
“How many do you figure you’ll need to have a proper-sized heard?”