Getting older is not a condition I like to admit to. Putting benches beside our trails, as my husband Bruce wanted to do, struck me as an acknowledgment that time, for us, was marching on. I preferred to sit on a hot seat at the base of a tree at one with Nature.
“Well, I am getting older,” Bruce said. “And I want benches to sit on.”
So late in the winter of 1999 Bruce consulted with two hunter friends, Jeff and Bob, who are also talented amateur carpenters. Jeff’s garage is not only a display area for all the racks from bucks he, his family, and friends have killed over the years, but a fully equipped workshop. The deal was that we would purchase the pressure-treated lumber and they would build the benches, assisted by Bruce and our son Dave. Those benches would be available for us and for visitors and hunters to use throughout the year. As it turned out, Bruce and Dave mostly kibitzed while Bob and Jeff turned out four handsome benches, complete with slanted backs and armrests, in record time.
By the first week in April, after much discussion of where we should put them, Bruce had installed three of the four benches. Despite my initial objections to them, I quickly found myself arranging my walks around them, arriving at one just in time for my morning coffee and bagel, which I carried in my backpack. Although such indulgence seemed faintly sybaritic, I had no trouble adjusting to it.
At first the benches were named according to their locations–Far Field Road Bench, Ten Springs Trail Bench, and Hollow Road Bench–but within a week they had new names.
The first to be renamed was the Ten Springs Trail Bench, which Bruce had installed at the edge of the 1991 clearcut. It overlooks the mature, uncut deciduous forest of Laurel Ridge.
On a sunny, warm, April morning, I walked through Margaret’s Woods to the eight-year-old clearcut along Greenbrier Trail, following the sound of a gobbling tom turkey. Using my old Lynch’s Foolproof Turkey Call, I tried to entice him into view. Finally, I glimpsed him ahead of me on the trail, slowly fanning his tail feathers. Even though I stood absolutely still, he spotted me after several minutes, stared as if in disbelief, and then ran off up the slope.
From Greenbrier Trail, I hiked down Dogwood Knoll to Ten Springs Trail and the bench. As I sat there, I again heard a turkey gobbling and answered him with what I thought were enticing hen calls. We called back and forth as he moved unseen up Laurel Ridge. I never did catch a glimpse of him, but it was marvelous just to be outside on such a glittering day with the red maple trees in full orange, gold, and red flower and the songs and calls of Carolina wrens, white-breasted nuthatches, cardinals, goldfinches and the newly-arrived ruby-crowned kinglets blessing the morning. And that’s how Ten Springs Trail Bench became Turkey Bench.
Two days later, on another sparkling spring morning, I walked down the road to Hollow Road Bench which overlooks our Plummer’s Hollow stream and the forest beyond. I was just in time to watch and listen to two male Louisiana waterthrushes singing over prime Louisiana waterthrush territory. These wood warblers are some of the earliest returning migrants and, with their brown backs, white breasts streaked with brown, and long, pink legs, they look more like thrushes than warblers. Since they favor streambanks in wooded ravines for nesting, our hollow usually hosts three or four pairs.
At one point they stood on two fallen trees, a couple feet from where I was sitting, and chipped, swayed and wagged their tails up and down. The tail-wagging is a definitive feature of the Louisiana waterthrush along with its white eyebrow stripe, and both its genus and species name mean “tail-wagger.”
As I sat still, they continued their performance, flying up and down above the stream, singing their melodious, ringing song, giving their sharp, metallic chip calls, and chasing one another, but I saw no real fighting. One waterthrush waded through the rushing water, feeding and singing, looking very much like a dipper I had once watched in a Wyoming stream.
Later, I consulted W. Douglas Robinson’s account of the Louisiana waterthrush in The Birds of North America for an explanation of what I had observed. According to him, “Neighboring territorial males often engage in vigorous chases and countersinging soon after arrival on breeding grounds. Countersinging males move toward territory boundary. Then one male often flies into neighboring territory, provoking a vigorous chase of swerving males through woodland and along stream corridors. Males sing while in pursuit, extending the complex ending of their territorial songs to last several seconds…In some cases, males may land near each other…and face off in a threat display.” That described exactly what I had seen.
