by Chris Bohjalian
For most of my adult life, I’ve lived near or in the Vermont woods. And when I say lived “near” or “in” the woods, I mean it. In 2017, my wife and I moved into a house in the woods at the end of a dirt driveway so long that it terrifies houseguests. It winds its way uphill, twisting through canopies of trees that shroud cars in Hansel and Gretel darkness. Before that, we lived in the center of a Green Mountain village for decades, the woods within a few hundred yards of our front door.
And, yet, until 2020, I rarely spent any time in the forest. It wasn’t that I had a Puritan-like terror of the woods. Think Hawthorne: Satan! People dancing naked around bonfires! It wasn’t that I viewed the Vermont wilderness as a primeval world of ticks, poison ivy, and mushrooms that looked like human skulls. (Okay, I do think massive forest mushrooms resemble skeleton heads, so perhaps I did have a teeny bit of that Hawthorne-like fear. But I’d have been fine if I came across people dancing naked around bonfires. This is Vermont.)
Moreover, Vermont woods are not primeval. The state was 80 percent deforested by the end of the 19th century, so even though much has grown back and our topography now is far more wooded than not, most of it is relatively new growth. Also, maple trees scare no one.
But I viewed trees as nothing more than a week of kaleidoscopically transcendent foliage, followed by a week of raking the fallen dead into piles and dragging them on great plastic sheets back onto the forest floor. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and all that humus rot.
My attitude toward the woods changed in 2020, however, because my wife decided she wanted a dog. We’d never had one, but she fell in love with a rescue with one blue eye and one brown, a girl about 2½ years old who was a mix of pit bull, boxer and husky — and, we would discover, 45 pounds of love.
She arrived in Vermont on Feb. 22 that year, and my big concern was this: I had a new novel arriving mid-March and a looming book tour. No sooner would this rescue we named Jesse arrive, then I would be deserting her — a rescue! Instead, the world had other plans: a pandemic. No book tour. No travel. For the first year that Jesse was with us, we spent zero nights and almost no days apart. She became like an appendage, following me wherever I went in the house and sleeping beside me when I wrote.
And, suddenly, I was in the woods. A lot. Because of Jesse.
The snow didn’t bother her in March, the mud didn’t dissuade her in April, the bugs didn’t discourage her in May. The world for her was alive with smells and surprises: We’d spot deer and she’d be in heaven. She’d find a coyote carcass and be like a kid in a candy shop. Wild turkeys would emerge out of nowhere, scrabbling ahead of us in a conga line before flying into the trees.
The first times she led me into the woods were filled with small revelations. The morning sunrise on the snow was cathedral-like, sluicing between evergreens and towering shagbarks like the light through a stained-glass window. The animal tracks, some obvious (deer) and some new to me (bobcats), intrigued me as much as they did my dog. On some walks there was utter silence: Jesse, I learned, never barks. (Well, not never: she barks when she’s on the screened porch and a bear wanders by.) But sometimes there was the wind, and sometimes there were the caws of the crows and the cries (and songs) of other birds that remain in Vermont through the winter. We’d hear owls in the late afternoon.
This was new to me. I had always spent a lot of time outdoors, but it had always been on a bike. Biking has been an invaluable part of my writing process for a quarter century: I bike in the afternoon to clear my head and envision whatever scene I’m going to write the next morning in a novel.
As I grew more confident that Jesse would stay close to me in the woods, my mind would begin to wander to my books in much the same way. There are even scenes in my next novel set in the forest, moments that would have never occurred had my dog not led me there.
But, equally as often, I would find myself simply “forest bathing.” That idea, now more than 40 years old, is that a walk in the woods encourages mindfulness and peace. It’s sort of like when George Costanza’s father would scream, “Serenity now!” except quieter.
And even though I am the least mindful person on the planet, I fell under the sway of the trees. With my dog beside me in the woods, I found myself growing calmer. And finding calmness in 2020 was like finding a deep vein of Klondike gold in the 1890s. It was an unexpected gift.
Now, three and a half years later, Jesse’s joy in the woods remains contagious. Everything for her is fun, and everything is a surprise. The woods are always changing. Even after thousands of hours of roaming the forests that surround our house, even though my wife and I have carved trails in some spots, still there are moments when I will have to pull out my phone and look at the compass to begin to wend my way back.
Or I can simply tell Jesse it’s time to head “home,” and she will lead me there or, at least, to a landmark that I recognize: the massive fallen maple that looks like a ship’s prow. The remains of the stone wall from another century when this patch of woods was a farmer’s meadow. That dead coyote I mentioned, now but a skull and a few ribs darkening with age.
Robert Frost wrote a poem with a horse that thought “it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near,” and perhaps that equine was puzzled. But the narrator of Frost’s poem was on to something, and my dog gets it, and, now, I do, too. Those woods are a part of my home and a part of my soul, and I am glad to have finally found that peace among the trees.
Chris Bohjalian is the best-selling author of 24 books, including “The Flight Attendant,” “Hour of the Witch” and “The Princess of Las Vegas,” which arrives in March 2024. This essay appeared originally in the Washington Post.