Review: George Szanto's bucolic stroll through memory and nature

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Moments before receiving George Szanto's new book Bog Tender: Coming Home to Nature and Memory in the mail for this review, I was swept away three hours from Toronto to a small camping sight where, for the next 70 hours, my partner, her five year old and her ex-husband/baby daddy and I spent countless hours sans internet, Youtube, or phones or the pounding city gears in our psyches. We were without the static frenzy of electronic-caffeination that is the standard and practices of contemporary living.

After the first day without the internet or the constant buzzing around me of cars and other electronic or concrete hornets, I found myself able to connect to purer thoughts, more precise thinking and generally less clutter. What I failed to do however was bring Szanto's book with me.

Upon returning from camping I delved in, remembering I had glanced at the back copy and had a general sense the book was a philosophical examination of nature's power generator in terms of being a lightning rod for our creative fuel, and that the author lives a stone's throw from a bog that cuts his property in two in Gabriola Island, B.C.

The bog itself is a mysterious friend in the book -- a side kick, a best friend, a tableau onto which Szanto confesses and expresses his states of mind. In fact the similarities between the brain itself and the bog is a compelling system at work, interacting separately yet possibly affected by one another. When you examine the two entities (human mind and a bog) they are systems entirely reliant on their environments for stimulation and growth.

I thought of this as I read Szanto's manicured unraveling, an unraveling that spans decades and examines family, politics and the changes the world has weathered for years. Beginning in September -- Szanto's associates September as the beginning of the year because of his teaching past -- we are presented with a Polaroid of Gabriola Island and its dragonflies, the writing flows with a rapid, lyrical flood of memory, present tense acknowledgment rife with world-savvy energy.

He does not restrict his insight and depth to the present months in which he is writing, but expands his narrative, citing past moments in time during the same months that defined his life. In a way, the bog is at times almost like the reader, the audience; witnessing the author’s transformation, evolution for the year’s duration.

In March for example, the onset of spring is pleasantly described, "the songs of a hundred or more red-winged blackbirds so overlap it’s impossible to hear a single discrete da-da-dee-da-chree! All has been reduced, or more correctly heightened, to a blend of constant sound." In this same chapter, Szanto recalls a friend lending him a book on architecture, where he states "the purpose of architecture today should be to attempt to bring wholeness to a multiply fragmented world," which further informs the importance of shape, hope and our relationships to our environments and structures.

Whether chronicling his survival of disasters both abroad (Mexico City Earthquake) and at home (a near-fatal hornet sting) meeting his wife (the scene at the theatre where they watch the Hitchcock film North by Northeast is popcorn rom-com at its best) or understanding the process of his pending cataract surgery, the aftermath of said surgery or the harrowing details of his parent's escape from Nazi-occupied Vienna, Szanto relays the ingredients with dignity and perseverance, as if the reader is slowly strolling beside the author on the contours of his beloved bog, enjoying the enriched details of his natural environment.

Like a wild wind and sun in the face, Bog Tender will remind readers of the intersection between themselves, memory and nature and that our own memories are more tied up in the physical, unspoken world than we might realize. In a season in which the quotidian term "cottage read" is thrown around haphazardly, I think it’s safe to say this delicate, bucolic book is king.

Nathaniel G. Moore is a Toronto writer. His novel Savage 1986-2011 will be published in October 2013 by Vancouver’s Anvil Press. 

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