As the nights have been drawing in I’ve noticed the tawny owls having their noisy conversations again. Last night they came in right on cue – I was setting out for an All Souls service. In folk lore owls are considered spooky and associated with death but I love hearing the tawny owls, the traditional and adaptable to whit to who owls. They are probably establishing territory or a calling pair but I can easily anthropomorphise them – they sound as if they are having fun. One sets up in a tree a few yards from my house, the other is in the wood a field away and then they have a competition as to who can make the most noise and have the last word. That quaver in their voice sounds to me like ironic laughter at their own wit. Before dawn at this time of year (when I am often out early walking the dog) they are still at.
When I was a child Guy Fawkes’ night, not Halloween, was the significant date on the calendar – though I do remember a blisteringly failed attempt to carve a lantern from one of my father’s rock hard home-grown turnips with a blunt kitchen knife (as with many things in childhood it was the making that appealed to me rather than the end result). This was in the innocent days when no child in the Warwickshire village where I grew up had heard of trick or treat.
Halloween has grown hugely in commercial importance over the years. I noticed a shop in The Lanes in Carlisle devoted to Halloween tat. No doubt as soon as November comes it will morph into a Christmas decorations and 2017 calendar shop.
I’d never been to an All Souls service before. It was quiet and thoughtful and we were all self-controlled but it was actually extremely emotional. We each lit candles for the dead we wished to remember and then the minister read out the list of names of those who had died in the last five years and any other names requested.
For a small rural community there was a large number of names. As we listened in the stillness they became a kind of litany, a chant of familiar names from families who had lived here for generations. I thought that it must have been like this (only worse) after the First World War. Afterwards my next-door neighbour told me of one of his aunts whose fiancé had been killed in the last week of that war. Edward Thomas wrote earlier in the war of hearing the cry of an owl (species unspecified):
“... the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.”
(from The Owl)
2015 and 2016 have not been good years in this part of Cumbria. So many families who have lost loved ones. So many familiar names – people I had talked to and walked with along our quiet lanes. Five and a bit more years of names. I had forgotten that death had undone so many. How important it is to remember.
I was in Prague a few years ago just before All Souls Day. It is called Památka zesnulých (the remembrance of the deceased) or Dušičky (little souls). I was told that it is the custom for people to go to the cemeteries on that evening, take flowers and light candles at their relatives’ graves. Atheist or believer, it doesn’t matter. It is the remembering that is important. The cemeteries are full of little flickering lights.