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March 28, 2012

To Honor and Remember

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.

In the autumn, I find myself spending more time in the desert area of our yard at dusk. Here, cactus, yucca, aloe, and other succulents we’ve planted stand in juxtaposition to surrounding redwood, fir, and spruce trees. This south-facing slope caught my eye the first time my wife Sue and I looked at the property. With a bit of creative visualization, I foresaw that the removal of introduced, leaning-over-the-garage Monterey pines would enhance the area for sun-loving plants. Ten years later, the site is flourishing: homage to my childhood desert roots.

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.

Seasons and Cycles
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.

The New World custom of Día de los muertos—Day of the Dead—has its origins in ancient Aztec ceremonies. The similarity between Samhain and Dia de los muertos is striking: the belief that the souls of the departed return for one day to their place of burial, and that the setting out of food and water on an altar will sustain them on their journey back to the spirit realm. During the time of the Aztecs, Dia de los Muertos was celebrated around the end of July. Following the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Catholic priests moved the holiday to coincide with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day (November 1 and 2).

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.  

Los Bagels is a local eatery that owes its name to the proprietor’s Jewish and Hispanic roots. Ofrendas—small altars built to display photographs of departed kin and friends—are constructed at his establishment several weeks prior to Día de los Muertos. Although aware of this local custom for several years, it hadn’t occurred to me to participate until six years ago, when several friends of ours died. With photos of the departed in hand, Sue and I headed into the city of Eureka. We placed the photographs on the ofrenda, pleased to find room among the candles, skeleton figurines, and other photographs.

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
And biologist Paul Springer. Teacher, mentor and a member of the endangered Aleutian Goose recovery team, Paul helped to shepherd a species back from extinction. His deeds spoke volumes, showing us how to care—for family, community, and the planet.

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.
*         *           *          *          *          *            *             *           *           *           *          *            *            *       

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
Tannins and terpenes, aromatic compounds contained in leaf litter, are awakened from their dry-season somnolence. The natural world’s sluggish, heat-hazed ambiance has disappeared—soon to be replaced by wind-whipped ocean waves, pelting rain, and mountain snowstorms. By late October, increasing rain and diminishing sunlight combine to bring an end to the growing season. Foods still on the vine: winter squash, tomatoes, melons—must be harvested and brought inside. This is an exciting time, when crops that harnessed the sun’s energy lie cheek-to-jowl with elements of decay: foliage reduced to a flaccid mush from frost and the smell of decomposing leaf litter—punctuated here-and-there with emerging mushrooms. It is no wonder that the ancients believed that the separate worlds of the living and dead converged during this time frame.

Back in my yard, the rain had slackened to a mist. Congealed droplets fell from trees, shrubs, and garage eaves—their cadence sounding like irregular footsteps. The veil had thinned; the door was ajar, and souls of the departed streamed through the opening. Slowly, a bit self-conscious at first, I hailed them. “Gary, what’s goin’ on? We miss your visits, your story-telling. …. Hey, Tim: the big news is, we may have reached a tipping point on removing the Klamath River dams. The salmon may make it home yet. The good fight goes on.

“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.

Wikimedia Commons
The next morning, I wrested the agave pup from Tony’s parent plant. Holding my hands together carefully to support the root ball, I placed it into the earth. As I troweled soil mix onto the plant’s roots, I spoke to Paul Springer. “What a privilege for me to put together testimonials from your former students, friends, colleagues, and family. You left your mark on so many! Thanks again for showing me a bird I’d never seen before in Humboldt County: Lawrence’s Goldfinch. And to learn that this enigmatic, nomadic species actually nests in our area … you were vital, making discoveries until the end. Vaya con Dios, my friend.”

Ysabel de la Rosa
Clouds began to part, and the sun’s rays slanted down. The mysteries of night—swirling mist and water droplets falling from tree and eave that mimicked the cadence of human footfalls—had retreated. I looked at my soil-stained hands and smiled at the memories of good friends lost along the way. Sue called to me that lunch was served. I gathered my tools and, once again firmly in the present, made my way back to the house.


People on a tour of Tom and Sue's garden in California.
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 and his Website resides at

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