Tuesday, March 29, 2016


It is in this season of rebirth that church attendances spike across the country as the timidly church-going crowd makes a traditional pilgrimage—largely from supposed obligation—from the safety of an artificially sacrosanct modern routine, to the pews, to celebrate the foundational event of the Christian religion. Inevitably, as suddenly as this seasonal devotion emerged, it retreats into a criticized abyss. Regulars among the pews come to associate a negative connotation with the “Easter crowd,” and discussions emerge over the importance of weekly church attendance in the lifestyle of the faithful. I can’t help but think something is missing.

A storm parts over the Grayson Highlands. Photo by Matt Reilly
    My own church attendance is irregular. I don’t go every week, and I’ve skipped a few Christmas services in recent years, but I don’t feel I’ve missed anything. I don’t feel a distance from God.

    After a childhood of returning weekly to the church building I grew up in, around the time that some of my teenage friends began disappearing from the aisles as they began to make decisions about their beliefs for themselves, I underwent a similar discovery. I began to abandon the building and the sermons for a more natural approach—for hymns sung by songbirds and flowing water, salvation offered in a sunrise.

    Though I perhaps knew all along, and did what was most pleasing to my being, I didn’t tackle the question of the reason for my faith until rather recently. It seems—at least it did, to me—an irrelevant question when you’re content, but one that could be enriching to have the answer to worked out, nevertheless.   

    The people of the world, throughout time, have had faith and developed belief systems because of an innate desire to explain the world around them and answer the questions for which there are no empirical answers. I am no different.

    Religions, factions, and denominations emerge to surround different cultures and serve as a standard of beliefs for the faithful public. But the act of faith is personal, and speaks to us in the most personal of ways.

    For me, that way is through nature and through words. I am a romantic person, yes. I can be emotional. But if you've ever defied metaphorical gravity or felt a warmness in your soul sparked by the sight of a voluminous freestone river barreling through a maple gorge ablaze by the dying ember of autumn, or teared up to the tune of a flawless line, a timeless, nostalgic anecdote filled to the brim with old world tradition and wisdom, you may have a similar kind of faith as I.

    These are the things that I find to be beautiful—supernaturally, unbelievably beautiful. For these things I can perceive no possibility of their coming about by chance, by some stupendous, spontaneous cosmic happening, even if succeeded by millions of years of evolution, fine-tuning, and settling.

    In the beauty of these things, I hear God’s words, as they spill from the mountains and the lowlands and the trickling hollows, and I think them as I hear them. As I think these things, I conclude that I am of them, and as such, don’t find loneliness, but purpose and inspiration.

    As somewhat of a rambler, I recognize these words as the same that speak, and have spoken, to those of a similar faith as I—the same words that have inspired great works and thoughts, all just meager attempts to transcribe the words that come. In this I recognize that when my last track has been pressed and my last word written, I will go home to the mountains, the lowlands, and the trickling hollows. These words will remain, while my thoughts become their words; and their words, the thoughts of my gone-home contemporaries.

    All of this from a mere question of faith, a thoughtful departure from the cultural, comfortable, church-going experience? Through the countless personal church services I’ve enjoyed in my time, I’ve encountered many an evening, and every sunset asks the same question: “How have you lived?” I hope you can smile in answering.

    Church is not a building. It’s an experience—taking a break from the chaotic flux of everyday life and surrendering control of your heart, mind, and soul to something bigger than ourselves. I find it in nature.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian

Tuesday, March 15, 2016


Swamps never really go to sleep; they only wake up.

Campfire in Dragon Run Swamp. Photo by Matt Reilly.
    I was a few paddle strokes into one of Virginia’s own when this thought came to mind. I could feel it.

    The aroma of black swamp water--of cypress and tannin--burned like incense as a fiery sun yielded to the chill of night over Northern Neck farm fields, behind a labyrinth of crowns and tangles.

    Noises grew as their sources disappeared under cover of darkness. Red-winged blackbirds whistled gurgling shrills in staggered succession. A choir of spring peepers, and its baritone bullfrogs, sounded off eternally. Dragon Run, trickling audibly as thick roots and channel tighten its course, rounded out the background.

    A blue heron made its last flaps of daylight across the landscape, breaking limbs, pushing air, and emitting a raspy squall as it found a roost in a cypress crown. Odd screams--from bobcats, foxes, or something else altogether--broke the rhythm, but went unquestioned, as part of the age-old awakening song that commences every day as dusk turns out the lights.

