Leaving a legacy with the Dog Chapel, Stephen Huneck tells us about his journey back home to Vermont.
- Posted on Nov 6, 2018
Drums were beating somewhere, steady like my heart, and the melody of a flute drifted through my head. I opened my eyes. Time to feed the dogs, I thought. But the blanket over me was too heavy, and I couldn’t lift my arms or legs. What’s wrong with me? Men began chanting to the drumbeats, and I recognized my Indian music. But I knew I wasn’t home in Vermont.
Then I felt a warm touch and heard a whisper in my ear: “Steve…” Turning my head was impossible. I lowered my eyes to see my wife’s face. Gwen, I tried to say, but no words came out. For some reason I started to cry.
“You have had an accident,” Gwen said, touching my cheek. She was crying too. “You’ve been asleep for a while, but everything’s going to be okay.”
I remembered the accident. I’d been finishing a large wooden dog sculpture in the upstairs studio in our old house in St. Johnsbury. I did all my sanding on the first floor, so I picked up the dog and headed down the stairs. I stumbled and woke up in a pool of blood. Gwen got me to the hospital. I’d cracked my skull and broken three ribs.
“You fell into a coma,” Gwen explained. For two months I’d been in intensive care. “I’ve come every day to play your Indian CDs and talk to you about the dogs,” she said. “They searched everywhere, crying because they couldn’t find you. But soon you’ll be home.”
Home. When I was a boy in Massachusetts our house was surrounded by forest, and I would escape the noisy world of my seven brothers and sisters for the serenity of the trees. I was more at home there. With an old ax I spent hours chopping away at fallen branches, roughing out shapes that pleased me. I felt life in the pieces of wood. “All the world is God’s creation,” my great-great-grandmother assured me.
“The stars, the leaves on the trees, animals and humans alike. He is everywhere.” Great-great-grandma Huneck was 100 years old. She was a Native American, born in the early 1850s. She understood my attempts to carve the sticks I found in the forest. “Beauty from your hands honors God,” she said.
I grew up hoping to be an artist someday. At 17, I moved to Boston and put myself through the Massachusetts College of Art by working as a cab driver. I met Gwen at school. We married in 1978 and moved to a place among the trees of Vermont. I made a living restoring furniture. I felt at home again, a boy in the forest playing with wood. We started our family with a mutt named Max and a big black Lab called Sally.
One winter weekend in 1983 the snows came and didn’t stop. The drifts were so deep around the house, our dogs could barely get outside. We weren’t going anywhere. Soon I was pacing the floor, an idea buzzing in my brain.
I went to the basement, where I had saved a piece of first-growth pine. It was maybe 200 years old, beautiful, with no knots. I got out my woodworking tools and began chiseling away. I knew there was life in this piece of pine, and I could not quit until I found it. Gradually an image emerged from the wood: a strong figure graced with wings.
Days after the snow cleared I could still feel the exhilaration I’d experienced while carving the angel. It made me feel good to look at it, so I stood it on the seat of my pickup when I drove into town. Coming out of the general store I saw a man peering into my truck.
“Are you the artist?” he asked. No one had ever called me that before.
The man was a New York City art dealer. He bought my carving, and he kept calling me for more.
One evening I took Gwen for a walk in the woods. “I want to be an artist,” I said, not sure how she’d react. Then I saw it in Gwen’s eyes: She was with me.
The road was hard, but by 1994 I was earning a living as an artist. Sally the Lab, Dottie the dalmatian, Molly the golden retriever, and Bingo the cat made up our family. Much of my work featured drawings and carvings of dogs. I had planned a new series of woodcuts of Sally that morning I fell down the stairs.
I was finally transferred to a nursing residence. At 45, I had to learn to walk again, but for me there was something worse. I’d asked Gwen to bring me a favorite stick I’d found in the woods before the accident to use as a cane. I wanted to carve it, make it beautiful. But when I put my knife to the stick, the wood might as well have been stone. I was too weak to make even a scratch.
It took hours of making fists over and over again, stretching my fingers with a rubber-band gadget the doctors gave me. Hours of lifting my legs, inch by painful inch. After three grueling weeks of physical therapy, I could stand for a few seconds on my own.
Then one day I was able to drag myself up a flight of stairs, gripping the railing on each side with every ounce of strength I had. Afterward I collapsed, but the doctors said I’d made enough progress to finish my therapy at home.
Home! Sally, Molly, Dottie and Bingo greeted me with yips and yowls. I had to stay in bed for a while, and I grunted through my leg and hand exercises. A nurse came in during the day. In the evening Gwen was by my side. My round-the-clock caregivers were our dogs. They were my guides back to life.
The day I first used my walker, Gwen and I answered a newspaper ad and went to a farm to get Heidi, a six-week-old yellow Lab. She cuddled into me every night and did swim therapy with me. Eventually I was walking in the forest, the dogs pulling at my pant legs, playing with me like I was a puppy. “You can do it!” their barks seemed to say.
Doctors told me it would take a year for me to get my strength back. In the meantime I took up a mallet and chisel and began making woodcuts of Sally. It was gentle carving, the only thing I was able to do, but it felt good. The dogs stayed next to me, Sally growling her approval as her images took shape in the wood. God, I’m truly home, I thought. And I’m grateful.
A new idea started buzzing in my brain. “Beauty from your hands honors God,” my grandma had taught me. I wanted to honor God and the loving animals that had helped me heal. My Native American ancestors respected all the creatures of the forest, but they believed that dogs were the only ones who went to heaven. I wanted to carve out a place of serenity for dogs and humans, with their love for one another on display before the God who made us.
When the strength in my hands returned, I built a wooden chapel, small and white like the nineteenth-century churches that dot New England. There are benches for humans and plenty of room for their canine companions. The stained-glass windows start at the floor so dogs can sniff their images up close. Atop the steeple is the carved figure of a golden retriever with wings, honoring the messengers of healing that God sent me. Surrounded with trees and the green hills of Vermont, the chapel represents God’s gifts to all of us—the beauty of the natural world, the strength of human relationships, the love of faithful animals. It celebrates my ancestors’ belief about our home here on earth.
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