Wednesday, October 26, 2016


A fire burned on jagged mountain crests above the landscape of a reclaimed strip mine, from within the crimson and apricot leaves of expiring hardwoods. The setting sun painted a halo of orange on the pointed peaks, topped by the glowing pale blue sky of an early-to-rise hunter’s moon, casting silhouettes of mountains and coal fields spanning west into Kentucky, north into West Virginia, and south and east into the more populous regions of southwest Virginia’s Mountain Empire.

5x5 bull elk taking stock of his field in Buchanan County, Virginia. Photo by Matt Reilly.
    After glassing from an opposing mountain vantage point and driving hurriedly over gravel and tall grass, John Taylor of Vansant, Virginia, a volunteer with the Southwest Virginia Coalfields Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), brought his lifted, dark emerald Excursion to a grumbling halt, eyes fixed on a few dozen hide-colored bobs populating a rolling fescue field.

    I’d been there before, and recognized the terrain bathed in clear moonlight and the palpable feeling of natural history in the making. Only this time, the mood was much wilder. My previous visit was two and a half years ago. At 2:00 in the morning, I stood in the company of Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) staff and RMEF volunteers—their eyes glued to an enclosure, on which headlights born of Kentucky would soon appear hauling a livestock trailer containing 45 of the hide-colored bobs.

    That young April morning of 2014 marked the last installment of a three-year plan to restore elk to the state of Virginia. A subspecies of elk, the eastern elk, is native to western Virginia, but was extirpated by early human inhabitants—the last individual killed in Clarke County in 1855. Since then, in recent history, there have been a few failed attempts at reestablishing a viable herd in the Old Dominion, but each met a calculable end. However, the 72 Rocky Mountain strain individuals trucked in from Kentucky to the reclaimed strip mine site in Buchanan County, and protected within the designated “restoration zone” of Buchanan, Dickinson, and Wise Counties, has shown tremendous success, and now boasts a herd of 160-165 individuals.

    Camera cradled, I climbed from the Expedition, followed by Taylor, and stalked quietly behind a screen of brush to subtract twenty yards from the distance separating us from the elk. Light was insufficient for my camera, but I already had pictures. I found more light through the glass of my binoculars.

    The hide-colored bobs grew hide-colored ribs and shoulders; cinnamon bellies and legs; and shaggy, chocolate manes. Some grew antlers branching once, twice, three and four times from each main beam. All grew wild eyes.

    Then an old, stately bull emerged from a treeline just over a fescue knob.

    “I’ve never seen him before,” Taylor breathed. “He’s not one of ours.”

    His eyes fell on me, then on the dozens of cows grazing in the field. The rut is winding down, but the need to breed is still in their psyche, and he likewise began rounding up a few stray females. He was shaggy, totally chocolate—almost black—with a 6x6 rack, beams and tines dark, save for ivory tips.

    A few satellite bulls milled about the field, paying more attention to the dominant bull than to the females in the herd. One younger bull—a lanky 4x4—was left behind, once the chocolate bull had rounded up his harem. The dominant bull turned to face him, and slowly began walking towards the bull, occasionally throwing his rack back and extending his neck, as if to bugle, but without sound.

    The gap between bulls was closed to a few feet. The 4x4 looked puzzled, and the chocolate bull passed him by without incident. As if told to keep up, the 4x4 then trotted towards the treeline where the group of cows were exiting the field. The chocolate bull followed suit, and in the fading light, made a few attempts to mount one of the trailing cows.

    The woods just inside the opposing treeline were torn apart as a massive 7x7 bull charged into the field, pounding the ground with hooves driven by 700 pounds of muscle, gleaming rack thrown back in aggressive trot. He charged into the center of his harem, reclaiming ownership, and booting the chocolate bull from the field and into sexual and social exile in the hollow below.

    Turning to take a visual survey of his territory, his cows swirled around him as he tossed his headgear back and, with shaggy mane outstretched, hurtled a piercing, cocked-jawed, guttural screech into the night that rattled my heart on its arteries like a yellowing leaf blasted by a November wind. There was crashing and hoof stamping where there hadn’t been for almost two centuries, and a home-again drama of the autumn woods disappeared as quickly as it unfolded into the moonlight-cloaked thicket.

