He's a gifted artist when it comes to stone masonry, but, every chance he gets, he turns his eyes on birds.
Chris Agee is also a man devoted to God and family who occasionally treks around the globe to serve others, which allows him to take mesmerizing portraits with his camera as well as snap pictures of gorgeous, feathered creatures along the way.
The multi-gifted fellow makes his daily bread as a hands-on rock landscaping contractor, but before the sun goes down each night, he might be found chilling at his home in the midst of the pastures, woods and hills of Brush Creek in Smith County.
"Anything church related is my No. 1 passion, then birding, photography and travel," said Agee, who worships with his family at Crossroads Fellowship in the Tuckers Crossroads community of Wilson County.
And then he added, "Even when I'm working, I'm birding."
The birdwatcher has compiled a life list of 549 species of birds that he has identified with his own eyes, and he just started three years ago.
But more about the birds later, let's talk first delve into rocks, stones and boulders and what this man can do with them.
Foreman while a HS senior
"When I was 15, before I was driving, I was ready to get insurance and have a car," recollected Agee, 46, about his teen years in Northern Virginia. "I looked for a job in the newspaper with my mom. There were two options: a shoe store in the mall and Betty's Azalea Ranch. I told my mom, 'I think I'd rather work outside than inside.' That was 1985.
"I was landscaping, planting things and installing walkways, patios and building retaining walls and waterfalls. My senior year in 1985, I was working 40, 50, 60 hours a week and running crews as foreman back then. This is all I've done ever since."
Moving to Middle Tennessee in 1996, he started his own business in 1999. Today, as one of the partners in Living Stone, he teams with landscape architect Drew Herring of Lebanon and foreman Ryan Miller, also of Lebanon.
He aptly describes himself with a few paragraphs on his business web site:
My name is Chris Agee. I own and operate Living Stone. I believe in keeping things simple in my own life and in my business. My goal for Living Stone is not to have many crews working on many jobs making my job stressful and spread thin. I like getting dirty and working with the guys. Everyone on our crew works hard and takes pride in each job we do. I do not believe in having too many jobs going at one time, that is when quality and customer happiness suffer. I like to start a job and complete it before starting a new one.
I have two children and a beautiful wife who are very important to me. I believe the Bible when it says to love God with all your heart and to love the people near you as yourself. I love being outdoors and traveling. Every two years or so, I meet my brother in a different part of the world to see how different cultures live in this huge world of ours.
I have a creative artistic side of me and I like working hard. It makes what I do perfect for me. I love my job.
Naturally, a hard worker
Agee noted that the hardscaping company uses a creative approach by mixing materials such as boulders, brick, wood and stones to make an exclusive design. By incorporating natural and realistic elements, they are able to create one-of-a-kind projects to suit each client's vision.
"We work a lot around swimming pools. We build outdoor fireplaces, outdoor kitchens with grills, sinks, refrigerators. We do a lot of patios, ponds and waterfalls," he said.
"Everything we work with is very heavy. I like working with large boulders trying to recreate nature, trying to make it as natural as possible. What I love about it, it's outside and I'm working hard putting a lot of effort into it and seeing it through completion."
While Agee and his crew do a lot of intricate stonework, they also have created outdoor masterpieces that include a 100-foot-long pond with a 12-foot-high waterfall. He also has worked with boulders as heavy as three tons.
The majority of Living Stone's customers live in Davidson, Sumner, Williamson and Wilson counties; however in 2008, Agee and his team did a special project for country music star Trace Adkins at his home in Eagleville in Rutherford County for the DIY television show, "Indoors Out."
The challenge was to build a big fireplace, a big pergola, an outdoor kitchen and a flagstone patio with large boulders and slab steps in three days. Living Stone came through with flying colors, and Adkins himself pitched in with some of the labor.
As a rocksmith, Agee works primarily with sandstone and limestone.
"Limestone," he said, "you can take and chip it and shape it like you want. The sandstone is harvested from the ground out of rock in the Crossville area. I prefer sandstone. It's more natural and has a better shape to it generally."
