Samhain (pronounced Sow’en,) in pagan philosophy, is when the old year dies. The growing season is over. Vegetation withers and falls. Winter, aka death, is just beginning. It’s also when the “veil” between this world and the spirit world is “thin,” if you believe in that sort of thing. Hence the association of Halloween with ghosts. Hence, El Día De Los Muertos. It’s supposed to be a time when communication with the spirit world, with your ancestors, is easier.
Death is not a subject most of us like to think about or talk about. For some, it’s even something to be flat- out denied. But like it or not, death is a part of life. That’s what Samhain teaches us. Everything dies eventually, whether we want to admit it or not. That’s the inevitable consequence of being alive. If you are alive today, you will, at some point in the future, be dead. Being faced with this hard truth invites us to become self-reflective, to re-evaluate, to look back, to look forward. For instance, my father, who’s never been one to admit an ounce of guilt, upon learning he had prostate cancer (which he beat and survived, and which has not returned), finally apologized to me for being “a little too controlling” when he and I were both younger. I had to stifle a snort of laughter. Lotta good that does me now.
Obviously, the apology was more for himself than it was for me. I had long since forgiven him, accepted him as simply a controlling, micromanaging person, and moved on. But I was encouraged by his willingness to even make such an apology. That was a new thing.
But that’s what confronting death, scary as it may be, does for us. It makes us think about how we’ve treated the people in our lives and about what we’ve accomplished, or not accomplished, yet. It makes us think about what we still need to do and about how maybe we should treat our fellow humans better. It doesn’t need to be “depressing.” It could be motivating, energizing, even healing, if we let it. It could be the impetus for tremendous, revolutionary change. If we look it straight in the eye, death says to us, “Look around. See all this old, dead clutter? All these things you don’t really need? All these things that just need to be cut down, weeded out, and composted? These things that don’t do you any good anymore? Things that don’t hold any value or meaning? What say we ditch some of this shit, huh? What say we clear some of this shit out and make room for some new growth? Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?”
I’m reminded of the born-again Christians who are constantly talking about the “Culture of Life” and the “Culture of Death,” only I think they’re confused as to which one is which. Is it not part of the “Culture of Life” to acknowledge that death cannot be separated from life? That they are part of the same thing? That what we call “life” and what we call “death” are quite a bit more complicated than they may first seem? Cuz’ if not, that just seems like straight-up death-denial to me.
All death is not created equal, though. Obviously, there’s a surplus of preventable, tragic deaths that should not have been and should not be. This is 2020, after all. All the more reason for some self-reflection.
A lot of the death we face is metaphorical death, though. Symbolic death. The end of one thing and the beginning of another. This is the opportunity Samhain offers us as a spiritual occasion. It’s our opportunity to ask ourselves what ideas, beliefs, and behaviors of our own it is time to shed. What have we outgrown? What isn’t doing us any good? What needs to be thrown on the slash pile? Now is the time to ask yourself this.
All that aside for a moment, I’m going to go on a tangent that I promise will be relevant by the end. I promise.
Rocky Mountain National Park is currently beset by two monster wildfires. The Cameron Peak fire, to the north, is now the largest wildfire in Colorado history and continues to burn uncomfortably close to the towns of Estes Park, Loveland, and Fort Collins. The East Troublesome fire started on the west side of the park near Grand Lake, but in one fell swoop, jumped the continental divide and is now still burning, again, uncomfortably close to Estes Park from the west. East Troublesome grew one hundred thousand acres in one day due to high winds and extremely dry, dead fuel. Much of the forests these fires burned were filled with trees that were already dead from the pine bark beetle infestation, which has been going on for at least ten years. So, Mother Nature was doing some house cleaning of her own. However, there would not have been nearly so much cleaning to do if humans hadn’t been diving headlong into unchecked greenhouse gas emissions lo these many years. Pine bark beetles, it turns out, used to have their population controlled by extremely cold temperatures over long periods in the winter. Now, with climate change, winters just aren’t cold enough anymore, and the beetles are getting in two breeding cycles, instead of just one, and not as many of them are killed off in the winter. So, in the summer months, there are that many more of the little fuckers to eat through entire forests, killing the trees and turning them into future wildfire fuel. And then the wildfire comes and burns down people’s houses. Go figure.
