Over the past few decades I have enjoyed seeing an increase in the amount of plaques adorning benches and other objects while out on my various outdoor hikes. Although the choice of animate and inanimate objects very in terms of where the plaques are displayed; each one is meant to commemorate the heart and spirit of a cherished loved one who has passed away.
And I have become an admiring fan as I have formed the habit of pausing to read most plaques within view of the trail. What I find amazing is how quickly and freely one can gain privileged little insights into what is truest and sacred regarding each one of the people chosen.
In many ways I find such benchmarks to be more compelling and meaningful than the actual gravestones that officially represent the official burial place of the person. I love that these tributes are situated in the real environment in which the person lived a very meaningful part of their lives with their loved ones. Seen as such, these plaques do a profound job of capturing the celebration of living right smack dab in mid-stream, informally and natural; without pontification or politics.
I would be at a loss to trace its origins—although it likely stretches back to our founding colonies, but the dedication of sidewalk bricks, benches, and trees to the memory of loved ones seems to be mushrooming in popularity alongside the establishment of so many stream valley trails. Such markers reflect what is best about us as human beings in our interactions with nature and seem to be go hand in hand with other interpretative signs along highways that provide tributes to fallen police officers or some watershed reminder of the Chesapeake Bay.
It is healthy trend that these examples of personal histories and tributes are popping up as more exercise spaces are created such as the Cross County Trail in Fairfax County and the W@OD trail to name just a few.
It also goes to show that when we take the time to remove ourselves from high speed interstate freeways and immediate exit areas, the more personal touches we shall find, and with it the more awareness of our environment.
Of course there are many other examples of commemorating past and present people. Large university donors get their names printed on bricks on campus based on their level of giving. Hollywood has walks of fame reserved for famous celebrities.
But these are all linked with privilege. For simple acts of love, I find nothing more touching than officially linking a dear friend or family members name in just the right context where memories were forged forever. And as I said earlier, I believe it to be as meaningful and uplifting as any cemetery plot or urn ever could as it reveals a wide open, democratic acceptance for all of us to partake in. The joy that these other human beings experienced in these very spots are intuitively understood and shared by others instantly with very little need for longer winded texts. They celebrate life and the passion of doing and what is best in each of us. Even for passing strangers, such benches add a touch of soul to every trail and makes the experience a merged one instead of just some solo struggle.
P.S. Regarding these photos:
On many stretches of the Bull Run Trail and the W&OD trail I came across very touching dedications for loved ones in the form of benches with messages on them. Papa’s Bench was one such place at Buckthorn hill on the W&OD trail in Reston, Virginia.
Every generation on the age spectrum is represented as another plaque on the W &OD celebrated a tragically deceased one year old baby lovingly recalled and a personalized tribute to her spirit and love of adventure, while another was the Bluebells tribute to a departed, 89 year old loved one on the Bull Run Trail.
All of these benchmarks represent what is best about our parks and our natural and cultural landscapes as history is shown to be very personal and embracing for all of us.