Magic, Letting Go, and the Thinning of the Veil

It will soon be Halloween, celebrated here in the United States and the Northern Hemisphere on Oct. 31, when children (and sometimes adults!) dress up in costumes, and some will go door to door "begging" for candy. Pumpkins carved with scary faces and lit with spooky candles glowing will line doorways and walkways. 

This holiday has ancient roots, and has been adopted and transformed here in America from the original holiday that my Celtic Irish and Scottish ancestors brought with them when they settled here in the 1720s. Samhain, (pronounced "sow-when") was and is still celebrated by many. 

Samhain is a time that marks the ending of summer and the beginning of winter. A time in Celtic folklore when "the veil is thin" between the world of the living and the spiritual realm. This is a time when the spirits of our ancestors and loved ones who have passed on, should be remembered and honored. Setting a place at the table for family members no longer with us, or seeking out their counsel, is best met with success during this time of year. 

In preparation for the long winter, and darker days, it makes sense to take the time to mark this liminal moment between seasons, as the leaves change color, die, and fall to the ground. 

In the midwestern former prairies now farmland, where I live, the fields have mostly been harvested, and the summer vegetables are all gone from the garden. A week of nightly freezes has meant that flowers are dead, leaves drooping and decaying. Soon the dark greys and light browns of the surrounding fields will be covered in a dusting a snow.

So, bonfires are lit on the eve of Samhain to symbolize the sun and its shifting warmth, and ritual marks the moment between two seasons, two worlds.

We hang between both light and dark...ground and air....we are now at the threshold.

In the ancient Irish and Scottish stories handed down for generations, this time of year is when the fairies (or fae folk) might be more likely to play tricks on us earth bound beings, as the wall between worlds is very thin. One popular folk tale in Celtic tradition is that of the "Stray Sod". This is a patch of land, an area in a field, a bog, the woods, a road, a trail, that if trod upon would suddenly transport the walker into an unknown world and a state of confusion. It was said that the fae folk had enacted their magic on these areas of "stray sod", so that one would walk aimlessly around for hours or even days, when stepping on it. 

Have you ever encountered such a place or experience? 

I recall a short story I read in High School by Stephan King, which heavily borrowed from the idea of the stray sod. It was titled, "Mrs. Todd's Shortcut",  and was about someone taking a shortcut on an unknown, unmarked road through the thick New England woods, and finding themselves unable to reach their destination, suddenly thrust into unfamiliar and threatening surroundings. That story always resonated with me, as it reminded me of the many, many times I've walked through endless rows of dark pines in the thick forests of my childhood. But, although I may have had brief moments of getting "turned around", usually after following a deer run out of curiosity (which my Grandad warned me not to do) and then having to backtrack to the main trail, I had never actually experienced the stray sod. 

Until now.

Let me tell you about my recent experience of the stray sod.

Yesterday I was feeling particularly restless and out of sorts. I decided to take a drive on the backroads, through a nearby wooded area alive with brilliant fall colors. I stopped at a large nature preserve, and discovered an unfamiliar trail.

The weather and the atmosphere were strange, hot for this time of year, but with an oddly cold wind that continuously picked up and died down. 

I parked at the top of a hill, where I could clearly see lower lying fields of prairie grasses and a trail that led into the woods. I grabbed my gear and headed off down the trail. 

I located a small copse of hardwoods to the east and headed that way. After a bit of walking and exploring, I found a beautiful large beech tree and sat down to rest in a cozy little indentation near the trunk, leaning against it. Smelling the citrusy tang of the the beechnut hulls, scattered all around me, and listening to the loud rushing of the wind in the bright orange leaves above my head, I felt safe and protected in this little shelter. 

After some time, I noticed the sun low in the western sky, and realized that it was time to head home. The sheep would need to be brought in for the evening hay, the chickens locked in their coops, safe from hungry coyotes. Reluctantly, I pulled myself  away from my cozy nest and started the climb back up the trail.

I knew that I'd be climbing up this time, heading towards the top of the hill where my truck was parked and I could see the surrounding fields for miles. As I climbed and climbed, the trail seemed to suddenly fade. I knew this wasn't possible, since I remember it being a very well worn, and wide path. Hmmm...

Regardless of how much climbing I felt like I had done, as I looked around I noticed that I was in a basin, not the top of the hill. The ground was soggier, the vegetation different, maybe I was close to the river now. But how? This isn't the path I had been traveling on.  

Then, I saw it. A large blackened out, decaying tree trunk, with a crooked branch jutting off to one side (much like an arm poised on a waist). It seemed as if I needed to go towards this dying tree and then I would see the trailhead and my truck. So I walked closer. But, I was still walking in a low lying area. This tree, which had beckoned me, was not at all on a higher elevation. Did I even see this tree when I came in? When I first walked towards it, I was sure that I had seen it earlier, and that it did mark the beginning of the trail. Now I was equally convinced that I had NOT. That I was indeed going in the wrong direction, although this seemed impossible. I got close to the blackened tree and spoke out loud, "you tricked me, didn't you?", "well, what is it I'm supposed to see here?". 

At that moment, I saw something flash in the corner of my eye. A rabbit? Something leapt from inside the hollowed out trunk and into the grasses. I stood very still and watched, but I did not see it again. It had simply vanished. Was it a rabbit that had jumped into a hole nearby? I can't be certain, but I laughed, and said, "okay, I saw it, now its time to go home."

I made a circle around the tree, and began trying to backtrack the way I had come, hoping to find a place where I may have made a wrong turn. I walked and walked through what seemed like a floodplain, with no trail visible, and then suddenly I was at the top of a hill! THE hill! The one I had been searching for- and there it was, plain as day- my truck parked exactly where I'd left it- the blowing grasses of the prairie visible below me.

I made my way down the now visible and well-trod path to my truck, and happily drove the backroads home.

So, if you happen to go out walking this Samhain season, be especially careful not to step on a stray sod, and if you do, just keep your eyes open and your sense of humor intact. When the veil is thin, the fae folk just want to show you what you're typically blind to during the rest of the year, and they appreciate a good laugh!