Pagan Practice

Samhain Reflection: Leaves Changing, Falling, Decomposing

Cross-posted at my SageWoman blog.

For this season’s #PaganPractice blog, I decided to share a reflection on leaves and how, in the ending of their life cycle, they can embody aspects of Samhain.

The Colors of Autumn

The orange hue of leaves is there throughout the summer! It is only revealed when the energy-generating process in the leaves stops. Something thrills in me to know that some leaves hold what we perceive as their aged color their whole existence, but it is masked for a bit by the green of the chlorophyll. What if each of us has who we will become already with us, but youth and immaturity keeps us from seeing certain truths until we are ready to do so? Other colors like purples are created once the leaf begins to decay, reminding us that some things take time to come into being.

Releasing and Remembrance

Once the temperature has cooled, trees begin to release their leaves. The leaves have exhausted their purpose and are not longer nourishing the tree through the action of chlorophyll. They fall, one by one or in a heap on a windy day. Unless tidied up by human hands, they surround the tree at its base in a vestige of past glory.

Samhain is a time to honor one’s ancestors, holding vigil for those who have passed before us. As a person who’s cut off from her family of origin, making meaning during this time has been difficult for me. Certainly I plan honor those who have served as spiritual ancestors to me, but they are either still with me or so removed in terms of time and place I don’t feel that the spiritual connection is strong enough for this practice. I love the idea of creating a shrine to acknowledge each of those who have brought meaning into our life, and spending time with it communing with them and sharing offerings of their favorite items. I did this for my cat (who I had cremated after he passed several years ago).

The image of a tree surrounded by its leaves left me with another impression. Perhaps we can also spend time during Samhain recognizing everything we have released over the course of the past year. All that has served its purpose and then fallen away. I’ve met people who are still in mourning, not for a loved one who’s died, but for a dream that was unrealized or a love that went unrequited. Decades have passed and they still cling to a paper-thin husk, devoid of energy. If I was a tree, I’d shed my leaves randomly, sometimes in the full bloom of summer, so determined am I to rid myself of anyone and anything which threatens my sense of integrity. Maybe as humans, whether we reject things quickly or hold on too long, we need at least one rite a year in which we sit and grieve for the people and situations that weren’t ever quite ours, but for which we still yearn.

I created a ritual related to the remembrance of empty shells, the haunting of losses I want to just brush past but which keep staring up at me in their fading colors and shapes. I need my practice to be tangible, so I gathered several leaves and then wrote on each of them. I then burned them one by one, letting the smoky haze muddle my eyes and my thoughts, sinking into what it felt like to remember each situation and then let it go. I spread the ashes under the oldest trees on my property, honoring their wisdom and taking comfort in the fact that they are more rooted than I.

Disintegration and Decay

It can be beneficial to allow leaves to remain where they drop; the nutrients they release as they break down provide sustenance for the tree. Eventually the leaf becomes a part of the soil, indistinguishable from its former neighbors and mingled into other materials. The leaf spends its time above ground in a symbiotic relationship with the trunk and branches of the tree, but the rest of the tree gets to keep on unfurling its existence while the leaf is consumed.

How I resist the decaying process! It is inevitable. The horizon of my life draws ever so slightly closer, even as a part of me searches for a road that will lead over the looming mountain. Our culture doesn’t even dignify our decaying by allowing us to remain where we are rooted, instead, the circumstances of our life are akin to a leaf who happens to take the plunge during a strong gale. We fling about, buffeted not only by the decisions of our past but also by the whims of whomever finds us in their charge.

We face disintegration as well as decay; the careful gathering and piles we’ve made of our life are only under our control for so long. We may not get to nurture the limbs and bark and being to which we’ve dedicated our life with our passing. Instead, we can find ourselves facing the process alone in unfamiliar terrain. But we are still who we are, and Goddess goes with us no matter where we go.

I am not afraid especially afraid of dying or of shaking out the last drops of youth that remain in the cup. But I am terrified of becoming old-old, of aging to the point where I lose my independence and self-determination. I know myself enough to know I will fight the wind, fight the cold, fight to end up under the same damn tree on which I’ve settled as my spiritual and literal home. If and when the forces of nature demand more of me, I pray to Goddess She grants me grace and patience to view the last journey as an adventure, as a final trek up that mountain. Perhaps the leaf of my existence can find a quiet place to break apart and fertile soil to join. Perhaps it doesn’t matter where we end up after all; it’s all the same forest, with each tree a world unto itself.

So for Samhain, I reflect on death and decay. Dying and decomposition. Instead of dreaming of a world beyond death, I sit in a world where death is a near-constant presence, often through violent and abrupt means. I take a bit of ash from the leaves I burned, and rub it on my feet. This way, each step I take holds that connection to dreams that end, relationships that end, life that ends. There will be time for contemplating renewal and reincarnation; the cycle of death that inevitability leads to new life. But for today, I hold space for loss and pain and sorrow and finality, knowing that in doing so, I’m letting myself look wide-eyed at what I often try to ignore, welcoming it as a part of who I am and what we all face. Blessings on Samhain as you remember and reflect.

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