It was a common practice among the indigenous people of North America to set fires that would burn away the old, dead underbrush and allow new growth to come up. These fires were low-intensity and at least somewhat controlled. This had the added benefit that when a forest fire started unintentionally, it didn’t have all of the old, dead fuels to burn, so it wouldn’t be quite as hot and destructive as it would have been otherwise. Once white people took over, though, fires were suppressed. They were seen as “bad,” and were put out as soon as they started, instead of being allowed to burn away the old, dead shit.
Luckily for Rocky Mountain National Park, last week, just in the nick of time, the first winter storm of the season arrived and dropped a bunch of snow on both fires. It didn’t put them out, but it did slow their progress and give firefighters an opportunity to increase containment. But the fires still burn.
This same storm knocked my own personal electricity out for several hours over a couple of days. With no internet, no TV, and only candle light, there’s not much else to do but sit and think. Reflect. And this is what I thought about:
Only about a hundred and thirty years ago, the 1880’s, let’s say, no one had electricity. No one. Electricity didn’t exist, at least not in a way that was harnessed and used by humans. Now we’re completely lost if we’re without it for a few hours. We even worry about our food going bad without it. This was not a problem anyone had a hundred and thirty years ago.
Although it may seem like a very long time to us, a hundred and thirty years is not all that long ago, in the grand scheme of human history. I mean, think about how long ago the Roman Empire was. And that was even relatively recent compared to ancient Babylon, or any pre-history human existence. It’s safe to say that for the vast majority of human kind’s existence on this planet, we did not have electricity. How did we ever survive? Looking at how we all live today, one would never know. But this is a problem we’ve chosen to live with, this not being able to live without electricity, supposedly because it’s made our lives so much easier. Electricity has. Supposedly. But has it? Really? Or has it made life much, much more complicated?
A hundred and thirty years really isn’t that long, if you think about it. Especially not when you think of it in terms of geologic time. The oldest rocks on Earth are around three to four billion years old. A hundred and thirty years ain’t shit, really. And yet the idea, today, of living without electricity sounds like the craziest bat-shit there is. Maybe.
Electricity is why we mine coal, drill oil, frack natural gas. It’s why we mine uranium and have nuclear power plants. It’s why we mine rare minerals for the wiring and computer chips inside all of our electricity-powered devices. It’s why we clear forests to put up wind turbines and clear deserts to build solar arrays. It’s why we dam(n) rivers and flood canyons for hydro-electricity. And we’re always told that we need more and more of this electricity. We need it. To live.
Do we? Seriously. We didn’t need it a hundred and thirty years ago. In fact, we didn’t need it for the entirety of human existence on this planet. Up until about a hundred and thirty years ago. A hundred and twenty, maybe.
Electricity is also why we have climate change, and habitat destruction, and mass extinction. It’s why we have severe droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, tornados, and why we have them more frequently, and why they’re more severe than they used to be. Because of electricity and our supposed need for it. I mean, it’s not all because of electricity, but a huge part of it is.
And if we do, truly, now, in this modern age, need electricity, do we really need so damn much of it? And do we really need more and more all the time?
Yes, I realize that I am currently using electricity as I sit here in my warm house writing this blog post. Do I have a choice, really? Really? I am still, last time I checked, part of modern American society.
Another part of Samhain, along with confronting death, is honoring the dead. Honoring our ancestors who have gone before us. Some of them maybe recently, some of them maybe long, long ago. In the USA, this has kind of a weird twist to it, though. Because for most of us, if we go back far enough, our ancestors did not occupy this land. They were not from here. Their bones are buried elsewhere, on another continent. At least if we go back five hundred or so years, which again, in the grand scheme, is not that long. Some of us only have to go back one hundred or two hundred years before our ancestors lived on some other land. Some of us only fifty years, or less even. The indigenous people of this continent, however, have ancestors who lived and died here, on this land, going back to the last ice age. Ten thousand, eleven thousand years ago. It is their bones that are buried here.
Theirs was a spirituality that accepted death as a natural and necessary part of life. Both metaphorical, symbolic death and actual, physical death. They acknowledged that certain kinds of death were “bad,” obviously. I’m sure they understood what murder was, although they may not have had the same cultural judgements about it, or the same punishments for it. But death was something that was confronted and accepted, not denied and avoided. Old, dead things that needed to be burned were burned so that life could renew itself. And people were, perhaps, maybe, more willing to look at themselves, to self-reflect, to admit when they were wrong, to change unworkable ideas and beliefs. To accept and not deny.
Ancestors, electricity, fire, and death. That’s what Halloween is all about.
Happy Samhain, witches!