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.
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.
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.
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.
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.