Wednesday, December 16, 2015


As morning light threatened, we abandoned the house in practiced silence, save for a shrill whistle and the rhythmic clinking of a field collar. Its owner, Tucker, a sprightly, peppery English setter, rode the truck’s back bench-seat well. Curled in a ball of muscular fur and tradition, his position was suggestive of the grit that often characterizes upland hunting and its participants. I diverted my gaze.

    The winter sun was veiled by clouds and fog, presenting the day in a melancholy haze. A half-hour drive landed us on the brushy banks of the James River, at a boat landing in the Hardware River Wildlife Management Area. The lot was empty, and with reason. Migratory woodcock had long since abandoned the tangled successional growth of the riverbottom for the swampy groves of the Old South, squirrel and deer season had withered, and February’s biting personality had fishermen frightened from the banks of the meandering river. For the season, the secrets of the almighty James seemed secure under a thick haze.

An early bird hunt.
    Tucker glided out of the back door tenderly. Dad corralled him to adjust his collar and behold his soft, wispy ears. Few words were uttered before the morning commenced with a locating beep from Tucker’s collar and our shotgun-toting footsteps crunching upon frost-bitten cut corn.

    The weather on such days is enough to draw my thoughts inward and leaden my tongue in meditation, but there was something more spiritual at play in the bottomland. We followed our four-legged guide closely, observing him peruse cover, rather than observing the cover he perused. A cottontail dashed from cover. Tucker ignored it from good training. We took little note, our reflexes jaded by thought.

    The communal element to bird hunting was as clouded as the sun, as Dad looked forward to Tucker for conversation. I understood. More than a decade’s share of memories tied the companions. From cool Minnesotan nights, to fast-paced grouse shooting in the snow-blanketed forests of the upper-Midwest and Virginia highlands, their relationship was one of mutual dependency. Second only to a common love for grouse and woodcock, Tuck’s affinity for crisp northern nights and his habit of filching laps of scotch from his Master’s unattended glass mortared a friendship only strengthened over years working for each other.
Training time, with a harnesses bobwhite quail.
    Of course, the memories I perceived pouring from my father’s pensive eyes were imparted to me only as nostalgia. My relationship with Tucker was different. He was introduced to our household just months before I. It was he who provided much of my transportation in my pre-walking years, dragging me about the wood floors of our Fluvanna County home by the stocking feet of my pajamas, and hauling my saucer-sled over fresh powder by a leash fashioned as a harness. I hunted over him—rather, pointed over him, with my training cap shotgun—as a young boy. Still, most memorable was his good-natured spirit that established him as a childhood friend and shot-gunning companion.

    We entered the fourth in a chain of linked, riparian corn fields when we made the decision to turn back. Our halt lit the flame under the hooves of a 12-point buck bedded on the field’s edge. The morning’s first audible words were spit in reflexive excitement.

    The shadow that loomed over us soon returned, our hunt half over.

    Tucker’s senses roped him from the intricacies of the field to the cover of the tangled riverbank, where, after nosing methodically, he uncovered the magnificently large shell of a river cooter. I dusted it off and found it a place in my pack.

    It was New Year’s Day the last time Tucker yielded me a prize of his own industry—a chukar taken on the wing from a game preserve in Southside Virginia. That was a different hunt—one lively and filled with comradery. He zig-zagged cover unrestrained, ears bouncing loosely in the frosted sun, feet treading deftly, on track to a bedded bird. At dusk, we collected our party and turned back. 

    Tucker plodded exhaustedly in the lead, but caught our immediate attention when he froze mid-step, convulsing briefly.

    As we approached the truck, the oppressive haze seemed to lift. Conversation emerged and colored our unloading and packing as a statement of burdensome acceptance. With the fading light in the riverbottom, yet another Virginia grouse season would be retired to the pages of sporting memories in the mountains—but we were not hunting for grouse. There is no grouse season this far east. We were hunting for a memory. All three hunters recognized that the brain tumor that was steadily revealing itself in our beloved setter with every soulful step would make this season a concluding one, and this hunt, a final chapter—an epilogue worth writing and cherishing, forever.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, December 8, 2015


On Tuesday, December 1, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) hosted a public hearing at Central Elementary School in Fluvanna County to permit the “dewatering” of coal ash ponds at the Bremo Bluff Power Plant on the banks of the James River, not far from Fork Union. The proposed permit would allow Dominion to discharge arsenic, hexavalent chromium, selenium, and several other metals into the river with little or no prior treatment.

    Previously Virginia’s oldest coal-fueled power plant, the Bremo Bluff operation was converted to a natural gas-powered facility in June of 2014, which brought an improvement to the Commonwealth’s overall air quality.

