by Gary Wockner
When I sat down on His Bench, it all came back to me -- Leopold, the Farm, the Book, the Baraboo Hills. I had just built the bench out of 2-by-6's, 2-by-8's, and 2-by-10's, all bolted and screwed together into a nice little structure that would fit well in any backyard garden setting. It looks really good, sleek even. But it sits like hell. The back is too straight, with the edge of the backrest sticking midway into my spine. It feels like I'm sitting in a one-room school house with some bun-headed school-marm towering over me, or like I'm in a church pew and need to be silent and reverent. The seat's too small, too -- I'm falling out the back at the same time my spine is pinched higher up. I actually muttered, "Leopold, you son-of-a-bitch," under my breath. I should have known. I followed the assembly directions perfectly, just as he would have wanted. He wasn’t a man of relaxation, of laying-back. His bench-sitting was more of a straight-backed, religious experience. My mistake, again.
We bought this house at the edge of the
At first, I bought hay bales and lawn chairs, and they fit nicely around the fire pit. But then I started thinking about benches, and started doing internet searches for plans and ideas, and then, lo and behold, I came across the Leopold Bench. It's right here at: http://www.epa.gov/greenacres/wildones/wo27bench.htm#bench. Take a look for yourself, plans and everything, web-ready and free, even a few Leopold quotes, earnest and caring as always. It piqued my interest, perhaps more than it would the average person. I'd been trying to pull some things together, on a personal level you might say, and the idea of Aldo's bench fit rather nicely. I printed out the web page, took it out to the backyard tool-shack, and studied carefully. Aldo had made it simple and straightforward, with me in mind. With a skill saw, a screw gun, and some bolts and screws, I hacked away at the water bed for an hour. As the last screw squeaked in, I stood back, took a long careful look, and felt a genuine sense of wonderment. Usually I'm not an earnest person, but the thing had an aura -- no other word for it -- of Aldo himself, pipe in hand, looking out over the Farm, contemplating deep thoughts about nature, the land, ethics, and the whole conservation goobly-glok. I was actually entranced, staring at it, right there in my own backyard, a product of my own hands, a genuine Leopold Bench. And then I sat down.
The bench may have been alright if Leopold was all I knew. But, for better or worse, before Leopold it was Abbey who grabbed my interest. In fact, I read too much of Abbey, way too much. He tingled my spine too, all up and down, as if he were inside my head putting my own thoughts to words. Sitting there on Leopold’s Bench with a pinch in my back, I said outloud, "Too much Abbey. I read too much Abbey." It started with Desert Solitaire, as it did for most people, and then spiraled downward, or outward, into a full-blown, guru-worshipping obsession. Article after article, book after book, tingly spine, eyes glazed, wine bottle in hand, Abbey was my man, every published word, and then some.
He made me feel like I had $3,000 in my pocket, a car full of gas, the trunk full of camping gear, and the summer off. Picture endless trails, endless food caches, endless sun, and endless streams. Picture open spaces, empty roads, and the feeling that you could go anywhere, anytime, and do anything. With too much Abbey in your blood, ideas start swimming through your head faster and faster, verbs no longer need nouns, actions no longer need justifications. Running around, wandering, playing, drinking, thinking, loopy-eyed, sunburnt, unshaven. Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming -- driving, hiking, camping, rafting, biking, nude sunbathing, screwing, sleeping, waking, standing, breathing, smiling. Always broke, almost always happy. Years go by -- ten, then fifteen. My mind became conditioned, Pavlovian. If freedom beckoned, I salivated; if it didn't, I gagged. After I read Abbey, after I lived Abbey, chairs could no longer have straight backs.
I remember one particular trip to
Life seemed good, Edenic
even, in a twenty-something, prolonged-adolescent kind of way, and I hung
onto it for a few more years. But then the wheel
turned, and something changed, revealing Abbey’s darker underbelly. I’m not sure if it was caused by that novel, The Fool’s Progress, and the stomach ache it gave me, or if
it was Abbey’s death and the official end to his alcoholic fantasies. Perhaps it was also that my friends were buying houses,
having kids, taking vacations to
A little while later, I packed away the Abbey books, duct-tape shut the lid, and hid them in the back of the closet. And then it was only a matter of time, just a couple years, and the job was done -- a mortgage, a Real Job with a real paycheck, a family, the cars, the garage, the yard-mowing, the suburban parks, the Whole Catastrophe. And of course the West was not my home, is no one's real home, so when I actually got around to it, I was back in the Midwest, Wisconsin even, home of dairy cows, Packers, the Protestant Work-Ethic, and our old friend Aldo, sitting as he does on his Bench, near his Shack, at his Farm, scheming and scribbling, earnest, straight-backed.
