The Blue Ridge Parkway winds across western North Carolina from Swannanoa to the Pisgah Inn, up to Licklog Ridge, then to Big Witch Gap, and finally down to the Oconaluftee Valley. In mid-October, sunlight falls sparsely on the gently dappled leaves. The weather is often rainy and cold, and travelers along these ways often feel adrift in the deep fog or shrouded in cotton-batting clouds as though pulled in tendrils from an old calico quilt.
Those soft, gray days of autumn are well-suited for highlighting the hidden depths and swales and ridgelines when looking out over the endless range of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The mist rises from the land in large clouds and wispy drifts that evoke thoughts of ancestors and ancient tales of dragons and fireworms. Autumn’s cloak, a multi-dimensional warmth of reds, oranges, and yellows, draws in close to the road, and the shadowy evergreens become a velvet lining for the earthy tones of the season’s treasures. In this seasonal dress, more than ever, these ancient mountains hold out the promise of liminality for anyone willing to take it. Such are the mysteries that abound in these hills during Samhaintide.
It is my habit to turn to nature without to find that which I seek within. This basic ritual has ever been so with me when I am looking for a connection with or an understanding of the divine. My seeking self always seems to know where to go when I have questions – and when seeking answers about Samhain and ancestor veneration, what better place than those mystery shrouded mountains? One particularly beautiful autumn afternoon, I made the drive through the mountain mists and wound up in a quiet park in the forest. Almost before I knew it, I found myself walking through a stand of trees along a peaceful lakeshore.
At that time, I had just started learning about ancestor veneration. I felt overwhelmed by the prospect of setting up an altar to celebrate the ancestors, which include my “gone befores,” to use the term shared by the poet Susa Silvermarie. My family was never a comfortable, stress-free group of people in life, so the idea that I might invite them to return after death seemed even less comfortable and certainly not stress-free.
There were many what-ifs. What if I got it wrong? What if I made them angry? What if I didn’t have the right objects for an altar? What if the things I offered weren’t nice enough?
As I walked, chants and tunes of the mysteries flowed through my mind, replacing my spiritual self-doubt with comforting words: “All Soul’s Night,” “Hoof and Horn,” “We All Come from the Goddess,” “Ancient Mother.” The words whispered through my head. I listened; the woods and water sounds a fitting underscore for the verses and chants. The leaves rustled on the trees over my head and on the ground under my feet.
When I finally sat down to rest in a sun-lit circle next to the water, I noticed the heavy scent of leaf and loam, and it invoked the same earthy, homey feeling as the scent of baking bread in a warm kitchen. The message was clear: I was home.
At the center of the light, I drew my hand along the ground, tracing a ritual circle around me. I created sacred space with that act of will: earth beneath me, water before me, air moving all around, and fire in the sky. I set my intention and asked for clarity and a deeper understanding regarding ritually honoring my ancestors.
I remained, waiting, listening, for a long, indeterminable time.
The sun was sinking into darkness and the air growing chill when something moved in the trees across the lake. A doe moved to the water’s edge to drink. In the blessed light of the setting sun, the hue of her coat matched the color of the leaves of the American Sycamore at my back. She lifted her head and looked at me. Then, a single leaf drifted down and landed on the ground directly in front of me, inside my circle.
I picked it up and placed it in the palm of my hand. I noticed the way the veins of the leaf matched the lines in my hand. My thoughts spiraled outward as I saw the interrelation between leaf lines, palm lines, wood paths, roadways, sprawling mountain ranges, lineages, and ley lines. I shivered as I felt the connection between my body and that piece of earth and air that mirrored the connection between my spirit and the Divine.
In that moment, the Goddess gave me a simple answer to all of my what-ifs. When it comes to ancestor veneration, keep it simple. Accept the value of the offering as it is made and accept the connections. When in doubt, I should go to the natural places that I know reflect the stages of my spiritual journey.
As I made my way back out of the woods that day, I gathered simple things to include on my ancestor altar. Autumn leaves. A stone. A couple of pinecones. Over my next few walks, I added cattails, a feather, a spray of pine that had fallen from a tree.
At home, I searched through the hand-me-down button tin until I found a button that felt just right. I dug out a pin that belonged to my grandmother, a treasured piece of beach glass, and a small rock from the Adirondack region. There, my parents and other ancestors had lived, loved, and thrived. The day I was ready to assemble the altar, I bought a Golden Delicious apple because my dad had loved them. A tiny bit of ground coffee went into a little spice jar because my ancestors loved coffee. A pretty scarf I had on hand served as an altar cloth. With this collection of simple things, plus a few votive candles, I set up a heartfelt altar to honor my gone befores.
By working with what is at hand, or with gifts from nature, one can release the tendency to think “doing it right” means spending a lot of money on material items. There are no requirements for how this type of altar must look, nor is a large space required. An ancestor altar necessarily includes resources and correspondences from one’s own time and place and items that evoke and honor individuals within lineages, perspectives, and perceptions. Setting a clear intention, and decorating the altar in alignment with that intention, allows one to be comfortable working with what is familiar, simple, and special.
I know the woods and water. I know nature. When it comes to making people feel welcome and appreciated, I know how to do that in uncomplicated ways, so those are the gifts I use to honor my ancestors. This knowledge is the gift the divine gave to me that day in the woods.
When I welcomed my ancestors into my home, I shared my intention to show them honor and respect. Then, as one must often do where family is concerned, I set a boundary of respectful expectations for their behaviors during their time with me. Understanding that inviting the dead into one’s home does not mean giving up control of that space allowed me to be more open and welcoming to their presence. There is no proof that death makes a spirit kinder or nicer or more loving than they were in life. The right to establish boundaries in one’s home or within personal space remains intact. Even spirits must play by the rules of the ancient rites of hospitality.
Ultimately, I have found a simple approach to this aspect of Samhain provides the most rewarding results, allowing me to continue to heal and develop my relationships with my ancestors in ways that are beneficial to my spiritual growth. And so it is, as I continue to travel the lines that connect us.