I have confession to make: I was raised Jewish, I identify myself as Jewish on all official documents, and I delight in all things Jewish, from bagels and lox to minor-key music. That said, I also carry within me a kind of deep spiritual secret—in my heart of hearts, I’m something of a pagan.
Now, I don’t, to be sure, practice things like dark witchcraft, shape-shifting, vampirism, or howling at the moon with a shaggy face, although I have been known to view the lunar disk with an unshaven visage. I haven’t forsaken temple for membership in a coven, druid fellowship, order of bards, or any other of the myriad organizations that promote this less-than-conventional but definitely ancient faith. My robes are of the bath variety. And while I have known a witch or two in my time—well, women who believed they had magical powers—they were simply friends; I wasn’t seen as a closeted master of the dark arts.
Still, at least one of them—a now, alas, lost friend from my childhood days—thought I was something more than the conventional guy I presented to the world. “You don’t know it,” she said when we paused during one of our hikes through the wood to listen to a late-afternoon Barred Owl battle-of-the-bands, “but you’re really a Green Man.”
This wasn’t, she went on, a reference to my relative youth and inexperience. Nor was she making a snide comment about the unruliness of my then-thick hair, which in those days resembled trailing foliage in appearance but not, of course, color. (It was then quite red.) “When you’re being still and just listening, you blend right into nature,” she said. “That’s definitely a sign you’re a Green Man. It’s kind of spooky, but please don’t change.”
This lovely young lass—we were both about 14 at the time—was, she admitted, something of a Green Woman, an intimate with the spirit of the natural world, and she was glad I was staying true to my inner nature. “I like having someone to talk to,” she said. “Someone to share this with. Most people think I’m just nuts... but not you.”
If this conversation on a late October afternoon, with the maple leaves a-glow in the backlit low sunshine, were part of a Hollywood saga, we would then share a kiss that cemented what would be a lifelong relationship filled with natural bliss and a stable of Green Kids adept at conversing with trees, transfigurating, and riding broomsticks.
Another confession: we were boyfriend and girlfriend then, and from time to time thereafter, but despite our natural connection, we couldn’t make the non-Green parts of our lives meld and we eventually realized that we were better apart than trying to forge an impossible togetherness.
I’m guessing she’s still connected to the heart of the natural world. I know that I am.
And I know that as Halloween rolls around yet again, I feel that Green tie more deeply than usual. This is, to be sure, exactly as it’s supposed to be.
All Hallows Eve, as the 31st has become known, is more than a night out with friends dressed up in scary costumes and “spooking” the neighbors into dispensing free candy. In the nature-based Druid tradition, which has resurfaced in the neo-Pagan calendar of modern witches known as Wiccans, Halloween represents one of two “hinges” of the year—the other, no doubt significantly, was May 1st, my birthday—in which time changed in a major way and the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest ebb. At Samhain—a Gaelic-rooted word pronounced “sah-wen”—spirits of the departed would leave the underworld and walk among us, and this could be, depending on the inclination of the shades, as terrifying as Sir Walter Scott had it:
On Hallowmas Eve, the Night Hag shall ride
And all her nine-fold sweeping on by Her side,
Whether the wind sing lowly or loud,
Stealing through moonshine or swathed in cloud.
Or, in truth, it could be calm and peaceful—a visit from dear old friends you haven’t seen in ages.
Bonfires and frightening jack-o-lanterns would keep the malevolence at bay during the night, but flickering candles and welcoming music might encourage the well-behaved departed to touch base in the dark hours. Since I was, a couple of years ago following heart surgery—October 26th, to be precise—a brief resident in the Land of the Non-living, I’ve experienced Samhain from both venues. As long as my batteries keep my heart beating, I’m hoping to continue celebrating Halloween from my current side of the fence: the Green side, the one with the candy bag bearing an occasional York Peppermint Patty. Residence in the spirit world, the place where the green goes brown, can wait.
On this Night of Nights, when the ancient Celts celebrated the turning of the year, I’ll venture forth after the last kids have yelled “trick or treat” and everyone else, including the junior-league goblin in my house, has gone to bed. Taurus the Bull and, later, Orion the Hunter—the “stars” of winter—will be rising in the eastern sky. Most likely a frost will be settling over the landscape and beginning the process of turning foliage to next season’s mold and fertilizer. The almost moonless skies will be dark and burning with familiar constellations, but the chilly air will be silent of night-flying songbirds, whose peeps and chirps helped keep evening migrants together as they took their bearings from stars and the Earth’s geomagnetic field and headed south.
In my youth, I may well have haunted the night until dawn. Maybe I wouldn’t have been alone. Green men, and Green women, were sometimes known to keep each other company, and, no doubt, there would have been an abundance of spirits coursing through the darkness.
But these nights, the chill would have put an unpleasant ache in old bones, and all that Green needed recharging. Post-Halloween would be quieter, but still Green in spirit. The last of the Meadowhawk dragonflies would glint in the sunshine. Various mushrooms would speak about recycling the just-departed year into the new one. The Witch Hazel blossoms and the Witch’s Hat galls, the handiwork of aphids, would cheer the eye and keep faith with the tail end of the growing season. I could look for newly arrived kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and Winter Wrens, the spirits of survival, resilience, and renewal, to say nothing of a proper blending of paganism and modern practice alike.