Agee described each project as unique.
"They all have a certain challenge. No job's the same. I get to be in different places with different challenges and get to figure things out. Drew has taken care of all the design, selling and coordinating meetings. That allows me the freedom to work, and that is what I love best, to be out in the sun doing hard work."
Born in Madrid, Spain, where his father was stationed in the Air Force, Agee spent his formative years in Virginia. However, his great-grandfather, Herman Cheek, was a farmer in New Middleton in Smith County, and the family came often on summer visits. In the mid-1990s, his father settled here, and Agee soon followed. He married his wife Michele in 2000.
She recalled, "We met at a Bible study at Immanuel Baptist in Lebanon, a college and careers class. I thought it was really neat when he came in and would get a cup of coffee and had his Bible open and ready to learn. He was just intriguing to me."
The couple has two daughters, Anabelle, a seventh-grader, and Lily, a sixth-grader, who attend New Middleton Elementary School.
Michele, a native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, serves as an instructional technology specialist for the Wilson County School System. Previously, she taught computer skills to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders for 10 years at Tuckers Crossroads Elementary and for six years at West Wilson Middle School.
Planting churches around the globe
The Agees have been members at Crossroads Fellowship in Tuckers Crossroads, a plant from Watertown's Round Lick Baptist Church, since 2001.
Chris's brother has been a world traveler for years, and a decade ago talked him into going abroad. The duo trekked the Himalayas for five weeks and in 2008 spent six weeks in India.
Agee has since been to about 10 more countries, serving on mission projects and will be heading for Nepal, one of his favorite places, in September.
Michele said, "They will try to accomplish three things: to teach the women of Nepal how to can so that food can be taken to remote villages, to work with pastor training, and they're going to build two structures for two families."
Hosting two bird habitats
Getting back to birds, on the Agees' acreage in Brush Creek, Chris pointed out, "Anything can fly through here. I keep a yard list. Any time I see a new bird on the property, I add to the list. I have like 130 on the list including flyovers.
"In the back, we have woods with seven different woodpeckers and tanagers and owls. In the front, which is a field, we have indigo buntings, yellow throats, chat, sparrows and orchard orioles. The fun thing that is neat is try to find all seven woodpeckers in one day. That's hard to do.
"Lately, I've been focusing more on a natural way of attracting birds with plants. The hummingbirds have been loving these shrubs we've put in. The pasture out front, I'm letting it grow, and the wildflowers are a great habitat for birds that like grassland and field. There are whole different types of birds that like the front than the back."
How did he morph into an avid birdwatcher?
Michele answered, "He's not always been a birder. When we built our house, it didn't have a deck on back. Three years ago, we decided to add the deck. I went to the co-op to buy a birdfeeder for the deck, and his mom put a bird book in the cart."
Chris expounded, "Three years ago, I knew maybe three or four birds. Then one day, I saw a little drab, gray bird so I grabbed the book. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to figure it out. I found it was a dark-eyed junco."
He was hooked.
A rare bird, indeed
Today, he not only knows a multitude of birds by sight but can recognize about 100 birds by their songs and calls.
"I love state birding," said Agee. "I am all about finding as many birds as I can in Tennessee. I will drive from Chattanooga to Memphis and from Reelfoot Lake to Bristol chasing rare birds."
His cell phone even goes off with an alert when another birder reports on a rare bird discovered in the state. That once led him in search of a tundra swan in East Tennessee where he stayed from dawn to dark and never saw the creature. "A miss," he said.
Michele said, "When he says, 'Hey, honey, what are we doing today?' I can tell why he's asking. [He is wanting to go on a wild bird chase.] But I'm happy that he has something that makes him so happy."
So, should you spot a snowy owl, the winged wonder that perches at the top of his list of birds to see in Tennessee, please give Agee a hoot or a holler. A phone number is listed on his business web site.
For more details about Chris Agee's Living Stone landscaping business that specializes in outdoor living areas, go online to livingstonetn.com.