Friday, July 18, 2008

Tim Bowling's The Lost Coast

I'm not sure if I'll keep this blog up, but I'm finding Materfamilias Writes, my other home on the web, is getting a bit too cluttered. As well, I'm not sure how much my readers there are interested in what I'm reading, and occasionally I'd like to offer brief reviews.
First up, the book I've just finished is Tim Bowling's memoir, The Lost Coast: Salmon, Memory and the Death of Wild Culture. I admire and enjoy Bowling's poetry and also enjoyed The Paperboy's Winter a few years ago. Because I've been teaching a 4th-year West Coast Literature coast, I thought I'd like to look at this memoir to see how Bowling writes the coast. He certainly hits themes that critics of West Coast lit have been pointing out for several decades, at least: the notion of Paradise and Paradise Lost is here, writ large. Much of the book is lyrically nostalgic for the paradise that was the Ladner of Bowling's youth while the rest is sorrow and anger over the loss of that paradise to a greed for which Bowling indicts all of us, his own fishing family not excepted. He offers an evolutionary biology of the salmon and an economic history of the fisheries which have resulted in the environmental degradation we now see, citing the forefathers of Ladner and the bigger players such as the Canadian Northern and Canadian Pacific railways (whose blasting in 1913 dammed up fishways, causing salmon deaths that Bowling sets alongside those his grandfather saw in WWI).
But he saves his greatest angerness and his sustained bitterness for government bureaucrats and for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. I must, here, declare my own allegiances: my husband has spent his whole career with DFO, and while he started out as a technician, then a biologist, if we're calling a spade a spade, he's been a bureaucrat for many years now. Through our years together, I've watched him and many of his colleagues put in many hours with much passion and hard work. They deal with complexities that Bowling scarcely acknowledges (distilling these complexities down to greed might be expedient, even accurate, but it strikes me as cheap, somehow). Certainly, I argue with my husband over choices the department makes or actions it takes, but Bowling's sweeping condemnation of all DFO workers frustrates me, signalling a lack of imagination that I find disappointing in a poet. Indeed, he cites the work of whale researchers at one point, noting that their work has led us away from our earlier view of the mammals as "something other than voracious predators of warm-blooded prey and a threat to salmon stocks." But he can't bring himself to admit that DFO scientists have contributed significantly to this research, allowing his bitterness free-rein and thus, for me at least, reducing his credibility. Or not losing credibility, so much, as becoming a bit tedious. His own bias against farmed fish, similarly, is so solid that he fails to offer any view besides Alexandra Morton's or any possibility for salmon-farming in a way that might mitigate against sea lice. For him, these fish are always "plastic" and "toxic," and if the reader doesn't share his position, there's no attempt to reconcile.
Still, the memoir is evocatively written, and I enjoyed the sense of place and time Bowling achieves, especially since I grew up a little more than a decade earlier and just a few miles down the same river. In places, I think a tougher editor might have demanded some changes -- the verb "to flense" shows up a surprising four times that I noticed, and while it works well the first time, it becomes a discordant showing-off by number four. In a similar vein, some metaphors seem over-wrought. Comparing a sudden breaking-off of a clod of riverbank to the clanging-shut of a grand-piano lid at the end of a concert leaves one labouring to make any kind of connection between the two scenes other than the presence of gravity.
And I don't think Bowling ever accomplishes a sense of the "wild culture" he alludes to in his title, although several of the characters he remembers from his childhood do carry its possibilities. I find his references to the First Nations people who lived in the area before it was Ladner and their descendants who live there now also unsatisfactory, and I wonder why he chose not to introduce any contemporary FN voices.
Overall, though, the memoir adds another voice to the medley that is West Coast writing, and it's a passionate voice that tries to remember the past honestly and in careful detail in order to keep possibilities for the future -- Paradise lost, but remembered so that we might work to recover it. A persistent West Coast theme, if only we might heed it.


  1. Great review and very cute blogpage.
    If someone were interested in West Coast Can Lit and/or the topic of overfishing, which books would you recommend?

  2. Amariag: Thanks for commenting. I've got a tag for West Coast lit which you could click on -- it's to the right, and will link to 11 posts. As for overfishing, I couldn't make any recommendations for something that specific, but for a broader view, I really liked Terry Glavin's The Last Great Sea. . .

  3. I do hope you keep up this blog, it's a spectacular point of reference. I've recommend you to others, my mother has enjoyed visiting your page and I'm happy to find something we may both share and from which we derive enjoyment. Frankly, you've been quite inspirational for me. I think that keeping a journal of books read is not only a lovely idea but also a critical one in a decade during which many people have directed their interests towards lackluster, short attention span-activities. Nothing can replace the personal enrichment provided by a skilled author.

    I'm not only keeping up with you, as I'm sure others are but I also purchase books based partly on your reviews. I live in New York but you have served the West Coast of Canada to me on an irresistible platter.

  4. Thanks so much for the very kind words. I went back and read the 2008 post at which you'd left the comment and remember wondering if I'd keep up. More than 3 years later and I'm still here although I record and offer brief responses much more often than I do a decent review. It's tough to find the time to keep up with my reading, but I have at the very least noted the name of every book I've read in the last few years and I enjoy having that record to look back on. And then to have the unexpected pleasure of comments such as yours, to know that my words have helped expose someone to a new author, what a treat! You've quite made my day.