A terrace, shelf, or platform—usually narrow and relatively level, and backed by a steep grade—that breaks the continuous line of a slope is called a bench. Benches often mark former shorelines, and wave-cut terraces in the flanks of the Wasatch Mountains east of Salt Lake City, Utah, provide a dramatic example of this type of formation. Here, the liquid hand of ancient Lake Bonneville, the huge Pleistocene body of water of which Great Salt Lake is a remnant, has been at work. This staircase of distinct platforms tells the story of long pauses in Lake Bonneville’s episodic fluctuations. Brewster Ghiselin deftly captures the respite a mountain bench offers a climber when he writes: “We easily turned from the path,/To the dusk of the bench and the poorwills,/ Having no time to gain/Or lose, being paid by the moment.” The benches of the northern California coast at Big Sur and near Bodega Bay were formed as the continent was successively uplifted by tectonic forces, elevating these benches above the waves that created them. A length of floodplain parallel to and stretching away from a riverbank is also called a bench, as is each surface of worked ground in the sequence of steps rising up the side of an open-pit mine. In Idaho and other parts of the West, a bench is also any flat surface that provides working access to a mine and, often, any of a series of broad terraces adjacent to a large river, as indicated in “We topped the rise above the river and saw cattle grazing the bench.”

Terry Tempest Williams