On the edge with Edward Abbey, Charles Ives and the outlaws

One of Charles Bowden’s last essays.

  • Border Door, by Richard Lou, an art installation created in 1988 on the Mexico/U.S. border near Tijuana. After installing the workable freestanding gold painted doors with 134 detachable keys, the artist distributed 300 keys to people he encountered in Tijuana neighborhoods.

    James Elliott

The summer finally came when I decided to give composer Charles Ives a second chance. I huddled along the border near the Sonora/Arizona line in the northern range of violet-crowned hummingbirds and the far southern reach of the Border Patrol. The place is famous as a migration route for human beings and the drugs humans need to face their dread. My friend Edward Abbey was always touting Ives to me and for years I had heard nothing but noise. Ives himself hardly dissuaded me by saying, “In thinking up music I usually have some kind of brass band with wings on it in back of my mind.”

I thought I’d see if Ed was still wrong. The area around me had fallen quiet. There had been no sign of the poor — the little empty tins of chili or fish, the dropped jackets, the small fires made to warm the hands — for at least three years. Then one morning I found some castoff clothing circling a small spent fire, a worn shoe left behind. It had a feeling like hearing that first sandhill crane in the sky.

I remember another of Ed’s opinions, in a piece he put in his book One Life at a Time, Please back in 1988. He begins with a roar — lambasting the politically correct term “undocumented worker” —  and gets louder, railing against all immigration and its contribution to overpopulation. I never picked friends because they agreed with me. For me, friendship, like love, lacks a motive. And often, there are rough edges, just as the ground that matters most to me can rake me with bad storms.

Sometimes when I wander along the creek here, I bump into a couple who carry a rifle, shotgun and pistols on their hips. They are armed because lions hunt here. And because of the Mexicans — apparently they share Ed’s view.

I go armed with binoculars and a bird book.

Ives blasts in my head, and I can hear Ed’s voice chastising me about my lack of understanding of this great American music. I can hear him telling me that he wants to stop every Mexican at the line, give him a gun and ammunition and send him home to fix his country.    

I have spent decades helping illegal people break the law by driving them around checkpoints, giving them food, money and water, giving them work when they had no permits. I have also spent decades decrying the growing population in this country as murder of the land. I have some rough edges of my own.

And yes, while I helped propel these illegal humans into the guts of the republic, I could hear Ed’s voice in my head chastising me and asking how a grizzly bear or a beleaguered wolf might feel about my decision.

Things are not simple. A book reviewer once said Ed Abbey was basically a fraud, that no one could know as much about classical music as Ed did and still be such a profane, woman-chasing, hard-drinking, irritable, redneck rascal.

Yes, he could.

As Charles Ives says, “Stand up and take your dissonance like a man.”

There is no simple solution for it. Over just six years, more than 130,000 people were murdered in Mexico. Another 27,000 vanished into the night. Deporting the 10 million Mexicans living here in the shadows would explode Mexico, just as the recent shipment of U.S.-raised gang kids back to Central America led to slaughter down there.

There is a big wall now on the border, Ed, one that impedes game, cost billions and does nothing beneficial. There is a standing army of 20,000 agents and maybe more on their way. There are drones in the sky. Dammit, Ed, give me a drink.

Christ, there is that knocking at the door.

She is a young woman. She has a child, a husband with diabetes. She has no job. In Mexico, her sister-in-law got on the wrong side of the wrong people, and if she goes back they will kill her, her brother, his wife, their child.

Lock them out, Mexico explodes. Send them back, Mexico explodes. Let the corporate state keep ambling along and everything dies. Call the cops and we get a police state on the line. Look into the eyes of a frightened Mexican girl in the desert trying to reach her people in some small town in America and all the clever words fall into the dust.


A family of coatimundis forages slowly in front of me. Wild turkeys move through the yellow grass and a few rose-throated becards nest here on the far north rim of their world. There is a place along the dirt road nearby where someone leans a pole to signal that the cache of drugs is off in the trees. A local girl goes down for driving a load. She’s 20, lives at home, and has never touched drugs. She earns $8.08 an hour at Walmart but can’t get more than 30 hours a week.

None of this matters in Ed’s argument against immigration. It is an argument without a heart: We are overcrowded. Our numbers now murder our native ground. We cannot afford to take on more unless we hate all the other living things around us. The poor and vicious nations of the world must help themselves, embrace population control and create just societies. And we should look out for ourselves, bring our armies home and guard the line.

But I want him to meet the Mexican girl. And I want all those who wish to help her to think of the group of coatis, females and young, wandering a shrinking glimmer of creek in a dying landscape.

