RECENTLY, TOM AND Kitty Stoner of Annapolis gave the Chesapeake Bay Foundation about a million dollars, accompanied by a request as delightful as it was modest.
Stoner, an Iowan who chose to locate his communications business on the bay after sailing here, had a poignant memory of a park he discovered during a business trip to London.
It was a tiny, serene island of open space amid the square miles of concrete and tall buildings. Several benches there had plaques, dedications from British and Americans who found respite and sanity in the little park during the chaos of bombings and war that shattered London in the early 1940s.
Kitty Stoner, a sociologist, had long been intrigued with the power of urban gardens and pocket parks to give spiritual renewal, to provide a place, she said, for momentarily "stepping out of" a world where life's pace seems to have sped beyond human scale.
The Bay Foundation, the Stoners said, should use a few thousand dollars to place several benches around the Chesapeake in places conducive to contemplation and reflection.
Each bench would carry a plaque with the theme: "Open Places, Sacred Spaces."
Don Baugh, the Bay Foundation's education director, recognized this was not a mission to be taken lightly. Choosing just the right locations would take, well, innumerable sorties to the choicest spots around the bay's thousands of miles of shoreline.
And it would be best, Baugh knew, if the trips coincided with good fishing, changes of seasons, migrations of wildlife -- all that goes into making the bay itself a sacred place.
He appointed a select group, known informally as the "sacred benches committee." It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it. I saw it as nothing less than a civic duty.
So it was that last Monday found several of us "sacred benchers" en route by boat to a 33-acre waterfront site in Bay Ridge, south of Annapolis, where the Bay Foundation will soon build its new headquarters.
It was heavy going. Schools of fat, pan-sized rock and bluefish delayed us, as did an oystery bottom off Tolley Point that held white perch, croaker and spot.
Awaiting us at Bay Ridge was a prototype bench, 9 feet long and made of recycled wood that would be virtually unobtainable new at any price.
The graceful curves of the bench reflected the contours of the wood's source -- old pickle barrels. Pickle factories once dotted the Delmarva Peninsula, each with hundreds of wooden casks up to 9 feet in diameter.
Before they were used to pickle cucumbers, many were used to age wine in West Coast vineyards. The wood in them is tight-grained, old growth cypress, fir, redwood and cedar, cut a century or two ago from trees that had been growing for many centuries before that.
Steeped in brine for decades, the wood is perfectly preserved and weatherproofed. Baugh, who was looking for cheap, high quality timber to repair the foundation's wooden boats, had bought out a defunct pickle factory last year.
Back at Bay Ridge, the toughest work of the day lay ahead of us -- picking a bench site from a place with an almost endless variety of perfect spots.
For most of this century the property was a premier resort, served by rail and steamers, and later a community club and park.
From a crescent of beach, one looks out to Thomas Point Light from beneath a huge willow oak. The land rolls up and back from the beach into a forest dominated by magnificent oaks and poplars.
The sun-dappled ground beneath them is open and parklike. Decades of resort traffic kept any dense undergrowth from sprouting. Beneath the tall oaks are dogwoods, black cherries and sassafras of extraordinary size. A tidal creek borders and reflects the forest for thousands of feet.
We walk and we talk and label our top picks for a bench. There is the "big oak site," the "perfect canoe launch site" and the "crab bite site" (where Baugh picked up what he thought was a big soft crab hiding in the roots of a creek-side tree).
In the end though, the committee is unanimous for an oak- and pine-shaded overlook that we labeled simply, "wind at your back."
The southwest breeze whipping off the bay and the sun simmering down through the tall trees and the creek's meander there just felt right.
And it is off the beaten path. Visitors will not be disturbed, and it will take a little work for them to find it. Perfect.
A champagne toast -- this is the last of six sites that will be at Bay Foundation education centers, from Tangier Island to Bay Ridge. The sacred bench committee is concluded.
Fortunately, the concept will go on. The Stoners have set up a foundation to place more benches, working with other groups like the Severn River Association.
More power to them. In a fast-developing state like Maryland, it is critical for people to rediscover the spiritual renewal that comes from contemplating nature; to take responsibility for preserving open spaces for such intangible values.
I recall Glen Eugster, from the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Program, saying once: "We work with pollution problems, which are important; but what really motivates us? Sediments? Toxics? Perhaps for awhile, but long term, I doubt it can sustain people like more fundamental values [inherent in] sacred places."
Each of our benches will take a barrel to make. The committee, reluctant to go out of business, asked Baugh if he had more.
He smiled. He bought 100 of them.
Pub Date: 9/25/98