BY LAUREN EGGERT-CROWE
On a brisk December evening in the early 90s, my aunt took me and two of my cousins to stand in a stranger’s yard in rural Maryland and sing to a dead tree.
It was an old twisty oak, thick-trunked, heavy-knuckled, lording over a curve of rural highway. We stood at the entrance to the driveway in our muddy sneakers and puffy fluorescent jackets. Beyond us, crows circled the stubby dead stalks in a dormant cornfield. Susan, my aunt, told us that her neighbors were going to cut down the tree, so off we set to sing it a eulogy: "Bonny Portmore," by Loreena McKennitt.
The lyrics are from an 18th century Irish folk song mourning the loss of Ireland’s old oaks. We plodded through the dirge in shy unison, the kids shuffling our feet on the asphalt, imitating Loreena’s keening vibrato — I am sorry to see such a woeful destruction of your ornament tree. If we held candles, I do not remember, but it’s very likely. This was the kind of thing we did in my family.
It was 1992 when I first heard music from Loreena Mckennitt’s fourth album The Visit. It was one of the first recordings for which I studied the liner notes, lyrics and all. There she stood in blurry sepia, draped in a long black gown, ginger nimbus haloing a witchy countenance, foregrounded by a stone archway straight out of Labyrinth.
I was 9, sans internet, writing fairy tales in wide rule composition notebooks; there weren’t enough Waterhouse paintings in the world to satiate my craving for the magical. After watching The Secret of Roan Inish in 1996, I found Gaelic lessons on a crudely HTML-coded Angelfire page and spent every study hall filling out its grammar worksheets (I was a promising student, but twenty years later, the only phrase I remember is Ta an ailsim froig anois, or, the weather is nice today). It’s no surprise that a few years into this fierce phase, with a little help from Marion Zimmer Bradley and Monica Furlong and Susan’s nature walk lessons on the Druids’ environmental stewardship, I fell hard into 90s Wicca. So The Visit’s ballads about The Old Ways and the ghosts of Samhain became instant favorites, with "All Souls Night" as the crown jewel.
Admittedly, when asked by friends who she is, I’ve taken the shortcut of, "like a saltier, dustier Enya," but the comparison doesn’t track. Loreena McKennitt’s aesthetic is a more studious Celticness, one that doesn’t traffic in synth-soaked affirmations or massage office dreamscapes. The mood is downright autumnal, ornamented with cello and droning accordions and enough appoggiaturas to give Adele a run for her money.
There are very few musicians I save for seasonal listening but Loreena McKennitt is definitely at the top of the list. Her somber string section has scored many a nostalgic season of decay in my life, when the declining daylight has just become noticeable and yet retains a comforting ethereal quality, before Seasonal Affective Disorder sets in, when deciduous leaves, pomegranates and sunsets give a final flourish of carnelian splendor before everything surrenders into pale greys.
Her music is a talisman best charged in October, selectively revived for yuletide cheer (she has two Christmas albums), and then stowed away for several months. Listening to her past New Year’s Day is pushing it, and the only exception I’ve made was in March of 2016 when I finally saw her in concert. I paid $85 for orchestra seats in Beverly Hills, only $20 less than I spent on Hamilton tickets. My cousin flew out from Chicago to join me. We draped our winter bodies in black shawls, loaded our necks with rose quartz necklaces and stacked our fingers to the hilt with silver and obsidian and moonstone rings.
We took shadowy photos in the mirrored walls under the chandeliers and I cried during "Dante’s Prayer," a tender place within me still smarting from a fresh breakup. "When the dark night seems endless, please remember me." The funerary spell of Loreena’s brittle mezzo has midwived my anxious heart through so many dark nights of fall, even in the brightest of desert cities, when the tightening aperture of dusk squeezes some unnameable longing in my chest. And really, what could be more Irish of me? To alchemize melancholy in my throat?
Fall of 2003. I’ve come to the University of Arizona in Tucson for one semester as part of a national exchange program, and for the first few months I’m miserable. I don’t have any friends. I can’t take the sizzle or the washed out gravel, the palm trees reflected on hot glass, the searing seatbelts, the spaghetti strap weather in mid-October, the sun, the sun, the sun. I’m longing for the traditional temperate zone markers of fall; I haven’t yet learned how to listen to the desert’s seasonal shifts, to recognize the scent of creosote and dry mountain air as heralds of dark magic in their own right; I’m still leaning on the usual East Coast shorthands — dollar store pumpkin stickers, apple cider, Hocus Pocus on TV.
