Looking in the Face of Death at Samhain

As I write this, we have our last day before a freeze–the day before death comes to our landscape.  On my landscape, in temperate Western Pennsylvania (USDA Zone 6), we’ve had almost no frosts to speak of–the summer has seemed endless, as we move into fall. Many of the plants are still quite lush, with pumpkins, peppers, and tomatoes all still growing. Many of the perennials know it is time to rest and have died back, sending their energy deep into their roots.  But the tender annual plants don’t have such a cycle–and here, they generally grow till they are killed by the cold.  And today is the last day of their lives, as tonight we’ve got a freeze coming. This freeze signals a definitive end to the middle part of fall and the start to late fall and eventually, early Winter.  Samhain, truely, is here.

Zinnia Flower at the Freeze
Zinnia Flower at the Freeze

I always find this moment a time, a time right before death, to take a deep breath, to recognize that everything is irrevocably changing in the next 24 hours. It feels strange to walk upon this landscape, knowing it will never be the same, that a freezing night changes everything in this garden forever.  I hold space for this land, knowing that while the freeze and coming death is just another part of the cycle, it is a part of the cycle that is difficult.  For my ecosystem, the first freeze is usually the largest shift on my landscape that a single day has–most of the other seasons we ease into and ease out of and things change slowly.  But the freeze functions as a hard stop to the growing season for all but the most hardy of plants.  It signals that the time of high summer and even harvest is long past, and how we look towards the cold and dark.

No matter how many times I live through this cycle with my plants or other loved ones, there is still something about this day–the day before death–that makes me take a serious pause.  I do think this moment in time should be honored as a sacred moment. It’s almost like today, the land is holding her breath for tomorrow, and everything changes.  On this most momentous day each year, I like to spend a day like this tending the gardens, covering the plants that can survive a freeze, like our rapini and lettuces, moving other things in the greenhouse, and singing and leaving offerings for those plants whose time has come.

This tomato plant is no more!
This tomato plant is no more!

Death isn’t just present on the landscape outside, death also has another kind of presence in my life right now. In the last few years, this world has experienced so much death–of human persons, of animal persons, of plant persons. And I have not been spared, and it sounds like in talking to others, that very few of us have been.  Seeing loved ones take that inevitable march toward death, and somehow trying to find peace in the experience, is difficult beyond words. Just like the land here, I find myself holding my breath, wondering what tomorrow will bring if Death will visit me yet again.  I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals and ERs lately with family members, and I’m likely looking at spending a lot more time in the coming months. And I can’t help but see the parallels out here on the homestead and in my own family life. We all have only so much time. Just like this coming frost, I have lately felt like I am holding my breath.

Culturally,  here in the United States, it is not considered appropriate to talk about death–so we often don’t talk about it. If you do talk about it, people grow silent, uncomfortable, or may quietly slip away from the conversation. When we don’t talk about it, we are not prepared to experience it.  In the druid tradition, we think about death as part of a larger wheel of the year–this wheel is replicated in many different aspects of our lives. Just as the wheel of the year goes from season to season, from the green spark of spring to the heights of summer to the harvest of fall and to the death and cold of winter, so, too do our own lives mirror this process. We experience it each day with the cycle of day and night. We experience it each month in the phase of the moon. We experience it yearly with the cycle of the sun. And all of these natural processes teach us that that same process works in our own bodies and those of every single living being.

Frozen Strawberry plants
Strawberry with a heavy layer of frost

Samhain is a time to naturally think about the death that comes to a landscape.  The old is swept away, making space for quietude, rest, and eventually rebirth. For me, I don’t follow the astrological or traditional Samhain on the landscape here–rather, I wait for it to be present on the landscape.  Thus, today is Samhain Eve as we are the last day before the freeze.  And tomorrow is Sahmain, where death comes to our land.  To mark this time using more intuitive ritual approaches, I hold space today, being present on my land, bringing in the last of the harvest.  I will cover those who can be covered and bid farewell to those who will be gone by tomorrow.  I make offerings, sing songs, and spend the day simply present in these beautiful gardens.  Tomorrow, I wake up early and observe the freeze upon the land as the light starts to come back into the land. I will observe the beautiful deadliness of the flowers and plants frozen with their thick layer of frost.  By mid-afternoon, the true power of the freeze will be apparent in the browning and wilting of the summer plants.  In a few days, all will be brown and we will be a major step closer to our inevitable march towards winter.

I have observed this cycle for many years–two decades almost–and yet each time it is unique, meaningful, and incredibly moving. It gives me a chance to reflect on the value both of living a full and good life, but also on the sacredness of death. It is not comfortable but it is natural. Death isn’t meant to be comfortable, it is meant to remind us that nothing is permanent. We are all here for a temporary amount of time, and no fighting or begging or prayer can change that. We all belong to the same cycle of life as everything else, and this is a reminder of our place in all of it. But spending time with it this time of year can help prepare you for the inevitable experience of death in your life.

The frost has come to the garden
The frost has come to the garden

If you live in a temperate environment, holding space at Samhain for the death that comes can be a deeply moving experience. Perhaps this hasn’t yet happened on your landscape yet this year–or it is happening tonight if you live anywhere along the upper eastern seaboard of North America.