    The horizon blazed orange, and I intended to keep it alive as long as possible, but craved nightfall. With a heavy-footed boot, I carved out a wide circle in the leafy understory—six feet wide, about. With a strong stick, I dug a shallow pit into the dirt--through humus, mud, and veiny roots—just two feet wide, enough to harbor a modest pile of sticks.

    It didn't take long, or much roaming, to ascertain a healthy collection of wood—twigs and branches of increasing thickness. Each size went into its own pile, ready for application. From an undisturbed site, I took handfuls of leaves from the floor—dry ones, untouched by the dampness of the swampy ground. In an airy ball, they represented my last ditch effort to retain light, with the sun gone, light fading quickly.

    A match brought it back, slowly. It caught as a glowing edge on the finger of an oak leaf, smoked, smoldered, and grew to engulf the pile. One by one, I added small twigs, then larger ones. As the flame gained strength, I invested a pile of arm-thick branches, leaning them to rest against each other over the blaze, hopefully to catch, and keep the light on.

    But the swamp is old. The wood that was readily accessible was punk—rotten, flaky. It burned through in minutes, making upkeep a chore. It was a happy chore, though.

    Fire has long been a symbol of civilization, of life—the only thing that sets humans apart from animals. It grants hope and comfort. A fire illuminates more than just the night.

    If ever there was an old-world essence surrounding my activities, it disappeared the moment I bit into an imported mango. Dinner was finished off with a handful of cashews.

    After a final fueling of the fire, I lashed rope to two old oaks, and hung a hammock, from which to become, with the fire, the only thing fading away in the swamp.

    For the time, the fire granted enough light to read by--A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean's masterpiece--and the shadows it cast made the plot all the more dramatic. In the swamp, a river runs through the forest—is the forest--save for a few firm spots where the oak trees grow—a long way from the glacial canyons and bustling logging camps of western Montana. Maclean probably never saw the likes of a southern Virginia cypress swamp, but the drama, and the haunting, he knew is rich here, too.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian.


Every year, as winter fights a losing battle with the advances of spring and natural rejuvenation, Mother Nature’s actors stage for the opening act. Upon spring’s minor victories, the mercury ascends—into the 50s, 60s—and some of my favorite actors, in an aqueous, farm field gem, begin their own ascent.

    These charismatic, southern sporting phenotypes begin undergoing changes as water temperatures approaches 50 degrees. Their metabolisms ramp up. They’re inspired to move, to chase, and to earn energy in ambush games with larger and larger prey. More importantly, they experience a change in attitude—from the idle survivalism of the winter doldrums, to the procedural excitement of reproduction.

    The males move first, from the thermal refuges of deep water, finning the ridges of points, towards warming shallow-water spawning sites.

    As the sun beats down on the sparkling water, these shallow spawning flats become the most attractive habitat to awakening bass—but only by temperature. The rest of the set is a skeleton of its unhampered essence. Lily pads, bullfrogs, tall grass, dobsonflies—all are holding off for the security of the warmer months.

    Grasses, though, are on the way. When the right water temperature is achieved, they begin to sprout from the pond floor, and play an important part in the story that I have come to know.

    The ambient air temperature continues to fluctuate—from the high 30s to the low 70s—throughout the end of February and beginning of March. Likewise, competing warm and cold air masses created by the periodical warming of the Earth, and the subsequent radiation into the air, bring the lion out in March. She rages on almost every day, particularly the warm ones, representing the final variable in the annual production I’ve acquainted myself with.

    Humans are creatures of habit too. Outdoorsmen, I like to think of as seasonal junkies. Every week of the year can be designated a particular pursuit (or faction of a pursuit) that is ripe for the time. The late winter window, in which all of the aforementioned variables coexist, is one of my personal favorites, which has come to be acknowledged as “The Weekend”—for big, early season bass—by some of the more fervent of my fishing companions.

    It was my father who first introduced me to this happening, on a warm, windy day in March on the farm pond I return to every year, before I had become a full-fledged teenager.

    A bottleneck is formed by two facing points, which mark the transition between the main-pond and the shallow coves on the insides of the points. The area between the points is a kind of flat—shallow, littered with a few well-known stumps, and, in the late winter, tufted by the beginning efforts of lake weed. Moving deeper into the coves, the water becomes shallower, creating a gradient of heated water and, in following, grasses.

    On that inaugural March afternoon of my childhood, the wind was roaring parallel to the points—from the west, right into the face of the dominant point.

