The Call of the Red Winged Blackbird by Tim Bowling

“I know something of vanishing myself, having spent the first thirty years of my life actively involved in a vital industry that has all but disappeared (commercial salmon fishing) and the last seventeen years labouring along as a writer in a culture with ever-diminishing patience for the apparently complex devices of metaphor, symbolism and extensive character development; a culture intent on exchanging physical interactions with digitized ones.” p 6

The ten essays that make up Tim Bowling’s The Call of the Red-winged Blackbird are primarily from the point of view of this sixty-two-year-old man who is disengaged, disenchanted, and wrestling to understand himself amidst a culture and world he is not sure he belongs to (or wants to) anymore. He is palpably aware of his age and of our culture’s tendency to focus on youth and ever-changing technology and to send the older members of the herd (at an age that seems to get younger and younger all the time) out to pasture. His point of view and choice of subject matter won’t appeal to everyone, and that’s his prerogative and his point.

“The Tim Bowling of these personal essays is a man who is raging against the dying of his sense of belonging and purpose.”

The Tim Bowling of these personal essays is a man who is raging against the dying of his sense of belonging and purpose. He is mourning the natural world and sense of wonder and connection he knew as a child. He is mourning the loss of long-hand penmanship and what he argues will result in a corresponding loss of cultural memory and connection. He is mourning both the end of the fishery his family once depended upon and the fish themselves – overfished to the point they can’t be fished anymore. He is mourning the real-life, recent loss of his mother, Dorothy Jean Bowling, to whom the book is dedicated.

Bowling writes with eloquence and indignation about topics like Buster Keaton and the decline of silent movies, he rages against the dying of the penny (“No, the penny is not so easily dismissed”), he gives our national pastime a hip check in his essay “Initiation” (“And hockey, beyond all else, is this country’s most comforting lie.”), and he eulogizes a box of books his father tried to sell but no one would buy in “The Floating Library”.  

The first nine essays of the collection are connected by the author’s attempt to keep what he loved about the world as it was. It feels a bit like watching a man trying to grab precious items from his house as it is being flooded. A sense of loss and futility permeates the collection, but there is also a sense of indomitable resolve; especially in these first nine essays. Even as his house is being swept away, Bowling is determined to collect as much of what matters to him as he can before it’s all swept under. I admire his noble (and desperate) effort to save what he can in this mad rush to erase all of who we were – to destroy everything in our path, seemingly – as technology reinvents who we are.

And then there is the second part of the book: the three-part essay/memoir “The Hermit’s Smoke” wherein he spends nearly 200 pages contemplating his own preoccupation with and pull toward isolation. This is not a light summer read. The first part of this long, three-part essay tells the story of the death of a hermit the author witnessed as a child. Bowling tells this story from a child’s perspective, and I find he is most effective when his memory drives the narration. His retelling of going out on the water in the dark to an uninhabited island (barring the hermit’s presence) with his father and a local doctor to check on the said-to-be-dying hermit is vivid and haunting. The child Bowling narrator tells of witnessing the death of the hermit, and the event re-emerges here like a trauma he never processed. The writing here is riveting and visceral – as it often is throughout this long meditation on isolation and darkness.

The last two parts of “The Hermit’s Smoke” follow the author first on a series of long winter night walks in Edmonton where he wrestles with why he is doing what he is doing, why he becomes obsessed with the moon and getting away from other people and his family, why he feels compelled to get away from everyone and everything. It is like being inside someone’s head as they wrestle with themselves. The last section takes the author back to his childhood home and a solo visit to the island where the hermit of the first section died. As I read the slow, darkness-laden pages of “The Hermit’s Smoke” I couldn’t help but wonder if the writer was writing from within the depths of depression (“As for me, I had reached a point when I could not see reality as anything other than a forced confinement.”) It seemed at times as if the author’s brain were on a loop pedal and the same ominous sound kept playing. He references the fictional Robinson Crusoe for comparison to how he feels; as though he is experiencing the same kind of long-term, externally inflicted isolation (28 years alone on an island). It is sometimes hard to read, especially after the lockdowns of the last two years.

“Like Crusoe, I plagued myself with my own imagination … At some point, I knew I had lost my battle with the darkness.”

It is important to note that all but one of the essays in The Call of the Red-Winged Blackbird were written before the pandemic, and this yearning for isolation Bowling writes of is harder to read than it might have been two years ago. I had a hard time having empathy (and interest) for his ache to be alone and to talk about it having recently experienced as much isolation as I can handle. There was also something privileged about his introspection, something he recognizes in other works about solitude, if not his own.

“One thing was becoming increasingly clear: a certain kind of romanticism and privilege accompanied almost every work on solitude that I had yet encountered. Why, for example, should Thomas Merton’s humourless wrestling with God, or anyone else’s, be of such importance: Why should Henry David Thoreau’s preference for the natural world be so deified and his basic misanthropy so accepted? Why should almost every new book published on the subjects of silence, loneliness, solitude and isolation be written by white urban professionals who seemed to just want a few days free of Twitter and of climbing the career ladder?”

I can’t help but wonder the same thing at the end of “The Hermit’s Smoke”. The writing is at times frustratingly self-involved as if the author was writing only for himself – or to understand himself – to the point of making it seem voyeuristic to read. At other times I could relate to the author’s internal struggle, and his ache for a sense of meaning in a world that seems bent on destroying much of what he (and I) loves most. 

The only essay in the collection that was written after the pandemic hit is the heartfelt and beautiful “Of Cherry Trees and Red-Winged Blackbirds.” Bowling’s voice is more accessible here as he writes of his mother being in a nursing home at the end of her life; as he remembers back to how she called him into dinner when he was a boy. It is a sweet and thoughtful tribute to his dying mother. Though the essay is tucked in the middle of the book, I think it should have been put at the end. I like to think the author found his way out of the darkness and futility of “The Hermit’s Smoke,” and has more of this kind of beauty to give. 

“I’m looking again now, her in this locked-down house a thousand miles away from my hometown where the cherry trees are all gone, where my childhood home has been sold and where my mother lies unvisited in a nursing home bed. I’m looking, and it isn’t the past that I see, but the same inexplicable longing for the capture of life, the preserving of its most meaningful experiences, which compels me to call my mother on the phone and to ask her if she remembers how she used to call me in from play. “Not really,” she says, and I can hear her mind slowly trawling through almost ten decades of sensation. 
But after several more seconds, when my mother finally whistles the red-winged blackbird’s song to me over the phone lines, I cannot come to her across the fields, I cannot come in from the world as darkness falls and I cannot, despite her example … carry the weight of dead blossoms with so much courage, grace and equanimity.” Pp 73

Tim Bowling is the author of twenty-one works of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. He is the recipient of numerous honours, including two Edmonton Artist Trust Fund Awards, five Alberta Book Awards, two Writers Trust of Canada nominations, two Governor General’s Award nominations and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Wolsak & Wynn (Feb. 22 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 272 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1989496423
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1989496428

Wanda Baxteris originally from the Kingston Peninsula, New Brunswick, and is the author of If I Had an Old House on the East Coast. She works as a creative and environmental consultant, and lives and works on an old farm in Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia.