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Take A Walk At The Bentley Nature Preserve

There are places so special we never forget them no matter how many years pass.

Last week I discovered the Bentley Nature Preserve in Fluvanna. It’s a preserve of acreage and wild plants in a wetland forest at the far end of Bentley Avenue. The road itself did not even exist when I was a child.

All I knew then was a long and compelling dirt road, leading from the six acres next to the Old Fluvanna Church, the fox den and the Vlie–the swamp near Old Route 17 behind Fluvanna–over the hill to Cederquist Stables on Strunk Road.

We rode those hard-edged horses with their rough hooves and rugged coats, the saddles too big for us with stirrups too long, and big Gene Cederquist waving us off with a spit to the side and a raise of a soiled hand. The horses were hardy and unbeautiful. We loved them anyway. And they were reliable as rain. They never bucked or ran away. They kept their legs quiet when kids struggled off and on them.

None of them had names, I don’t think, bless their old hides. We would hitch them up outside the barn, mount and ride off down the drive way and turn right for maybe 25 yards before taking the forest path over the hill. Route 86 did not exist, so we headed up the winding path into evergreen forest and down the other side to the path by three artesian springs. We often dismounted there and sat by one of the springs.

Muskrats built little dens on the side and swam in the shallows; turtles floated with their heads poking atop the water. Water lilies floated in the stream. Sometimes that water hardly moved at all. It was the color of tea.

All we heard was the soft whinnying of the horses, the crunch of horses chewing grass with metal bits in their mouths, the sound of birds in the pine forest above and behind us.

This was Bentley Avenue 1960, idyllic, a wild tangle of plants, a dirt road and three artesian wells where kids like me rode horses or walked with their dogs on a fall afternoon. It was a sanctuary then too, of its own wild kind, a place where the rest of the world disappeared and Nature was our companion. I’ve read since that noted ornithologist and Jamestown native Roger Tory Peterson used to walk these same trails much earlier in the 20th century. Peterson noted he found “70 species of birds, 225 pairs, and 60 pairs nested there.”

This lovely stretch of land and water has become an avenue with nice middle class houses on both sides, with big yards and plenty of country quiet and sweet air. The new highway slices the old trail in two.

Bentley ends at a loop under the old pines. Deer used to rest there under those long boughs and so did we.

And it is there where we kids rode horses and used to play, right there at the end of what is now Bentley Avenue, a true sanctuary of birds, trees, wildflowers, wetlands and wildlife called the Bentley Nature Preserve.

In this place of immense beauty and solitude, white and blue wildflowers carpet the ground. Ferns grow in the danker spots, lit from above by patches of sunlight. A path wends through the wetlands just like the old days though it’s a new path, I think, with a bridge built by volunteers.

This wondrous place evolved from the Alexander Bentley family, who bought this land in 1846, farmed it and lived on it for more than 100 years.

One of his sons, Gustavus, fascinated by the land he grew up on, became a botanist and teacher, a principal and an environmentalist. In 1960, Gustavus Bentley donated approximately 40 acres to the Audubon Society with the intention of preserving part of this wild and remarkable place with its acres of wildflowers, ferns, rambling waters, and forests. According to his work “Plants Found in Bentley Sanctuary,” Bentley “documented 353 species of plants from 78 families, including 15 species of fern, six species of orchid, nine species of violets and an astounding diversity of wildflowers, including bloodroot, wild ginger, blue-eyed grass, dragon arum, painted trillium, lady’s-slippers, hepatica, Indian pipe and many more.”

Recently, the Audubon Society passed stewardship on to the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy.

According to the Audubon Community Nature Center, the Bentley Preserve is open “from dawn to dusk. Visitors are welcome to enjoy the Bentley Sanctuary, located at the end of Bentley Avenue, off Fluvanna Avenue near the Strunk Road exit off Interstate 86. A quietly meandering stream runs through it, and a system of trails allows access to a good deal of the property. Much of the forest at Bentley Sanctuary consists of large old American Beech, Northern Red Oak, Yellow Birch and Eastern Hemlock, and it is home or way station to many species of birds. Over the years, naturalists have identified more than 330 species of flowering plants on the site.”

For further information about the preserve, people can contact the Jamestown Audubon Society, which manages the preserve, or call 569-2345 or visit jamestownaudubon.org.

Today as I write, the wind is from the east — always a blessing. It brings with it all the fine things that make us glad to be alive. It’s spring. Breathe deep. Try a walk here.

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