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Column: Losing, and Finding My Way in the Woods

Once, nearly forty years ago, I lost my way in the woods. I was never in danger, just disoriented enough to feel my heartbeat quicken and to know I would have to think carefully about the slant of the sun and the shape of the hills to find my way back. The embarrassing aspect is that this was our own property, land we had just bought to build a house. The woods were dense with new growth, punctuated occasionally with older trees that had been spared when the land had been logged some 30 years before. When I emerged, I was both relieved and excited because it felt like I had briefly entered a wilderness.

In the years that followed, I used landmarks to find my way, hollow trees and mossy boulders, and connected in my imagination the ghostly vestiges of roads left behind by the loggers, not so much roads as spurs that suddenly ended, pathways once used to skid logs out in winter. At the time, my interest in the woods was practical, because we heated our house with wood, and I made some seasonal roads of my own barely wide enough for a pickup. Section by section, I studied the land; but because there were no paths or trails all the way through, the woods remained a mystery to my wife. For her there was no design.

For 30 years we were part-time residents. Our jobs were elsewhere, but for summers and holidays as we raised our children we came to Vermont. During these years my wife became a serious walker, usually on open roads but also on well-marked trails through conservation land or parks. When we retired and moved to Vermont for good, she began to look at our woods differently and discovered that a 10-minute walk through a corner of our land would lead her to the VAST snowmobile trail. There she could walk for miles and rarely see another person, even in winter when she ventured out on snowshoes or skis. Together we opened a trail to launch these walks, and now it’s not unusual for her to spend an hour or two alone in the woods.

Lately I have been working on a new trail. On a map it might look like a hypotenuse drawn with a trembling hand, the rest of the triangle being the long dirt road that runs in two legs from our hayfield to the house. The trail will provide an alternative route when we are on foot, but despite the geometry, it will be no shortcut. I think of it as a way to experience the deep woods without getting lost. I began work when the spring was new and the woods were wet. Warblers filled the air with music, and whenever I rolled a log out of the way, I would see the bright orange flash of a newt. I began before the insects were biting, starting in with loppers and bow saw, and in my pocket I carried a spool of tape to mark the way with ribbons. I cut back branches and sawed away saplings to make a path wide enough to follow even in winter when the snow is deep and we are on snowshoes. The project has stretched into a third month because I don’t work on it every day. It’s slow work, but that’s the gift. I want to take my time and witness the seasonal changes as they happen.

It’s not all romance. As I work, a persistent question circles my head like a deerfly: Is it right to impose even a little order on land that wants to be wilderness? The ribbons I tie are garish. Every tree I drag from the path leaves a scar. But, then, surely it is good for the soul to walk into the woods and see how a beech tree can germinate on top of a boulder and send roots down the sides like dripping wax. Surely we are better off knowing where the deer bed down in hemlock groves and where maple and hornbeam are growing amicably, side by side. Reason alone can’t answer my questions, but I like that. Every year I grow a little more comfortable with ambiguities.

A year ago a microburst tore through our woods and uprooted dozens of healthy trees. We missed the storm because we were away, but when we saw the damage, we could have taken it for a sign. The path we had made to the VAST trail was blocked by crisscrossing trees so thick I would need my chainsaw to open the way. I waited a month before I was sure what to do. Then I remembered the footprints of animals we’d see along that path in winter, squirrels and hares on their daily routines and then prints of the predators following their scent. And deer. I remembered being startled to learn that deer were using our trail lengthwise, sometimes for a hundred yards or more before veering off. Then I knew I had to reopen the trail.

Of course, I’m fooling myself when I think I’m designing new pathways because the animals have already been there. They are just subtler. They rely on their noses more than their eyes, and they don’t seem to mind when a branch is in their way. Like me, they take the easiest route, the intuitive path, and like me, they develop habits, and by plan or accident we share the woods in harmony.

My wife knows my goal is to eventually remove the ribbons when we know the trails, but she remains unconvinced. I think I’ll lose this debate, but I’ve noticed that the bright color of the plastic tape gradually fades. Several years ago I marked a tree for cutting, then changed my mind. Now the ring of tape I tied around the trunk is almost invisible. In the right light, you could almost mistake it for a vine.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.