Regardless, I suggest you pay attention to the forecast and those liminal points just before and after the freeze.  Walk your local land before the freeze, observing and holding space.  Get up at the golden hour, just before the sun comes over the horizon, and see the terrible beauty of the frost–it is useful to visit a flower garden or something similar to really see the impact.  Come back later in the day or the next day and again, observe these major changes upon the landscape. These can allow you to build that relationship with death in your own life, to learn how to accept it as a natural part of all of our experiences, and to ease yourself into the coming darker and colder times of winter.

Dana O'Driscoll

Dana O’Driscoll has been an animist druid for almost 20 years, and currently serves as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. She is a druid-grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and is the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus Scholar. She is the author of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice (REDFeather, 2021), the Sacred Actions Journal (REDFeather, 2022), and Land Healing: Physical, Metaphysical, and Ritual Approaches for Healing the Earth (REDFeather, 2024). She is also the author/illustrator of the Tarot of Trees, Plant Spirit Oracle, and Treelore Oracle. Dana is an herbalist, certified permaculture designer, and permaculture teacher who teaches about reconnection, regeneration, and land healing through herbalism, wild food foraging, and sustainable living. Dana lives at a 5-acre homestead in rural western Pennsylvania with her partner and a host of feathered and furred friends. She writes at the Druids Garden blog and is on Instagram as @druidsgardenart. She also regularly writes for Plant Healer Quarterly and Spirituality and Health magazine.

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14 Comments

  1. So poignant and relevant. Thank you Dana for sharing these thoughts and suggestions for moving through this season with grace and gratitude.

    1. Blessings to you, Lori! And a happy and blessed Samhain.

  2. As always, I so appreciate your writings and the way you’re such a wonderful teacher in my Druid studies. I feel sad to say goodbye to all of my beautiful plants and tree friends as they go to sleep. I’m happy for the rains that came lately after a dry hot fall. I send love and prayers to all the creatures that must survive the coming cold days. I’m thankful baby bear cubs spend another winter with their mama bears. My sunflower seeds are ready for daily offerings once the bears go to sleep. Peace.

    1. Hi Mollie,
      Thanks so much for your kind comments–I’m glad this post spoke to you. I love to hear about your offerings and prayers for this time of year. Blessings to you! 🙂

  3. Awesome post. I grew up in a family where someone was always ill (especially during the “holiday season” and someone was passing away. But I never thought about the garden and frost per se. I live for time being until I can put my house on the market and move to Tennessee, in the desert. This summer was the most balmy and pleasant period of time I have EVER experience weather wise and one of the most emotionally traumatic. I escaped the emotional pain by sitting outside on the back desk and watching the mountain change color in the late afternoon. That’s how I spent yesterday. 80 degrees when normally it would be snowing here.
    Today it has finally changed to normal chilly Autumn and most of the last of the leaves have fallen.
    Once I get to Tennessee, I hope I can live more in the four season cycles and pay closer attention to your teachings. When you live in a place that is normally barren for hundreds of miles, it’s hard to even find groves of trees much less bodies of water. Your posts make me long for my childhood even if it was filled with funerals and times of great sadness.

    1. Hello Barbara,
      I’ve always lived in places with four seasons–it was one of the commitments I made to myself. It must be hard to not have that wheel of the year ever-turning and be in such a barren land. Glad to hear you are coming back to Tennessee! 🙂

  4. It is a week since I was emergently admitted to ED for a life threatening condition.
    But for the last several days, I’ve understood that Death is here, waiting.
    No. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to undergo the things they do to try and save your life. It’s not easy to see the fear on the faces of your children.
    But when you visit your annuals and leave them an offering, know that they’re probably not afraid. They, like me, have lived and fulfilled a purpose and they’re probably tired, also like me. Their thoughts are probably inward. They’re probably surrendering. Give then permission to rest quietly until it comes.
    (I’m not sure if I’ve left a comment or a reply!)

    1. Hello Almiramay,
      These are such beautiful words. I’m sorry to hear you are going through this, but it sounds like you are at peace with where things are. I wish you blessings on your journey, whatever that next journey may be.

  5. beautiful. We may not have a frost yet this evening, here on Cape Breton Island (Nova Scotia), but our garden plants are feeling the shift….the shortening of the days, the damper, cooler temps. This has been a strange growing season in this part of Canada. So much rain and the temperatures unusually warm for this time of year. And yet, the leaves of the deciduous trees are still turning and dropping, and soon (I hope) there will be a frost. thank you also for speaking the truth about our ritual calendar. We can honour the seasons turnings as the land dictates, not a calendar hanging on the wall.

    1. Hi Ruth,
      Thanks for sharing! I’m sure your frost will come soon enough :). The land speaks and we listen!

  6. I love this post, Dana! My garden, outside of Philly, is alive with fall color. The dogwoods, with their flaming maroon leaves and red, red berries, are especially beautiful. I will devote time today to looking and appreciating the vibrancy before the freeze. Looking forward to being in the liminal spaces around Samhain. Peace and plenty to you and your readers, from Cooper’s Drink!

    1. Hi Cynthia,
      I wonder if you will also get a freeze or at least a frost this week! Cold temperatures are certainly on their way. Blessings to you and thank you for your comment :).

  7. Dana-glad to know you and your writings-I just discovered you today. I too am an animist pagan, and besides living through the death/sleep of my garden every year, I have been involved in Dog Rescue and losing dog children puts me even more in touch with death as a companion. Thank you for your writings.

    1. Hi Tina,
      Awesome, glad to meet another animist :). I’ve been blogging here since 2010, so there’s a lot of stuff to find here. Glad you made your way here! Blessings.

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