This is when I begin dating Jess, my first boyfriend, a Tucson native just as obsessed with Halloween as I am. On our second date, October 30th, he drove us around Tucson in his white 1980s Honda, shopping for costume supplies at the surplus fabric store. We listened to a cassette of Loreena McKennitt’s Parallel Dreams. "Maybe I can find a place I can call my home," she sings, and it fuses me to the moment. We bake apple pie together and sew our costumes on the hardwood floor of his kitchen in the little brick house his parents had gotten married in, a house I would later live in during grad school.
The haunting strings of "Standing Stones" and "Annachie Gordon" provide the soundtrack to the early days of our tentative courtship, and as the temperature mercifully drops, I begin to imprint the sound of fiddles, harps and bodhrans onto the tableau of spindly ocotillos and teddy bear chollas silhouetted by an orange sunset, sage and mesquite on the wind as the pores of the desert open in the twilight.
A few months later, I’m back at my Pennsylvania college in a slushy grey mountain winter, and someone is playing "Standing Stones" in my dorm. I race down the carpeted hall in my bare feet and hippie skirt, searching for the source of the sound, as if the track is a chant summoning me to its bewitched circle, my limbic system lits up, catapulting me back to a Sonoran October. Missing Jess, missing Tucson, the desert in my blood now, I would play Parallel Dreams to conjure those music-potent memories of the times I had listened to it in Tucson when I was desperately trying to wrap myself in an East Cost fall mise en scene. A nesting doll of nostalgias. I am still trying to revive a dead tree with song.
My current boyfriend teases me about my WASPy childhood, and even though I come from two Irish-German families of lapsed Catholics, I get his point. I was blessed with a pastoral girlhood of bonfires and apple orchards, folk songs and pie recipes, and some of those family traditions undoubtedly came from my mother’s mother, whose line is indeed English settlers all the way back.
Whatever toils my deep ancestors may have faced as conquered British subjects in Ireland, punished for speaking their native tongues, or working class immigrants in 19th century America, the oppression had been traded for whiteness long before my generation, and I enjoyed the shelter of woodsy galavants among the eccentrics of my tribe. So when I say sorrow, I don’t mean anything of grave consequence, only the garden variety depression that’s an occupational hazard of living.
Here is my privilege: If I look back far enough, I can read about the animist rituals my ancestors must have practiced and replicate them for some kind of spiritual connection without feeling the pain of cultural genocide. The touchstones of my heritage are generally celebrated in fairy tales and 80s fantasy movies, at pagan pride festivals and Halloween parties. The sacred roots are visible just below the surface of the pop culture kitsch, and I can access them without the urgency of resisting erasure from the dominant culture. At worst, I only feel like a poseur.
Meditating on the spooky holiness of All Hallows Eve and how to best observe it always brings me back to those questions of theft, appropriation, lineage, the ghosts of colonialism and who has the right to claim a part of what culture, and what it means to acknowledge your mighty dead, and the stolen land we live on now, and the spoils of war that have been handed to me, the cruel economics that have made my life possible.
And I don’t know if those thorny questions belong in what set out to be an introductory essay about my nostalgia for the Redheaded Patron Saint of 90s Pagan Girls, but my years of living in the desert, so close to the militarized border, witnessing the radical politics of Dia De Los Muertos altars, has made it impossible for me to talk about this season of conjuring without acknowledging the historical trauma done in my name. You can’t dine with the dead on All Souls’ Night without asking where they’ve been. This is the season where we unearth what has been buried, look squarely in its hollow eye sockets and ghastly grin.
Perhaps this is why I keep returning, every autumn, to Loreena McKennitt’s exploratory repertoire of cultural cross-pollination. She studies the music that arises from immigration and war, famine and rebellion. And when I listen and learn, the folk songs passed down from people who had nothing but songs to pass down remind me to pay attention.
It’s easy to continue accepting the empty feast of capitalism and pretend you don’t have a body, pretend you didn’t come from the land, that you aren’t rooted, that you won’t die, that you aren’t responsible for deaths, that you are an individual disconnected from the history of human art, which is really the history of human migration and displacement. But this season doesn’t let us forget our corporeality. The dying trees demand our discordant song.
Lauren Eggert-Crowe is the author of four poetry chapbooks, most recently the forthcoming Bitches of the Drought, which was selected as runner-up in Sundress Publications Chapbook Competition, judged by Staci Schoenfeld. She is also the author of In The Songbird Laboratory (Dancing Girl Press 2013), The Exhibit (Hyacinth Girl Press 2013), and Rungs, collaboratively written with Margaret Bashaar (Grey Book Press 2015). She was born and raised in rural Pennsylvania and now lives in Los Angeles, where she serves as Reviews Editor for Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments.
Lauren earned an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Arizona in 2007. She was voted Best Poet of Santa Cruz in the Santa Cruz Weekly in 2010 and 2011.