What Abbey is to
I remember one particular trip up the Baraboo Hills,
about forty miles northwest of
I tried many more times. I
went to the Farm and the Arboretum, and I read The Book. On your way up to The Farm, you get a wonderful view
of an enormous, polluted, defunct military arsenal. When
the weather and insects allow -- maybe 30 unplannable
days a year -- the farm can seem pleasant enough. You
can even take a short tour. As
the website says: "A typical tour of the Leopold farm
and shack will last 1 1/2 to 2 hours, subject to weather conditions." But don't think you're there to sit on a blanket and meditate,
or commune with nature. The website also says: "Work tours are strongly recommended for groups that have a
few hours and want to get their hands dirty." Yes,
the words "Work tours" are in bold typeface on the website. After having been to the Farm and those Hills, repeatedly,
searching for inspiration, I can't help but wonder if the sole reason this
The Arboretum, Aldo's in-town sanctuary, is a small
meadow surrounded by
And then I came across his biography, well-written
and easy to read, in which the pieces of this puzzle fell together. Leopold lived to work, in fact he worked his ass off,
with a Family (5 kids!), on that Farm, on those books, on those committees,
It took Leopoldian hard work (gag!) and a Real Job in a windowless institutional basement (GAG!), but I saved some money and moved the Whole Catastrophe back out West to the open spaces and endless sun, to my adopted Native Habitat in hopes of a resurrection. As months went by and I waited for this resurrection to take place, I periodically snuck away from the Family and the Real Job for a quick weekday hike or a longer Saturday cruise in the mountains. I had a little mantra that kept me going, and I repeated it as I walked to work or mowed the lawn -- “No Sun, No Mountains, No Gary.” When I had a chance to see them, they were still there -- the open spaces, the endless sun, the trails, the streams, and the Mountains. But those chances were fewer and farther in between compared to the pre-Leopoldian days, back during The Abbey Obsession. Hard work lingered, though less brutal than before. The Real Job kept the actions justified and the time filled. Health insurance premiums rose, the yard still needed mowing, and soccer games filled the weekends. And I got to wondering if this was all Leopold's fault, if I just couldn't shake him off and return, as it seemed I should, to Abbey's world. I also got to wondering just how Abbey did it, how he managed the Whole Catastrophe and still had time and energy to Take The Other Road. He was dead and long gone, but he must have known something. Leopold's route was hard work; Abbey always seemed to be having fun.
And it was just then that I came across another biography, this one of Abbey, to give me the answers I needed. And so I read, seeking the truth, seeking a path to the spiritual land of play, back to Abbey's world. And play he did. He played slavishly, and successfully, and he never stopped. And as I read, I become more and more tense as I watched his Real Life crumble amidst his play, a Real Life somewhat similar to mine with kids and jobs and responsibilities. Slowly but surely he slung it all out the truck window as if his children (5!) and families (3!) were as expendable as empty beer cans. I had a certain visceral reaction, as if watching an insect consume its own offspring. He seemed to be running, furiously, feverishly away from himself. Regrets piled up like cordwood, the Empty Spaces were squeezed down into a fictional alcoholic fantasy. Instead of sobriety, he kept on playing, until the bitter end. And died, then and there. Of course, it's always hard to say, but it could be that he played himself to death at 62.
The Bench is solid, as you would expect from anything Leopold touched. I move it over by the fire pit to see how it looks in the circle of hay bales and lawn chairs. Its pine boards are flat on one side and grooved on the other where the water bed faced outward. It was stained with a dark 1970's hue that hides all the grain in the wood. In a few weeks, the Winter Solstice will roll around and we will have a yard full of people, many gathered around the fire, perched on hay bales and Leopold's Bench. Two new houses of neighbors have moved onto our block and I look forward to their company around the fire. The last few celebrations have been glorious successes. We purposely picked this neighborhood in hopes of finding exactly what we found -- neighbors who work and play, who often have to be inside but want to be outside, and who like to sit around a fire pit and talk.
As I try to ease back on His Bench, squinting against
the pinch in my back, I can't help but wonder if some sort of compromise
can't be made. Somewhere between
the ever-work of Madison and the ever-play of
I circle around His Bench, thinking "a little cut here, a little more angle there, maybe move the seat back, lean the backrest a little more". After a few minutes of circling and scheming, I pull out the skill saw, the pencil, tape measure, and the straight edge and start to work -- leisurely, of course. The saw rips through the quiet air of the neighborhood, sawdust squirts against my shirt and over the ground, and little pieces of Leopold fall to earth revealing a white, unstained, moldable interior. Screws come out and go back in, squeaking and ratcheting, counter-sinking naturally in the soft pine.
After about fifteen minutes I flip the bench upright and sit down again. I don't feel anything -- no more pinch in the back, no more pointy edges, no more falling out the back. I ooze back on the bench as its new laid-back angle draws me in. I look into the fire pit and look around at the hay bales, practicing, to see how the bench works in the social setting. And then I wonder what to call it. Is it still Leopold's Bench? Is it Abbey's Bench? Is it somewhere in between? How about Leopold's Modified Bench? Or how about just The Bench? No, I think it’s still Leopold’s Bench. I just changed it a little to suit my own tastes. I added a little sun, some mountains, and toned down the work. I couldn’t keep up with the playaholic Abbey nor the workaholic Leopold, and it turns out, neither could they.
Now I suppose I'll have to start restoring this
blue-grassed one-third acre back into native
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