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Second place winner Taylor Ball Schoharie Central High School, Schoharie

The Land

Who knows how he came up with it. The name that is. I have pondered it like crazy, but after a long time I gave up, because it didn’t matter. All I knew is that when anyone mentioned “The Land” I thought a few things. I thought: Papa, the cousins, Nana, and freedom. Everything was beautiful. I wish I could remember the first time I laid my eyes on the vast forest my family called The Land. It was my Papa’s place, his life’s work. It was where I was raised and where I learned to be who I am today. In my mind, The Land was Mother Nature’s headquarters, and it was alive.

I remember during the early months of fall, stepping out of my mother’s old beat-up, navy blue Subaru and placing my sneakers on the old, worn-down gravel driveway. My eyes would close the minute I stepped out of the car, because it was like stepping into heaven. I would take the deepest breath I could, because it didn’t smell like anything I’d ever known. I could smell the smoke of the fire burning, the wet fall wood, the old smell of lingering tobacco from my Papa’s green vest, the moisture from the fallen leaves and just that distinct smell of autumn.

Heaven starts with a beaten-down gravel driveway surrounded by thin forest, filled with maple trees, tapped and dripping with sap. The old camper sits at the top of that driveway, like a castle perched at the top of a mighty mountain. The garden is budding with life, the twisting trails leading through the moist, peaceful forest, past the outhouse and the mini stick houses my cousin Donny would build on the sides of the trail. Past the Buckin’ Bronco, and old, rusty SUV that my Papa had parked in the forest. Then if you followed the trail all the way around, you would find yourself in our little town and the bottom of the hill where Heaven starts. The houses are all there outlined in rotten sticks, with broken down circles of rock and furniture cut from stumps. It’s beautiful.

Forever in my mind The Land will be the picture of my Papa holding his widdled walking stick standing next to a log that was cut in half. On it says THE LAND. It’s his, and yet it’s ours. He was the Shepherd of the Forest, Mother Nature’s right hand man. If I didn’t think it was fairies, it would’ve been my Papa the went from leaf to leaf painting them a yellow, orange or red hue in the autumn months and then performing a smoky winter ritual to cleanse the Northeast, then rebirthing the green foliage for the beautiful, cool spring time.

The Land is my childhood stomping grounds. No one but my family could understand the importance of the place. It was more than a piece of property with a bunch of trees filled with laughing children and a couple of grandparents. It is where I grew up from little, fragile baby, to a giggling, yelling toddler, to a quiet, thoughtful teenager. This is where my grandfather’s spirit lives, where my spirit lives. I am a quiet walk through the mossy, rich dirt path, a run through the trees dodging and jumping as I go. I am a funny story next to a blazing fire. I am a daughter of the Earth.

One of my Papa’s famous lessons was that if you have an opportunity to reach beyond your horizon and find a new one, the answer should always be yes. Eleanor Roosevelt said it perfectly,” I could not, at any age, by content to take my place by the fireside and simply look on. Life was meant to be lived. Curiosity must be kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life.” And he lived that truth from the moment he stepped on to this Earth. He had a simple love for living. I am following the path he laid in his Harley Davidson youth and the highway he paved in his last breath.

Heaven to me isn’t pearly gates, it’s a faded memory of an old stomping ground filled with maples and oaks, the sound of laughing children and crunching leaves, the memory of man sitting in a rusty green rocker perched by a roaring fire, his cheek bones protruding from a smile showing through his thick brown beard.