Leopold’s Bench

by Gary Wockner
reprinted from Mountain Gazette #92


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 Colorado foothills about a year ago.  It was a real live fixer-upper, and cheap because of it.  I figured a very low mortgage would work into a high, free-time, recreational quotient.  As it turns out, I underestimated the “work” part of “work into,” and the high free-time has not yet materialized.  The house was surrounded by junk, piled inside and outside to the tune of five fifteen-yard dumpsters.  Among this trash was a water-bed frame -- 2-by-6's, 2-by-8's, and 2-by-10's all sanded and stained and screwed together.  It had a '70's feel to it, just like the shag carpet and the previous owner.  As I looked at the lumber in the frame, I decided to spare it from the dumpster.  Two-by-anything isn't cheap nowadays, so I took the bed apart and stacked the boards along the back fence and went about filling dumpsters. 
    This place has a big yard for a city lot -- almost a third of an acre -- and we envisioned a big garden, a kid's fort, a greenhouse, maybe a teepee, even a fire pit surrounded with friends and neighbors.  All of which has come true, over time, with the help of a skill saw, screw gun, buckets of 3-inch wood-screws, and much of that underestimated “work.”  The fire pit is a center of attention, especially during Equinox and Solstice gatherings.  People fill the yard, the fire blazes, kids scream and holler, and parents ignore them mesmerized by the heat, dancing light, and vibrant conversation.

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 Arches National Park.  It was early fall and I was joined by a skinny young woman with blond stringy hair and very long legs.  During the day we hiked to several arches, picnicked on sandstone domes, and let the sun warm and bake us into benevolent oblivion.  In the evening we feasted on gourmet one-pot camp-meals and washed it all down with cheap two-liter jugs of red wine.  As the sun set, we hiked up another arch and pointed our heads west, weathervane-like, taking in the hues of orange, yellow, and maroon.  We hiked back down to the campground through the bright crescent moonlight, the air as still as a reflecting pond, and heard rustlings of wild critters scampering over the sandstone.  When we reached the tent we snuggled into flannel-covered goose down.  This pattern repeated day after day, until my angry-young-mind was as smooth and creamy as a jar of Jiffy peanut butter, its lid freshly opened.  I pictured Abbey sitting on a large dome, guru-like, watching me, a prickly sunburnt smile on the edge of his cheek.


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 Costa Rica and I was living in a two-room basement apartment with mountain bikes for furniture.  Perhaps it was the rusted-out twenty-year-old Honda Civic that finally died, leaving me stranded and broke, often drunk and alienated.  And so the wheel turned, and I started tinkering and dabbling, looking more seriously at the Help Wanted ads, the Continuing Education course offerings, and the paychecks they offered.  The term "Marketable Skill" got used, without sarcasm, for the first time.  Health insurance seemed like a good idea; a retirement plan became a passable thought.  "Hope," in a humanistic, non-Abbey kind of way, even entered my vocabulary. 

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 Moab, Leopold is to Wisconsin, and more.  In fact, he’s God-like and revered.  Though dead over fifty years, his name is in the Madison newspaper as often as the Governor.  There's the Farm, the Shack, the Arboretum, and the Book.  There's his family constantly recycling and remarketing his name.  There's a Foundation and an AldoLeopold.org website.  There's the academics and the conservationists, invoking him and his words as a medallion, a torch, and a lighthouse.  The University of Wisconsin is literally abuzz with all-things-Leopold, almost as if people walk around with a giant "L" sewn on their chests, Aldo being their representation of all things right about the world.  It was a new thing for me, all this earnest, hard work and reverence, so unAbbey-like.  Hesitant and suspicious, yet guru-less and searching, I gave it a try.

I remember one particular trip up the Baraboo Hills, about forty miles northwest of Madison.  The Hills are about three hundred feet high and stretch over a forty-mile swath along the northern edge of the Wisconsin River.  They contain much of Sauk County and all of Leopold's Farm.  The Nature Conservancy deemed the Hills one of its "Last Great Places" and was hell-bent on saving it.  An article ran in the Madison newspaper extolling its virtues, pointing visitors to a patch of Conservancy-owned land near Leopold's Farm.  And so I went, on a summer weekday, to avoid the crowds.  As I turned off the highway and headed into the Hills, there were no crowds, only a lone farmer driving a tractor competing for space on the road.  A canopy of deciduous trees enveloped the sky, and I bumped along underneath, driving up a half-asphalt, half-gravel road.  I parked the car on a deserted turnout and jumped out, fanny pack full of granola and water, eager to explore this Great Place.  I made it about fifty feet before the first wave of mosquitoes hit.  Another fifty feet and three flying behemoths dive bombed and circled, kamikaze-like.  They had bright yellow wings with red dots, and they whined, cruise-missile-like, circling at ear-level.  Another fifty feet and the trail turned swampy, waist-high briars scraping at my legs.  Cicadas droned in the trees, sweat dropped in my eyes, and my lungs gasped to breathe the humid, clingy air.  I made it another fifty feet before running for the car, full-speed, in self-defense, emotionally drained.  I pictured Aldo sitting on His Bench, guru-like, watching me, an earnest look of wisdom on his face, his body draped in head-to-foot mosquito netting.

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 Great Place needs saving is because twenty thousand eager environmentalists are marooned at the university in Madison, just as Aldo and I were, forty minutes away, and have nothing else to claim. 

The Arboretum, Aldo's in-town sanctuary, is a small meadow surrounded by Madison's urban chaos.  It is trapped between a smelly, muddy, swampy lake and an interstate highway which roars with traffic overwhelming any sense of tranquility.  If you want to visit here, again bring your five-gallon can of bug repellent, and earplugs.  And the Book, yes The Sand County Almanac, is a little tract really, a poem almost, religious in nature, and if you remove all of the adrenaline, dopamine, and testerone from your body so that you become a helpless, depressed, work-loving Wisconsin Protestant, you might actually be able to read it.  I did, I was, and I read.  And I suffocated, my neck so tight that the gag reflex was as constant as the gray Wisconsin sky. 

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, around Wisconsin, and around the U.S.  The man dedicated the last half of his life to the work of conservation, and he did damn good.  He worked slavishly, and successfully, and never stopped.  As I read his biography, I became more and more tense, until the bitter end as he lay in bed trying to recover from a work-illness.  Instead of recuperating, he got up to work some more.  And died, then and there of a heart attack.  Of course, it's always hard to say, but it may be that he worked himself to death at 61.  Rather than a stomach ache, it gave me a severe chest pain.  And so I dove into the closet, unearthed the Abbey box, ripped open its cover and started flipping through the pages.  Freedom beckoned; I salivated, again.  Leopolds' world of work and suffering just didn't fit. 


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 Moab.  Somewhere between the Protestant and the Pagan.  Somewhere between this sober, straight-backed, face-reality, bench-sitter and the hard-drinking, fictionalizing, escape-artist who seemed to run so hard he could only have been running from himself.  I stand back and give His Bench a good looking-over.  A vision comes to me.  I am in a new place, not the Old West, nor Abbey’s fictional West, nor Leopold’s Midwest, but the Real West, full of complexity and compromise, of growth and change, full of real people with real jobs trying to make a real, workable, balanced life, full of people who can look at their own children with a sober but still-sparkling eye in which “work” and “hope and freedom” come together, one from the other.

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 Colorado prairie, Leopold-like.  Come visit -- work tours are available.  Bring firewood (and beer).  No bug repellent needed.

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