Youth Essay Contest Spotlight: Matthew Reilly

A Spiritual Tradition:  The Importance of Public Lands to Me

Modern society has convinced the outdoorsman in me that I was born too late.  The rivers that I frequent are suppressed in spirit, their wonder restrained to their actual dimensions by urban sprawl, highways, and water treatment plants.  When I take to the field, I thirst for the refreshing experience of new waters; but I lust for those places tucked away, out of sight, lost in nature—where their essence extends for miles through some black hole of the mind, never threatened by development or the idea that they might, in some dimension, end.

Development.  My parents know what it means.  Their age is told in their memories.  There was a time when Charlottesville, Virginia, was not a city, but a town.  Before Walmart and Sam’s Club took their anarchical perch above Route 29, farmer Matheny tended to his cows on the grassy pasture behind a blackboard fence and an illusion that things might never change.  The Rivanna River, in the gulley behind Walton’s culturally obese babies, coursed higher and stronger through the rolling hills of the Piedmont, its lifeblood not yet stolen by the host of housing developments to come, its finned inhabitants still unrestrained by dams.

I hear these memories as a young child.  Fear briefly enters and exits my mind.  What will the world look like when I am grown?  But at 8 years old, as far as I know, things don’t change.

I eventually learned my lesson.

The woodlot that was destined to be subdivided behind our newly furnished house was just large enough to be reminiscent of Maine’s “Big Woods” that I had learned of in Field & Stream.  If I walked along the length of the creek bottom, in the shadows of towering ridges, I could escape with the perception of total isolation.

One spring, I happened upon a stream of moderate girth.  I returned countless times in following seasons, slinging spinners and flies to feisty panfish and pickerel. 

One day I was startled by the sight of two houses.  Both were under construction; and their backyards had torn into the woodland veil protecting my secret gem, revealing it for all to see, eroding the banks, and slowing the current.

Sour and cynical over the soiling of my stream, I retreated into my mind to a place where rivers run free and woods seem endless, where constant human activity does not hamper the wildlife activity, and the flora is ornamental by God’s design, rather than that of a landscaper.  It was from this experience that I began to crave wild lands removed from human occupation.

By the time I earned my driver’s license I was a passionate fly fisherman, completely lost in the sport; and my search for new water took me to where my childhood fantasies existed in actuality—the Shenandoah National Park, where my dad had taken me to grouse hunt and trout fish at a very young age.  Now, with the means to transport myself, I set off into the Blue Ridge when I yearn for the tug of a sprightly brook trout.

I drive west; and as the roads turn from pavement to gravel to dirt to nothing, and the hardwoods close in above my head as I’m intertwined into the deep, meandering hollows where the freestones run, the shackles of society and modern, complicated life disintegrate into the air.

I can fish my way through the gorge that the Rapidan River flows through in consensual ignorance.  In my mind, the park does not end, but extends forever in every direction, as does the river; and the fish in its watery depths are virgin natives—refugees, like me.

When a brook trout comes to hand, my suspicion is upheld.  The fiery brilliance that adorns its belly and pectorals, the olive river rock along its back, accented by strong blue and red bull’s eyes make me believe that they are a purity in nature, a stronghold of all that has been lost in the world, safeguarded, hidden in the bottom of a mountain stream. 

But alas, I know this illusion is false.  The trout in my hand is a species endangered by a host of manmade threats; and its range retreats into the mountaintops yearly.  However, unlike the Piedmont stream of my childhood, this one is protected, forever sealed from peripheral development by 197,000 acres of federally protected land.  To the brook trout, and to me, that thought is full of hope, as it is a symbol of like-minded individuals concerned with the state of the environment doing their best to secure recreational areas and wildlife havens for future generations, to preserve our spiritual haunts.  In a word, it is a promise:  For as long as I, and my children, live, places like Shenandoah will be protected and cherished by sportsmen.

Matthew Reilly, 18, Palmyra, Va. He is a senior at Fluvanna County High School. His father introduced him early to outdoors activities, which he says “shaped my character and ambitions.” Fly fishing is one of his passions. Matthew is an outdoor writer and photographer who produces a weekly column,


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