    Now, just over a year later, the proposed wastewater treatment practice promises to harm the water quality of our nation’s river.

    The process of “dewatering,” simply, is the process of removing liquid from solid substances in wastewater mixtures. As it stands, Dominion’s draft permit is a reissuance of a previously-existing permit that now proposes to release cooling water and treated industrial wastewater associated with the fallow coal ash ponds from the plant’s coal-burning years into the James River at Bremo Bluff.

    In a press release by the James River Association (JRA) advertising the results of the hearing, a few concerns were voiced.

    First, the draft permit is in violation of the Clean Water Act. JRA brings further attention to the fact that the permitting limits established by the VDEQ are significantly higher than those set in other states, and are inefficient in preserving the aquatic ecosystem and public health. The James River supports nearly a third of Virginia residents living in 39 counties and 19 towns and cities, who depend upon its water for drinking.

    Second, there is no mention of endangered species considerations in the draft plan. The Endangered Species Act, as it has the power to influence regulations for land- and water-use practices that even slightly impact the vitality of a struggling species, is a major player in many environmental protections cases, and will likely be a popular arguing point for commenters on this issue.

    It is worthy of note that the James River, in the most recent State of theJames report, was given a B- rating for overall ecosystem health, pooling several contributing factors. Furthermore, wastewater pollution control, specifically, was given a rating of over 100 percent, citing facility upgrades and the resulting improvements in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution reductions, which places the James well ahead of schedule for goals set as part of the Chesapeake Bay Cleanup.

    Still, in its most recent State of theBay assessment, the Chesapeake was rated a D+ for overall health, with a slow pattern of improvement.

    Though, according to these popularized reports, the James is a relatively healthy environment from a water quality perspective, as always, it is important that we think progressively. The James River scores higher than the Bay, but far from perfect. There is still work to be done, and setting beneficial, responsible precedents in environmental policy is an important first step.

    The public comment period on this draft permit will remain open until December 14, 2015. Written comments may be submitted to Beverley Carver at Letters may be mailed to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, company of Beverley Caver.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, December 1, 2015


The holiday season, among other things, reminds us of the intrinsic values of the finer things in life—friends, family, health, peace. However, alongside that humble tradition, we’ve incorporated a more destructive cultural practice.

    America writes its shopping list in the weeks preceding Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the floodgates are opened the Friday following Turkey Day—Black Friday, a marketing ploy both loved and hated to a high degree.

    The infectious lifeblood of frenzied consumerism that courses through our country’s veins is unleashed, sweeping away Thursday’s reminders of the importance of the simpler pleasures with sale prices and limited time offers. You should take this description with a grain of salt, though. I never was much of a shopper.

    Particularly these days, as a “financially limited” college student who spends the majority of the year a few hundred miles from family, long-time friends, and all the aesthetic features that characterize home, when I am granted an opportunity to revisit and enjoy those things, there is little more on my mind. I have a lot to be thankful for—among them, family, friends, opportunity, and passion—and I believe it essential in recognizing that to control zeal and further material gain.

    Last year, somewhat on accident, my older brother, Phillip (whom I used to write about more frequently), and I established what is becoming a tradition of spending Black Friday on the water together.

    Black Friday, 2014 was an absolutely frigid day. It was easy to question whether or not we were actually behaving in a more sensible manner than the shoppers of O-dark-thirty. Nevertheless, we convened in a frosted parking lot in Charlottesville at dawn and made tracks towards a trout stream over the mountain.

    As the first day in a steep cold snap, the fishing was slow, though I did manage to seal the deal on an 18-inch brown, while Phillip capitalized on a few of the stream’s smaller residents.

    Noon arrived, and the mercury hadn’t evaded the biting 20s, so we called it a day and found comfort a few centimeters in front of the car’s blasting heat vents.

    2015 brought a more temperate day. After a hearty Thanksgiving dinner, I passed out on the couch to rise early the next morning and place a bead on the Highlands. The drive was colored with meaningful, spirited conversation (as we no longer get to spread it out throughout the year) and was far from exhausted when we reached our destination.

    Recent rains had the creek running strong, though not high. Taking turns on pools and pockets, we passed the morning and afternoon casting dry flies and nymphs to native brook trout and telling fish stories from our time apart not yet relayed.

    Though our fingers are numb and our feet frozen from standing in barely-above freezing waters, these days end warmly. It’s a feeling fueled by neither greed nor desire, but by the feeling of progressive nostalgia that comes with practicing classic things, by the idea that family and memories and passions will continue to be perpetuated, year after year, even after the last of the flatscreens have been purchased and the Christmas music fades into the background for another year.

    This is what the holidays are about.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian.