The Thinning Veil
by Tom Leskiw
As I went out walking this fall afternoon, I heard a wisper wispering
I heard this wisper and I wondered, I heard this laugh and then I knew
The time is getting near my friends, the time that I hold dear my friends
The veil is getting thin, my friends, and strange things will pass through.
The perimeter of the desert area supports hardwood trees: scarlet maple, Scouler’s—a dry site—willow, and a bit further afield, a big-leaf maple. In October, the leaves’ red-and-yellow pyrotechnics portend a change. The Earth creaks, the balance shifts slightly upon the thermal fulcrum. Lengthening shadows and the sun’s rays, slicing through translucent, trembling leaves, seem to point to… an opening of some kind.
Rooted in pagan traditions more than 2000 years old, Halloween grew out of the Celtic celebration marking the onset of winter’s gloom. Samhain—the Gaelic word for November—was a festival that celebrated the harvest of crops and livestock during late October and early November. Pronounced sow-een, it is a ritual tied to the seasonal cycles of life and death. The Celts considered Samhain to be the time when the separate worlds of the living and dead converge with spirits walking the Earth. Recently, perhaps responding to my Irish roots on my mother’s side, I’ve been inspired to learn a bit more about this Old World ritual.
Samhain and the Day of the Dead—similar customs developed in both the Old and New Worlds—speak to a human need: to honor those who have come before. Living as I do at a latitude closer to Ireland than Mexico City, I’ll go with autumn as my choice for when this veil between the living and dead is at its thinnest. The idea that scary spirits are among us is intriguing, but my personal belief is that the departed are allies still available for counsel, rather than ghosts sent here to frighten us.
I whispered a prayer and studied the photographs of the friends I’d brought. A bond had been forged with each of these people: an annual 2 a.m. wake-up call to conduct my breeding bird survey route with co-worker Tony Hacking, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. The memory of seeing him—to the delight of child and adult alike—clad in a Bigfoot costume striding along the Klamath River during field trips for International Migratory Bird Day brought a smile to my lips. And here was Tim McKay, long-time director of the NEC—Northcoast Environmental Center—who’d collaborated with Sue on several projects to protect our local environment. Tim’s passing cut deep: we’d come to imagine that, after nearly three decades helming the NEC, that he’d forever be there, fighting the good fight. Tim and Tony left us in 2006 and 2007.
|Photo by Tony Northrup|
Placing the photographs of the departed on the ofrenda underscored for me how, over time, trusted colleagues and friends—through shared activities and community commitments—become kin.
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During late October-early November, the desert area in our yard is anything but barren or deserted. One aloe was a gift from Big Gary, struck down by cancer in 2002. Slightly up-slope stands a coast live oak. Small, slow-growing, it began as an acorn from Tim McKay’s tree. To the east of the oak is an agave, a pup from Tony and Theresa Hacking’s parent plant that we purchased at the Orleans Migratory Bird celebration of May 2001.
Several years ago, on the Day of the Dead, we received the first heavy rain of the fall. The onset of autumnal rains—one seasonal door shutting while another opens—can be an abrupt shift. The smell of re-moistened humus, dampened earth, and ripening fruit—apple, huckleberry, cascara, and coffee berry—unleash a cascade of olfactory memories, visceral and vital.
|Ysabel de la Rosa|
“Tony, I decided to give up my breeding bird survey route. I retired this summer and my hearing isn’t what it once was. You’ll be pleased to know that the Orleans International Migratory Bird Day has a new name: the Tony Hacking Bigfoot Bird Celebration. When we reflect on the energy you devoted to the event—up early for birds, mid-day crafts with the kids, then the night shift in search of bats and owls… well, it prompted us to ‘raise our game.’ We all get together now the night before the event for a potluck prior to the slideshow. The example you set has made us all want to give a little more of ourselves; we’ve grown closer as a community.”
Standing there, talking with the spirits of the departed, crystallized something for me. Life is a balancing act: honor the past, yet live for today, while moving toward the future. Until that evening, I’d yet to grasp the extent to which our desert area has become a memorial to those Sue and I have known. Regardless of the season, spirits reside here. They exist anywhere memories are kept alive, where a person’s deeds resonate far beyond their lifetime.
The agave from Tony’s yard has now pupped. In anticipation of these and similar pups, I’ve dug an additional three holes in our desert area. Out went the impoverished ridgetop clay, in went a potpourri of better-draining material that I’d prepared.
|Ysabel de la Rosa|
Tom Leskiw lives outside Eureka, California, with his wife Sue and their dog, Gypsy. He retired in 2009, following a 31-year career as a hydrologic / biologic technician for Six Rivers National Forest. His essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Birding, CrossRoads: A Southern Culture Annual, LBJ: Avian Life, Avian Arts, Nature in Legend and Story, Pilgrimage, This Watery World: Humans and the Sea, Watershed, The Motherhood Muse (1st place contest winner), Living Lessons, forthcoming in Snowy Egret, and in various online publications. His monthly column appears at www.RRAS.org. and his Website resides at www.tomleskiw.com.
|People on a tour of Tom and Sue's garden in California.|