The Call of the Red-Winged Blackbird: Essays on the Common and Extraordinary. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd.
Don’t let the title fool you: Tim Bowling’s The Call of the Red-Winged Blackbird: Essays on the Common and Extraordinary is not a book about the natural world—at least, not entirely. The call to which the title refers is heard in the essay “Of Cherry Trees and Red-Winged Blackbirds,” a memoir about Bowling’s childhood in Ladner, British Columbia, then a fishing community near the mouth of the Fraser River and now a Vancouver suburb. Bowling, like the other children in his neighbourhood, loved to climb fruit trees, especially in the spring, when the red-winged blackbirds returned and the blossoms filled the trees with a “dark fountain of pink and white water” (69). His mother would call him home from his play by whistling the call of those birds. “I had to listen more carefully; I had to learn the difference between life and art, between the non-human and the human,” Bowling writes. “That is, I began to become a poet, a man of cherry blossoms” (70). The cherry blossoms and the red-winged blackbirds are just one example of the way that common things become extraordinary, and extraordinary things common, in Bowling’s book.
One-third of The Call of the Red-Winged Blackbird consists of short essays published in Canadian magazines, particularly Queen’s Quarterly. These essays explore a number of topics: Buster Keaton’s NFB short film The Railrodder; the importance of poetry and the responsibility involved in advising young writers; learning to skate on a frozen slough; receiving a rare(ish) penny as change (before pennies were taken out of circulation in Canada); cursive writing; children’s literature, particularly Alfred D. Laurence’s Homer Pickle, The Greatest, one of Bowling’s childhood favourites; love letters; and his father’s failed attempt at selling old books to a bookseller after a disastrous season of salmon-fishing, a precarious way to earn a living if ever there was one. In these essays, Bowling unerringly finds the ways that the extraordinary and the commonplace are welded together.
With their intimations of loneliness, aging, and death, these essays prepare readers for the book’s final two-thirds: “The Hermit’s Smoke.” This three-part essay is an account of a long Edmonton winter during which Bowling experienced an almost irresistible pull towards solitude. Not just any kind of solitude, either: Bowling, whose childhood nickname was “Monk” because he often played alone, is drawn to living like a hermit—or, more accurately, since Bowling is an atheist, like a recluse—despite his family, his work, and his obligations to the people he loves. The obsessive nature of his fascination with extreme forms of solitude almost suggests that Bowling is experiencing an emotional breakdown—a description I doubt he would appreciate, even though he asks, “What is an acceptable desire for solitude and what is a mental disorder?” (99), a question that he finds difficult to answer, and describes his deepening feelings of self-consciousness as “a toxic sickness” (127). He deals with this compulsion in two ways. First, Bowling reads about hermits, castaways, and recluses, fictional and real, particularly astronaut Neil Armstrong, who withdrew from a public life after he left NASA, and Christopher Knight, the so-called “North Pond Hermit,” who spent 27 years in seclusion in a Maine forest. Second, Bowling goes on long walks in frigid Edmonton, always in the small hours of the morning in an attempt to avoid encountering other pedestrians. These walks lead Bowling to a fascination with the connection between walking and solitude, a literature of which this book becomes a part. Those perambulations also encourage Bowling’s growing obsession with the moon and its reflected light, its mythology and its reality. “The Hermit’s Smoke” explores all of these ideas before coming to a conclusion of sorts, one I won’t reveal here. No spoilers! Nevertheless, the book’s introduction tells us that Bowling’s desire to withdraw from society has only increased since he began writing “The Hermit’s Smoke.” “I must constantly fight against the hermit instinct, at least for the sake of my family if not for myself,” he explains (2).
The Call of the Red-Winged Blackbird is Bowling’s twenty-first book in a writing career that has generated award-winning works of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction, including two Governor-General’s Literary Award-nominated books of poetry. His explorations of solitude and aging may be unlikely to attract a wide readership in a culture devoted to extroversion and youth. Even so, The Call of the Red-Winged Blackbird is an excellent book that deserves an audience.
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