SONORAN DESERT NATIONAL MONUMENT was created by presidential decree in January 2001, protecting nearly a half-million acres of unique desert landscape and wildlife in southwestern Arizona. That information, though, cannot be found in Inferno, an illustrated large-format book about the region by Charles Bowden.
Bowden tells a story about human nature as sculpted by a specific place. Because, he argues, rather than factoid rhetoric of science or politics, it’s only deep, sensual engagement with tangible places that can provide the impetus for saving them.
After helping to designate the Sonoran Desert National Monument, Bowden wrote Inferno as an act of purification. His aim was to set the record straight — to convey in words a place that had been distorted and dirtied by the language, motivations, and absence of sensual comprehension of the political process. Still, Bowden’s relationship with the desert here is devoid of teary sentimentalism; it is raw and dangerous and richly sensual, and so, in Bowden’s view, painfully beautiful and vitally essential.
Bowden succeeds at his task because his writing reads less like story and more like collage. Each paragraph or scene or even sentence works as a pixel of prose that, only after the entire journey, finally resolves into a message that is more than the mere sum of the words — a sense less of a place, and more of being in a place.
This sense is bolstered by the razor-sharp black-and-white photographs of Michael P. Berman. These are not brochure desert pictures, but a blend of panoramic sweeps of landscape interspersed with focused shots of everything from the ground to dead animals to the desert’s slow but persistent reclamation of human detritus. Rather than cursory glances, these images force you to look deeper.
That’s just what Bowden wants. And what the places we love, like the Sonoran Desert, need: for us to feel — to really get out there on the land rather than merely to look (or, worse, just read about) — what is there, what makes a place a place, and what makes us human.