Needless to say, Hollow Road Rench was renamed Louisiana Waterthrush Bench and continued to give me a front seat view of Louisiana waterthrush behavior throughout the month.
It took another four days, until April 14, before the Far Field Road Bench received its new name. The previous evening the phone had rung at 7:30 p.m. My 85-year-old father’s neighbor, 87-year-old John Stine, had been on the line. My father had fallen outside his country home while working in his garden and had laid for hours on the cold April ground, calling for help. Luckily, Mr. Stine had glanced out of his window after the evening news and had seen my father lying there several hundred feet away. We had spent much of that night at the hospital, learning, finally, that Dad had broken his hip.
The following morning I had a difficult time taking my usual morning walk because I was worried about Dad and wondering why he had broken his hip less than a year after he had fallen and broken his leg. But I forced myself outside that windy, cold day and headed for the Far Field Road Bench. Set along my favorite refuge on the property, it had already become my most-used bench.
I sat drinking my coffee and listening to a singing blue-headed vireo. Looking downslope into Roseberry Hollow, my mind was so busy with questions that I paid little attention to the scene around me.
What if Dad’s neighbor had not gone to the window? How much longer could Dad live alone in his beloved country home? Would he survive his hip operation?
A slight movement to my right aroused me from my reverie. Coyote sensed me at the same moment that I sensed him. He was less than ten feet from the bench and had evidently been moseying along the old woods road as inattentive to his surroundings as I had been to mine.
He was a magnificent, full-grown male who looked me fully in the face for several seconds before turning around and loping slowly away. I don’t have a mystic bone in my body. Yet when Coyote appeared so unexpectedly, I felt as if I had been blessed by an unseen hand. I remembered that many Native American tribes had venerated Coyote. The Crows called him “First Worker,” creator of the earth and all living creatures, and the desert southwest tribes referred to him as “God’s dog.”
Did Coyote know I needed a revelation? Or was his appearance, the first ever I had had of an adult coyote on our mountain, merely a coincidence? Surely the latter, my rational, scientific mind told me. But Dad did come through his hip operation beautifully, and the prognosis for a complete recovery was excellent. Immediately, I christened the Far Field Road Bench “Coyote Bench” in honor of God’s dog.
It could have easily been named Snake Bench too. On the sixth of June, a day of rising temperatures and humidity, I trekked to Coyote Bench. The woods were filled with the rustles of gray squirrels and chipmunks, and I speculated that the predators, such as coyotes, would be eating well.
Sitting on Coyote Bench, I heard a crackling in the leaves behind me and turned to watch a large black rat snake sliding sinuously over the ground. It stopped frequently to raise its head as if seeking its way. Then it slithered down into a hollow log where, I assumed, a chipmunk had its den. Since it did not come out again, I could only speculate on its intent.
The thirteenth of July was beautiful, filled with the usual deep woods’ singers–wood thrushes, scarlet tanagers, Acadian flycatchers, and red-eyed-vireos. My friend Colette and I walked along the Far Field Road and as we neared Coyote Bench, we found not one, but two black rat snakes, less than five feet apart, basking in the sun. We sat on the bench and watched as one slowly crawled away, while the other one moved slowly from one small patch of sunlight to another. Had one of those snakes been the one I had seen a month and a half before sliding into the hollow log? As usual, I was left with questions about my observations.
The fourth bench remained in the barn until mid-June. A twinge in my back reminded me that sometimes, when my back gives me trouble, I can’t walk as far as I usually do. So I suggested that we put the bench in the Magic Place a short distance from our house. Nestled amid several nearly 200-year-old red and black oaks, it is the only bench that is not on a trail.
For less than a month we called it the Magic Place Bench. But on that same day in July, my friend Colette and I sat there and watched a female box turtle watching us. Several weeks later Bruce was eyed by the same box turtle.
“Let’s call it Turtle Bench,” he suggested. And we did.
I was surprised at how quickly and easily the wild creatures named the benches. Now I look forward to the next set of benches Bruce is planning to have made. Who knows what creatures they will be named for?
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