In praise of garden benches
By Cheryl Capaldo Traylor
Illustration by Laurel Holden
Every garden needs at least one good bench, a place to pause and rest our world-weary souls, and a spot to dream and plan for the future. If it’s true that gardens are extensions of our homes, they should provide as much comfort and pleasure as our interior spaces do. Thoreau wrote: “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.” I have a similar arrangement in my garden. Three main sitting areas punctuate my backyard: Bill’s Bench, the pergola swing, and an eclectic grouping of chairs and benches surrounding the firepit. Each place provides a unique mood and experience as I sit and linger on welcome autumn days.
“Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us. We need . . . spates of time sitting on park benches, observing the mysterious world of ants and the canopy of treetops,” advised Maya Angelou. When I withdraw from my cares, there’s a special bench in my garden ready to receive me. I spend a good amount of time sitting on Bill’s Bench, given to me by my brother, Bill, before he passed away from pancreatic cancer at 57. “It’s your inheritance,” he joked. This special bench invites peaceful solitude each morning as I trudge out with coffee at first light. I sit and observe. Carolina wrens shriek, then dart beneath thick kerria shrubs. On chilly mornings, the beloved hymns of white-throated sparrows fill the air. Sometimes I pray. Sometimes I meditate. And sometimes I just doze off to gentle sleep. I nod, the goldenrods around me nod — a choreographed motion that may look like we are in common prayer — until wind chimes sing out, signaling the end of our liturgy. Time to come back to the world of work and mammon.
Humans have been lounging in gardens with friends and loved ones for centuries. Sculptures from the seventh century B.C. show King Ashurbanipal, a fearsome warrior and keen gardener, reclining on an ornate couch beside his queen in the Gardens at Nineveh. I don’t have an elaborate couch to entertain my guests on, but I do have a pergola swing. While technically not a bench, this suspended seat is large enough to share with a friend. Or two friends, if they are tiny giggly girls wrapped in a thick quilt handmade by your mother — but that’s the nostalgic me digressing to a much earlier time. The girls are grown and have long moved out, but the swing still beckons visitors to sit a spell, to chat, even to giggle. I offer red wine on mild autumn afternoons or chilled prosecco on steamier days, often served with a snack like hummus and chips. My guest and I might discuss the symphony or new theater production, our kids, our community, gardens, animals — both domestic and wild. These tête-à-tête meetings with neighbors, or new friends, help knit a community together and establish deeper trust. On a swing, beneath an arbor covered in sweet-scented clematis, we commune.
As the evenings grow colder, more time is spent by the firepit. I pour a heavy measure of Baileys into mugs of coffee and offer them to my guests. Here in the dark is where the world’s problems are mulled over, discussed and seemingly solved, depending on the amount of Baileys we go through. Sometimes the night quietens, and we all sit staring into the flames thinking deep existential thoughts that we will eventually share. We do a fair amount of collective worrying about the environment, the state of healthcare, and what the future holds for our children and grandchildren. We discuss politics in our community and the world at large. We are pragmatists who gather around this handmade brick firepit, but we are also optimists. Our greatest accomplishments happen after our informal meetings are over, as we go out into the world to volunteer, teach, peaceful-protest, and create works of art and writing that invite others to think deeper, and perhaps, care more. A fiery ripple effect, of sorts.
And what about gardeners who say there’s too much to do in the garden to rest or relax on a bench? When seated, they only notice weeds and work. “What a mess of a garden!” they bemoan, and begin pulling stiltgrass and tucking unruly rose stems. What a shame; there will still be time for weeding and pruning. But, now is the time of harvest. A time for receiving many of the best gifts that a garden offers: quiet contemplation, devoted friendships, and moments of communal inspiration and hope.
Praise be; the goldenrods nod. Praise be.
Cheryl Capaldo Traylor is a writer, gardener, reader, and hiker.