The author's father with a healthy late-winter bass. Photo by Matt Reilly.
    “Wind from the west, fishing is best,” they say, but this is sounder science. By the will of the wind, the food chain was moved into the grassy flat between the points. First, phytoplankton. Then, baitfish. Then, predators. It was all explained to me before the first cast, and I believe it was on the first that my father stuck a respectable largemouth of about five pounds.

    Looking back, I am excessively proud, and thankful, of my father for that moment of genius.
Since, I have taken many a fish, always returning to the same setting, chasing the same memory, with the ambition of having a brush with an early-season trophy.

    Indeed, the pattern has produced well, over the years, resulting in several fish over five pounds and up to 10, by student-friends, myself, and others. This story is a testament to the dimension of fishing that is all too often dismissed, and that is hardly quantifiable by one who does not practice it and know its benefits—that is, observation and critical thinking.

    These days, I don’t get to watch that childhood story play out in front of me, often. The farm ponds of those years I left behind in search of an education. Still, change is in the air, and it brings memories to mind, which might compare for enjoyment. Then again, perhaps it’s merely the continuation of that story I’m after every year, on the bank of that farm pond, chasing fish I caught long ago. Perhaps nothing is lost.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian


The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries released the 2015-16 season harvest data for bear, deer, and turkey last week, and the numbers check out well, continuing a stable trend upheld over the past decade.


    The 2015-16 hunting season saw the second largest black bear harvest in recorded Virginia history, with 2,331 animals harvested. Youth and apprentice hunters took 110 of those over their designated weekend in October.

    Despite the large harvest, this year’s number falls in line with recent figures. Each year’s harvest after 2008 has exceeded 200 bears, with the highest occurring in 2014, with 2,412 animals taken.

    It’s worthy of note that 2015-16 marked the first season in which a Virginia bear license was sold separately from the resident deer/turkey license. The Department’s bear management staff reports 30,780 resident bear licenses and 926 non-resident bear licenses being sold in its inaugural year, and can draw no conclusions on the effect the new regulation had on the season’s harvest numbers.

    More so, mast production influences harvest numbers, and 2015’s was spotty at best. This often leads to an increase in bears taken in the early season by bowhunters, when animals are more vulnerable to hunting efforts as they concentrate on limited, available food sources.

    Still, archers took an average proportion of the total harvest in 2015-16, accounting for 24 percent, while those hunting with firearms and muzzleloaders took a combined 71 percent. Sunday hunting continues to have a minimal effect on the outcome of the harvest, and only accounted for three percent of the total.


    Hunters took a total of 209,197 deer in Virginia during the 2015-16 season—16,901 up from last year’s figure. Antlered deer composed 103,310 of the total, while button bucks accounted for 15,000, and antlerless does, 90,887.

    This year’s youth came out with 3,076 harvests. Bowhunters claimed 15,078 (7 percent), crossbow hunters took 11,719 (6 percent), and muzzleloader hunters took 42,517 (20 percent) of the total.

    A stable or declining deer population has been expected over the past decade, though the majority of the yearly fluctuation in harvest numbers in that time—ranging from a low of 192,278 in 2014, to a high of 259,147 in 2009—has been attributed to variable mast productions and Hemorrhagic 
Disease flare-ups.

    In that time, too, the Department has made a conscious effort to increase the harvest of female deer throughout the state, namely on private land, as a measure for reducing and stabilizing the overall deer herd, as resolved by the current deer management plan.

    Thus, hunters should anticipate a declining statewide deer harvest in coming years.


    Commonwealth hunters bagged a total of 3,283 turkey during the 2015-16 fall turkey season, up somewhat significantly from 2,988 in 2014-15, suggesting a robust population.

    However, other factors skew the relationship between harvest and population size. Weather in late spring can influence successful reproduction rates, stealing poults in the case of cold, wet weather. The hatch rate fell just slightly below average (2.7 poults/hen) in the spring of 2015, at 2.5 poults/hen.

    Moreover, as is the case with the other big game species, acorn availability significantly impacts harvest numbers. Years blessed with an abundant mast spell hard times for hunters, as the turkey’s home range shrinks due to the concentration of resources in the woods. Years with poor mast, such as 2015, see turkey range wider, increasing their vulnerability to hunting efforts. Likewise, in years with poor mast, hunters often find increased success on private lands with more open field habitat, as birds range wider and resort to alternative food sources.

    Overall, the 2015-16 season reflects positivity for game populations, though hunters can expect to see fewer deer in coming years, in an effort to balance and stabilize the herd.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian