Rustic North

Estabrook Woods

When I say “New England,” you know what I mean.

You think of the states’ names, maybe. But half of them are gestures to people who were forced from their home (Connecticut, Massachusetts) or reflect a longing for a land left behind (New Hampshire). They are only a fraction of what I mean. Maybe you think of lighthouses and fall foliage and other brochure-ready niceties. But the shorthand is too great for five tiny states crammed with woods and farmland and cities and bogs and shoreline and ports. And not just fall foliage, but dead chill winters and wet springs and humid summers.

So maybe you do not know what I mean at all.

Estabrook Woods, Concord, MA

The sun filters through the green slivers, casting shadows onto the tangle of roots. There are ridges and a lake and several historical plaques. Here, Henry David Thoreau oversaw production in his father’s pencil factory, which inspired him to live under a canopy of words and to die of tuberculosis. Before that, the Minutemen stalked the British here, careful not to crunch down on the brittle leaves underfoot. Before that, it was home to the Algonquins, who would set fire to the trees to help them grow, a control burn, embers glowing at the core of dead trunks, a blue veil of smoke haunting the branches. But now, hounds roam the woods.

People hike in small groups, and each is led by at least one dog, who runs along the path and down the fern-covered bowls of the valleys and through the creeks that slick their ankles with black mud. The wiry ones gallop, the fat ones lope, and the pups, who are all limbs, wiggle. When one dog greets another, they bark and yelp and snort. They race. Some crouch down and stalk each other, some trot up, their tails betraying their joy. Some swim. Others lie down panting, blending in with the pine needles.

Their people will apologize, proclaiming the mundane aspects of their dogs’ personalities to one another: “He’s friendly!” “She’s just a puppy!” “Oh, he likes you!” These details are asinine and don’t cut close to the truth. One fears shadows and lightning. One enjoys the taste of carrots, a secret shame he would never reveal to another dog. Another finds terrycloth towels erotic.

They smell history. They sniff the trees and grunt a prayer for the dead ones. They detect Thoreau and the blood from his lung, and the Minutemen and blood from their chests, and the Algonquins and the blood from their scalps. If they inhale deeply, they can reach the Paleozoic. They sense the musk of featherless birds with tiny hands, and enormous bears with long snouts and two bones growing from their mouths. Their people are not interested in these ancient stories. They speak in monotone about car mileage, private education, politics, and how best to clean crown moldings in old houses. They holler and clap when the dogs venture too far.

Some dogs have fur as thick as wool and others’ is like horsehide. The muddy ones will be bathed when they return home, once their people have removed scarves and coats and mittens. They will scrub their pets in bathtubs, or the little ones will be doused in the kitchen sink. The dogs will rub up against the furniture in a compulsive fit when the washing is done.

Most of them will sleep well that night, whether on kitchen floors, Persian rugs, or at the foot of a bed. Some will dream of the animals they could smell but could not hear. Others, of the mud glistening on a terrier’s flanks. Some will experience the recurring dream in which they leap from a hill, soar into flight, float above the treetops and the lake, and bite into the clouds and shake them. Others will not dream at all. They will sleep like the dead.

They each taste their dream and waking life differently, in accordance with the film on their eyes and the tenderness of their skins and how long they suckled from their mothers. But they all have mouths full of sharp teeth and lazy pink tongues, and bellies that groan with an endless longing for things they do not understand. In this way, they are just like the people who they lead through the woods. Some worry about their future, others don’t believe in caution, and some cannot stop conjuring the past. One took piano lessons from a tyrant, another was raised without music. A woman worries she did not turn off the stove, and envisions her house engulfed in flames, but tries to ignore the image and asks her friend more questions about a recent tryst. A man raised in the South wonders if his blood is warm enough for cold weather. The people are sleepy, or anxious, or woke up sad for no reason. Some of them just want to be held. Like their dogs, they are all a jumble of fears and teeth and indeterminate hunger.

Cara Bayles lives, writes, and works in the Greater Boston area.