The Great Harvest has passed. We are now getting ready for the final harvest and Samhain. Samhain, among many other things, is a time to honor your ancestors. I will honor all those who came before me, but this year I am sending a special message to my father and my uncles because of all the woodland lore they taught me.
I was raised in the piney woods of the Deep South. My Irish ancestors landed here, and stayed. They met and married into the local tribes. My paternal grandmother was half Chickasaw, one of the Five Civilized Tribes (Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, Creek, and Cherokee) of the Southeast part of the country. It was that woodland lore heritage that my father taught me when I was a child growing up in these forests. As children we roamed the woods all year round, so an understanding of them was critical. Daddy, along with my uncles, taught us how to read and survive the piney woods.
The lessons started with plants. First we were taught how to identify the poisonous ones, oak, sumac, and ivy. We were also taught which ones we could use for food and which ones to stay away from. Huckleberry and blueberry grow wild all through these Deep South woods. We were taught to identify those edible, and delicious bushes. We were also taught to spot the wild persimmon that grows all through the forest. The beautiful purple berries that we called gooseberries, great for fights with siblings and cousins, but not good to eat. Now I know that bush is actually a beautyberry bush and those berries have great healing properties, if properly prepared. There are several varieties of holly, including yaupon, and we were told to stay away from the bright red berries, not good for human consumption even though birds love them.
We were taught to observe animals and their behavior. The great targets for hunters, squirrel, rabbit, and deer, were very important to learn. Birds and their behavior were also high on that list. Watching birds could lead to all types of information, like food and predators and which way the wind was blowing. Vultures would point out where the dead things were so you could avoid that space. Of course the big fear was snakes. Wandering the forest could easily lead you into an encounter with a snake. The basic lesson where snakes was concerned was as soon as you saw one, get away from it. If possible, once you had moved away, identify it. If nonvenomous, leave it alone. Those are actually a blessing on the land. If venomous, move as far away as quickly as possible and report to an adult. Animals can lead you to water, possibly food, but you have to be quiet and listen. Ultimately the lessons where animals were concerned were copy animal behavior. Those creatures know the woods better than humans.
What we were told over and over again about the woods, which bled over into all landscapes, was stop, listen, be aware. The wind, trees, bushes, water, animals, soil, and sunlight could provide lots of information, if you just listened. None of this is new to anyone who was taught woodland lore in any part of the country. Here it was specific to the Deep South. Pine trees and yaupon, rattlesnakes and king snakes are endemic here. Observing them made the piney woods a safe place for children to roam.
Daddy gave me a special gift one day, as a lesson. On a walk through the woods we came upon a deer path. He looked deep into my eyes and said this, “If you are ever lost in the woods, you especially, just find and follow a deer path. It will always take you to safe place.” Daddy would never have called himself a witch or a shaman, but he saw a truth about me. And he was not wrong.
Ultimately the great lesson of woodland lore we were taught was be quiet and listen. That lesson serves me in all aspects of my life. As you honor your ancestors this Samhain, just be quiet and listen. They are always speaking to you. Just be quiet and listen.