“Don’t let them get too close to you.”
With these words, a Russian man who has spent much of his life in the harsh taiga entrusts two four-month-old puppies to the French writer Sylvain Tesson. It is late April, nearing winter’s end, and Tesson is in the middle of six months of solitude on Siberia’s Lake Baikal.
As Tesson recounts in The Consolations of the Forest, a breezy celebration of seclusion and self-reflection, the dogs are not intended for companionship. The pups are to serve the practical purpose of warning the author in the event that bears, emerging from hibernation, approach Tesson’s tiny cabin. Tesson quickly warms to their canine charms, however. He notes that if he were raising children instead of dogs, “they’d wind up juvenile delinquents.”
The pups inform a number of thoughts and observations:
These masters teach me to inhabit the only country worth living in: the moment.”
“Between longing and regret, there is a spot called the present. Like jugglers who ply their trade while standing atop the neck of a bottle, we should train ourselves to balance in that sweet spot. The dogs manage it.”
“The courage of dogs: to look straight at what appears before them, without wondering if things could have been otherwise.”
“I regret that some philosopher schooled in the old humanism (a spiritual masturbation) cannot witness the silent prayer pronounced by two five-month-old pups before a geological fault twenty-five million years old.”
The dogs also provide Tesson’s sole consolation in a devastating stretch:
I had no idea that fur soaks up tears so well.”
“Hang on. And to hang on, take strength from the infinite solidity of the little dogs.”
Tesson recognizes the dog as “a humanist animal” and embraces that connection.
“People teach a dog how to lie down—and announce that they’re training him,” he writes. “I accept the high jinks of the two little creatures and all it costs me is their paw prints on my pants legs.”
A worthy addition to the solitude-in-nature genre, The Consolations of the Forest reminds us of the importance of finding time to watch rain trickle on glass, to read Shakespeare, to occasionally drink too much vodka, to awe at the wilderness and its inhabitants, to chop firewood. And to consider whether a dog can contemplate a landscape.