THROUGH THE WOODS: A Halloween tale

Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

IT WAS LATE OCTOBER and good weather to do a final cleanup of the old rural cemetery before the winter snows began. The secluded little cemetery was surrounded by woods that still retained a few colorful leaves and lots of leaves and branches lay on the ground. The crisp, clean air had that wonderful, indefinable smell of the damp earth of fall.

The late 1700s to 1800s headstones had death’s heads and flower-like carvings on slate and sandstone, someone died of smallpox, another grave contained several children who had died from another disease or mishap. One man was buried near his three wives. Dates showed he had quickly remarried at the death of each wife. It was hard not to think about what these lives had been like and wonder if it was the wind or their spirits rustling through the leaves.

The old pickup truck was filled with debris as work continued from the front to the darkest corner in the back of the cemetery. Here were the remains of an old rotted tree with the modest stump almost sitting out of the ground. Soon it was excavated and found to have an interesting artistic shape, like a piece of driftwood. It was placed in the truck for addition to a home flower bed. The greenish coloration of the old wood would look very nice centered in the ferns. The now tidy cemetery was reverently left to itself for the winter.

At home, the salvaged stump was placed on the porch near the front door until the right spot could be found for it. Friends and family came and went and admired it until one person returned from a party at a late hour. It was pitch dark so the approach to the porch was made slowly and with unsteady steps. Looking up toward the door there sat an incredible horror, a huge glowing hand-like object with up thrust gnarly fingers pointing toward the now frozen and irrationally terrified man! Lights were turned on and family reassured the poor fellow of his sanity. It was a great relief to see and remember the old stump, and to know it was an explainable phenomenon, a first encounter with foxfire! The old wood had been infected with the bioluminescent mycelium (fungal filaments) of Armillaria mellea or other like species which can produce a bright light for up to several weeks. Curious late evening visitors observed the stump for days until it slowly dimmed and took its place in the ferns as an ordinary garden decoration.

Foxfire is mentioned in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, was in a Halloween episode of “Lassie,” and has also been called “touchwood” or “Fairy Sparks.” Uses have included marking trails, aiding army troops, lighting the way at night, and has been part of stories from earliest times. This tale was a family joke for many years and always used as a reminder to stay alert and remain sober at Halloween. You just never know what or where “something” might appear…

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