The bog watcher at home, with nature and memory

Susan Yates

Gabriola’s Bibliophile

Monday, March 25 2013

During the few years my mother lost her mind and body to the relentless erasure of Alzheimer’s disease, I learned how completely our lives depend on memory. It is crucial to everything we learn and do, from the loftiest and most abstruse concept, to the simple acts of eating and walking.

Thus my initial interest in George Szanto’s memoir Bog Tender: Coming Home to Nature and Memory before its publication earlier this year. Every part of this elegy to nature and humanity is held together by memory, the crucible of our lives. The events and ideas we commit to memory become more significant and precious upon reflection because, as writer and critic Alberto Manguel notes, “Memory is one of the rare privileges of age.”

I might disagree with the idea that age has rare privileges – I’m finding myself more grateful with each passing year for many small blessings – but there is no doubt that memory and reflection make our lives more precious with each passing year. There are a few remarkable quotes about memory in the preface to Bog Tender, and I note with particular fondness this one: “The ability to relive those parts of life that have been significant is a gift equal to life itself.” (Garson Kanin, Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir, 1971).

George Szanto’s attenuation to memory and to his natural surroundings, especially the bog where he lives on Gabriola Island, is exquisitely rendered in Bog Tender. There are places in the book where he describes the impenetrable mysteries of the bog and the intimate celebrations of animal and plant life in bog-land that brought tears to my eyes. 

Bog Tender is divided into 12 chapters based on the months of the year, beginning and ending with September, a particularly significant month both for the life of a bog and for someone who has spent most of his adult life teaching. The seasonal documentation of the author’s life blends seamlessly with the phenology of bog life, which I found especially appealing because one of my earliest treasured memories is traversing the neighbourhood sloughs with my mother, bucket and net in hand, looking for tadpoles to bring home and raise in the enamel roasting pan in our kitchen.

Last Sunday’s launch of Bog Tender saw a full house at the Commons, with a few of the audience fresh in from a walk around the nearby pond. George began his reading from the March chapter, an appropriate choice to accompany the early spring wetland chorus of frogs and birds and the tentative blooms and shoots of bog plants at the Commons. 

Most memoirs are too long for me to enjoy, but the 260 pages of Bog Tender seemed far too short as I came around to the final September. It seems impossible to encompass a life as varied and worldly as George’s, and tie the salient memories of such a life together with reflections on the natural world, but it works – perfectly. 

George Szanto was born in Northern Ireland in 1940, lived his early childhood in Ireland and England, his college years in New England, and then completed post-graduate studies in Europe. His PhD in comparative literature from Harvard has taken him all over the world for teaching and research, and he arrived in Canada in 1974 to teach at McGill University. 

The Szantos moved to Gabriola in the late 1990s, to a hilly property bifurcated by a bog and considered an “engineer’s challenge” prior to their home-building. The story of how George and Kit settled in to their land and home is interspersed throughout Bog Tender, and many readers will relate to the (mis)adventures of house-building and coming to terms with island life.

Along with the author’s musings on nature, my favourite part of the book is May, where as a young graduate student, George meets his future wife, Kit, on a boat sailing from Montreal to Germany. George’s remembrance of things past in this part of the book are worthy of at least two readings: one to get the general feeling of a great romance, and a second to reflect on the adventure of meeting your life-long love on an ocean crossing. The advice Kit got from her cousin before she boarded the ship in Montreal: “People you meet on boats can be very nice during the voyage, but you don’t want to have anything to do with them afterwards!”

There are several funny incidents related in the book – like the anti-Vietnam war campaign waged in a solidly Republican suburb of Boston, resulting in a wildly improbable ending. The endearing, humourous parts of Bog Tender contrast with some of the other “weepy” remembrances that are truly sad, like the loss of a beloved father, or the horror of two uncles dying in Theresienstadt. 

It is a blessing that long-slumbering and half-buried memories are often unearthed in a softer light, illuminated by reflection and wisdom. And there is expiation in honoring our most-cherished memories, be they sad or happy; as the author observes, there is the “satisfaction and sadness of remembering.”

Gabriolans will particularly enjoy the “island-life” sections in Bog Tender; the author reveals our quirks, foibles and irrational traditions in a wise and soft light that comes with much reflection on nature and memory. Readers who did not get a signed copy of this lovely book at the launch can find one or two (it is a perfect gift for a parent or partner) in the well-stocked bookstore at Page’s Resort and Marina.