I didn’t know I was going to a place I love in New Jersey until two weeks before I went, and had no idea I’d be celebrating Samhain there. But it’s the sort of place where that happens, so I might have guessed.
Miriam McGillis is a friend, mentor, teacher. She started Genesis Farm, an ecological and spiritual center in western New Jersey, 35 years ago. I heard her speak in 2000 at a native plant conference in Pennsylvania. She, petite and indomitable, stood in the center of an enormous auditorium and held hundreds of us tree huggers spellbound as she quietly wove together nature, the cosmos, the path of evolution, and our place in this great rush of creative energy. Dozens of us mobbed her at the end. I told her I’d been waiting all my life to hear what she had said.
Not everyone’s experience in the Catholic Church was the same, but mine had no place for nature, no place for me to be in nature. It was the ‘other’ — outside of us, unimportant except as it could be of use, largely hostile, something to be endured on the way to, one devoutly hoped, heaven. I don’t remember ever hearing a word about the world around us from anyone connected to the church or the Catholic schools of my childhood.
So it’s interesting and ironic that the lure of Genesis Farm and the work done there is grounded in the thinking of Thomas Berry, a Passionist priest, who saw, in the growing knowledge of the origins of the universe, a new way of looking at our place in it, a new genesis: the universe itself as an ever-expanding (literally) creation story. An energy that has manifested itself for 13.7 billion years, from seemingly nothing to inchoate matter, to stars, to elements, to more stars, to planets around the stars, to seas, to mountains, to the first cells, to the first beings, plant and animal, to an endless array of beings, coming, not finally, but for now, to us, on this one planet among billions of planets, with their infinite manifestations that remain profound mysteries.
By the time I heard Miriam I’d been a landscape designer and an environmental activist for years, so it wasn’t that I hadn’t found a place in nature, or hadn’t become its champion in my own way. The strings that her vision tied together were there to be gathered, and led me through a door to my place in the whole, grounded on the earth not only by my presence here and my love for its astounding beauty, but by the fact that the building blocks of the soil under my feet are the same as the building blocks of my body.
She represented a turning point in my life, though it was not a time when my life could turn. I had a child in school, a mate, a business to run. Genesis Farm’s Earth Literacy courses took up to 12 weeks, so that made them out of my reach until Luke graduated from high school. At that point, 25 years in, the programs changed to shorter, more intense courses, and I took several of those for three years, which was a great blessing, because, after 28 years, the enormous energy to create and run the Genesis Farms programs had run its course, and the mission began to change.
At the beginning of October Miriam asked me if I would help her with a project she has in mind. A few days after I arrived, we celebrated Samhain (pronounced sah-win), the ancient Celtic celebration of the end of the harvest season that falls at the midway point between the fall equinox and the winter solstice.
It was a time of coming death and dormancy, when the veil between the underworld and the living world felt thinned, and the ever-present ancestors were honored, along with their connection to the primordial chaos and fertility of the dark world. The sheep and cows were brought down from the pastures where they’d spent the warmer season grazing. Fires were kindled against the gathering dark, and people dressed in costumes and traveled from house to house, where they were given food from the Samhain feasts.
Christianity, as was its custom, adopted these ancient rites, and so we have All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, All Saints Day, All Souls Day. But, in a world where Halloween is a $7.4 billion dollar industry and a heavily rhinestoned Elvis costume can cost $1400, the original reason to celebrate Samhain has largely gotten lost, which is also true for its three counterparts: Imbolc, Beltane, and Lughnassad.
In an agrarian world, intimately tied to the the subtlest changes of the seasons, these were important dates, and had their own individual rituals, varying by region across Eurasia, revolving around the preparation, sowing, tending and harvesting of fields, the care of flocks, and both celebration and preparation for the season to come.
In our present day, living in cities and towns, far from the production of food, these dates may seem unimportant. But every one of us has centuries of ancestors who grew food, and epigenetics is now teaching us what cultures who reverence their ancestors have long intuited — we carry with us changes in our DNA expression created by our forebears’ reactions to their lives.
The rituals they performed at Samhain, and similar festivals across the world, celebrated the harvest that would see them through to the next growing season. They lit bonfires, prepared meals, and played games to express gratitude for the harvest and to stave off the gathering dark, rites that are still alive in Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s celebrations. These holidays may look like they’ve morphed into several months of shopping, but the old traditions live on in gatherings of friends and family, extra light against the dark, feasting, singing and music, and even trick or treating on Halloween.
Not only are we not separate from the ground we walk on, we’re not separate from the people who walked it before us. We carry them in our cells, hitching rides on our DNA. We reenact their customs, even when we’ve lost their beginnings in the intervening centuries. We feel anxious with the dying of the light, and stronger by banding together in the face of it. We remember our dead, and ask for their presence and guidance. If we’re lucky, we get to stand on a sunny hill at the end of October and open the portal to Samhain, carrying all the richness of our ancestors, flowing through us into the future.