A Walk in the October Woods, Just in Time for Halloween

Cindy explores the autumn woods and folklore of the trees that grow there.

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Imagine yourself on an early evening walk through the October woods. The air is crisp, the color is brilliant, fallen leaves crunch under your feet, and there’s an earthy, musky fragrance unique to this enchanting season.

Come.  Let’s take a walk.  There’s magic to be found in the autumn woods.

A small grove of young quaking aspen stands at the edge of the forest.

They set the tone for our walk; the slightest breeze seems to bring the trees to life, setting every leaf trembling.  The clamorous rustling is like a symphony of rattling bones.  In the Language of Flowers’ Sentiments and Symbolism, the aspen represents fear.

Also at the forest’s edge are the junipers.

Let’s cut a branch or two before we go on…we may need them later.  Junipers symbolize protection.  In Italy, an old superstition claims that junipers prevent a witch from crossing a doorway; she cannot pass without correctly counting the number of needles.

Speaking of witches….up ahead by the riverbank, we see Witch Hazel adorned in her seasonal garb, brewing up some Autumn magic.  The strange, twisted petals of her flowers remind me of long, gnarly fingers.

It seems no one can agree on how Witch Hazel got her name.  Many believe the “witch” in witch hazel came from the Old English word “wice” or “wych”, or the Middle English word “wiker” (wicker); all mean pliant or flexible.  “Hazel” comes from its leaves; they are similar to the unrelated hazelnut tree.  The flexible branches of witch hazel were once used as divining rod, or made into wands used by witches to cast spells over paths like the one we are traveling on now.

Another bit of folklore is derived from the unusual witch hazel seed capsules that mature in autumn.  When the capsules dry, they open with a distinctive popping sound, propelling the seeds a distance of 15 to 30 feet.  In the Colonial New England during this time of year, the evening woods resonated with the noise of popping.  The settlers determined it could only be the work of witches.

Was it mistaken identity or just a good story when one of those old herbalists claimed that the wood of witch hazel was used to make gallows when the witch-hunt craze was rampant throughout England?  Witch hazels are not native to Europe, and didn’t grow there during the witch hunts.

So which “witch” is correct?  Perhaps Henry Thoreau gives the best reason for the “witch” in witch hazel, “There is something witchlike in the appearance of witch hazel which blooms in October and November with its irregular and angular spray, and petals like furies’ hair or small ribbon streamers.  Its blossoming, too, at this irregular period when other shrubs have lost their leaves as well as blossoms, looks like witches’ craft.”

Let’s move on.  Here we see a tree that is unmistakable and seems to glow in the dim light of the forest.  It’s the birch.

Tree spirits are said to favor birches.  In Russian folklore, they are inhabited by Lieschi, mysterious creatures often described as having bark-like skin and green hair.  Lieschi were often the cause of travelers getting hopelessly lost in the woods, never to be seen again.  The only way to protect yourself was to wear your clothing inside out, your shoes on the wrong feet, and to bring offerings of food.  No, No…leave your shoes on.  We don’t have worry about the Lieschi now…not too much, anyway; they are most mischievous in spring, after waking from winter hibernation.

Deep in the forest, the canopy above grows thicker, and only thin rays of sun are let through, creating irregular patterns of light and dark that dance across the path in time to the music of rustling leaves.  Here stand the majestic maples, the graceful beeches, and the mighty oaks.

In our Michigan woods grow bur, swamp, black, red, and white oaks.  Sacred trees, oaks feature in folklore throughout the world.  A curious tale from Vermont explains how the oak got its lobed leaves.

Long ago, an old man of great wealth sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for a lengthier time to enjoy his riches.  The Devil, always up for some soul bargaining, stipulated that the old man could remain on earth until the oak lost all its leaves.  Smiling, the man agreed.  He was a crafty old man, and knew that the white oak rarely loses all its leaves; dry and brown, they hang on throughout winter until in spring, the new leaves emerge.  When the Devil realized he’d been tricked, he flew into a furious rage, taking it out on the oak.  To this day, his anger is seen in the bites he took out of the leaves.

We’d better hurry now.  The light is starting to fade, and shadows lengthen.  We begin to see things out of the corner of our eyes that aren’t really there. Sounds are magnified; every snap of a twig echoes loudly in our heads, and we try not to imagine what could be out there, lurking unseen. Darkness falls quickly in the forest, and this is the time trees whisper their secrets…..some that are best left unheard.

Before we go though, let’s stop for just a moment, to catch a falling leaf.

It’s said that on Halloween night, if a leaf is caught before it lands, the bearer will have good fortune throughout the year.  Once it touches the ground though, its magic will be gone forever.

Happy Halloween!