When you live on the line and see up close the murder of dreams, you find that facts transcend logic. The millions here are not going home. And the time is past that the world can be kept at bay by a wall.

The human numbers are already launched — people drown off Lampedusa seeking Italy, they die crossing deserts into the U.S., they rot in prison-style dorms that flank Chinese factories. And things playing out in nature — the melt of the ice, rise of temperatures, failure of the rains, death of the trees, decline of the rivers, mutilation of the species — cannot be walled off and no refuge or wilderness can provide meaningful sanctuary.   


I am crazed about cranes. I snap alert when I hear them overhead. I visit their winter haunts. They float through my dreams.

Sandhill cranes have been tracing routes over North America for millions of years while the rivers have come and gone and marshes spread and then went dry. The lesser sandhills fly all the way to Siberia, the larger sandhills to the northern tier of North America, the wingbeat slow, a measured thing against eternity.

And Ives’ first piano sonata drums against my skull, a noise that becomes notes and then somehow becomes beauty with warring chords banging against each other, old hymns erupting and vanishing again.

The thing slows. The wingbeats seem frozen in the winter sky oh so blue and the light aching to become spring and hard low notes clang in the Ives sonata, the thing flows but halts and then leaps, marches then ambles. Walt Whitman is at the piano, a nation pouring through his fingers, only old Walt, that gay blade, is out of his head on meth and the cranes land, they come down out of the sky like parachutes and feed in groups of three, the mother, the father, the young, the migration beyond our imagination, the flight so long that the Japanese thought their birds must vanish into heaven and take messages to those Shinto gods they knew before transistors stormed the temples and toppled ancient ways.

The wingbeats, Ives, I think, Ed, you were on to something with this Ives stuff, and the cranes beat overhead, and there is a knock at the door, and this is not heaven’s door, no, this is my door and a poor face looks at me with hunger eyes and my God there is no room in the house and I look past the face at a battered land, the ground on fire, the streams boiling, the sky black with dread, birds falling dead from the heavens and I should say no. The slow wingbeat, that penetrating guttural call of the cranes that easily carries a half mile, and on the brown stubble of the bunked corn here and there are the big wings of a crane taken down by a coyote and now two ravens feed on the scraps and life is hard, it is written, law of the jungle they say, not dog eat dog but coyote eat crane, slow wingbeat wandering through time, but that face is at the door, that poor hungry face.


Music lingers in my mind. The door is open, a summer breeze rustles the cottonwoods, the ash, the sycamores along the creek. I have Ives pounding away at his piano. Then, amidst the clatter of the sonata, I hear the quiet and watch a full-grown bobcat stroll past the French doors as if nothing exists save his beauty, his fur and the purr of his song.

I was told as a child about that line between the quick and the dead but now I think my mentors had it wrong. The agents up the road, they may be the dead. The men and women and children clawing through walls and hard ground and dying now and again on their journey, they may be the quick, like the bobcat at the door. Maybe nobody gets out of here alive but some at least get to live.

Out on the land we created national parks and monuments, wildlife refuges, swatches of wilderness, all as bulwarks against ourselves. I have spent much of my life thinking that somehow these efforts would keep other life forms alive until our gluttony had passed. I was wrong. The sanctuaries have become internment camps where other creatures do time until they are crushed by our numbers and our habits. No refuge is large enough to keep the new forces at bay. The skies change, the forests shrink, our numbers grow. And the heat comes on.

The wall now rising on the Mexican border is a comfort to police agents and small children, the only two groups that might see it as a solution to overpopulation, resource limits, poverty and global warming. It will not alter the future.


I am standing in a valley just over the pass from the border. It was once the home of the last wolf run in the region. Government hunters slaughtered the last litter of wolves here in the early 1950s — the bitch fled into Mexico. I want the wolf back at the door. But I can’t ignore the others that show up any more than I can ignore the weather. Everything I need and love is now an outlaw.

Long ago, I read an essay, something about the ethics of lifeboats. It said that this moment at the door would come and if I let another person into the lifeboat it will sink and everyone will die.

There is a knock at the door.

I say, Come in.

The slow wingbeats are overhead, the cranes are heading to heaven. I look up and beg them to take me with them. Ives is banging away at that damn piano. My God, he’s good. Ed, you were right. We gotta get Ives into the lifeboat.

And the woman knocking at the door? Move over, Ed, she’s climbing aboard. 


This essay is adapted from a chapter Charles Bowden wrote for the book, Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century, edited by John A. Murray, to be published by the University of New Mexico Press in May 2015.

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