*Originally published in the Rural Virignian

Wednesday, October 19, 2016


I’ve worked at two different kinds of jobs in my brief 20 years—one that stimulates my mind and soul and satisfies the curious outdoorsman in me, and retail. And I haven’t worked retail much—just long enough to learn to despise it and that the biosphere is headed for the gutter. Let me explain.

    One particular day, during the few months I was employed by The Orvis Company in Charlottesville prior to college, a woman entered the store with her black lab. As she perused a shelf of gloves, I approached her and asked if I could do anything for her. She asked a series of piercing questions, to which I confidently provided answers I’d previously prepared by reading the garment’s packaging. She became incredulous and irate at my ineptitude after asking whether or not the gloves would conform to her hand over time and, having never worn that particular pair of women’s gloves for multiple seasons, I had to admit I didn’t know. She left the store silently, leaving behind a fresh pile of scat on the pebbly floor that I confidently identified as a black lab’s.

    After sifting through some strong adjectives, I got to thinking about the implications of her actions. Had she returned during my employment, I likely wouldn’t have greeted her so cheerfully. But what if she treated others the same way? I for one would think twice before allowing my dog to defecate on my barber’s floor, before insulting a potentially vengeful chef. But in an era when goods and services are acquired easily and impersonally, the motivation to respect the origins of such things is voluntary at best. The social ethic is weak.

    In a simpler time, when small businesses ruled and globalization hadn’t yet broken communal webs to bits, a respectful relationship with a farmer would ensure that you and your family had quality food when he had his. Loyalty to a mechanic or horseshoer would mean continued transportation and help in a fix.

    Small towns and the writing trade mimic this. Respect intel entrusted to you by a fly shop owner in humble Roscoe, New York, and you’ll get more. Betray that trust, and you’ll be the most hated individual in the Catskills. Consistently meet deadlines and turn in quality, well-researched writing, and editors will come to rely on your name. Fail to meet deadlines or make a habit of using copyrighted materials or faulty facts, and you’ll be blacklisted and your career will end before it began. These people talk.

    Rewind to a time even longer ago, when asphalt paved no inch of this continent, when people wore skins after eating what was inside. Hunting enabled eating, and was directly tied to forest health. The Shawnees of the Shenandoah Valley knew their fishing success depended on their relationship with the river, and that the vitality of their agricultural crop was a factor of soil health, which could be bolstered by applying fish for fertilizer.

    I hadn’t quite been born to experience those times, but I have a sneaking suspicion that any individual so blind to even think about clear-cutting a mountain, or dumping human waste into the Shenandoah River—or, God forbid, Naked Creek—would have been dutifully shunned. It’s most likely, however, that such transgressions were committed only by angry, rogue individuals. It’s downright dumb to think it inconsequential to torch your food supply.

    Despite it being lawfully looked down upon, a modern person of even base intelligence would comprehend the negative social impacts of burning down the local grocery store or poisoning the water supply. But the reality is that, though we’ve grown perceptually further apart from nature over the course of industrial human history, our dependence on the greater world ecosystem has remained static.

    Maybe it’s not everyday news for someone to burn the grocery store or poison the well, but acts like littering, spraying volumes of pesticides and fertilizers, and even the occasional (and totally preventable) oil spill achieve the same ends. Declining water quality due to contamination breeds declining soil quality, which requires farmers to pump more chemicals into their fields, lowering the nutritional value of our food, and killing the soil, requiring increasingly larger volumes of chemical correction. These acts often go unpunished, fly completely under the radar of the general public, or are hardly thought of as harmful. Or, the effects raise a temporary eyebrow, soon lowered with the idea that humans, in their fallacious, God-like reign over planet Earth, can engineer their way to a happy ending.

    Such thinking is irresponsible and short-sighted. Our social contract with Mother Nature is weak, and until we recognize this, and learn that we can’t poop on her floor without consequence, we will destroy ourselves as a species, and the earth on which we live.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian