Faerie Legend or Forest Lost?
by Rosemarie Colombraro
(Publisher's Note: Here in Larchmont, we fret over
zoning, floor-area-ratios, setbacks, McMansions and
the like. But deep in the Cathedral Woods on remote
Monhegan Island off the coast of rural Maine, home builders
are aggressively developing forest lots and adding ranch
dwellings, multi-storied apartments, lean-tos and even
teepees with no regard for zoning or architectural review
boards. Another suburban horror story of thoughtless
overdevelopment? No, the Cathedral construction boom
is in tiny faerie houses that have charmed visitors
to the Woods for generations. Rosemarie Colombraro tells
the complete tale. For more on this magic island, see:
Travel Back in Time
to Monhegan Island )
A forest of virgin spruce trees on Monhegan Island,
Maine, is believed by many to be inhabited by faeries.
For years hundreds of visitors to the island faithfully
build houses to "help" the winged creatures.
Shelters of twigs and other manmade materials dot the
forest floor. But sometimes during the night a strong
force sweeps through the trees -- a "stomper"
-- or a person opposed to the building of the houses,
will stomp on and destroy some or all of the little
shelters in an effort to protect what truly keeps the
Monhegan Island lies several miles off the coast of
Maine and is accessible only by ferry to a single harbor.
The island was a fishing area for Indians until the
beginning of the 20th century. Today it continues to
be largely undeveloped. Most residents still make their
living by the long time tradition of lobstering, practicing
methods of conservation such as harvesting lobsters
in the winter to avoid catching egg-laden females. The
island, approximately 1/2-mile by 1 1/2 miles in size,
is known to be a haven for artists. "The smell
of drying fish," says one Mainer, " has changed
to the smell of turpentine." Artists flocked to
the island, among them such notables as Andrew and Jamie
Wyeth. New York's John Marin brought students to paint
the beauty of the island. Soon it was the
fashionable thing for wealthier mainlanders to ferry
over in the summer. But now conservationists and sentimentalists
are fighting wing over claw about houses made for fairies.
Faeries (fairies, fey, nymphs or sylphs, among other
names) have long been a subject of interest. They have
appeared in nearly every country in the world, in some
form or another. English literature offered them to
the public, appearing in the poems of Drayton, Milton,
and Shelley. Fourteenth century Chaucer tells of the
elf queen and her troop withdrawing from contact with
the human world. Shakespeare introduces faeries in A
Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest. The legend
of Arthur includes the well-known enchanter Merlin and
Morgan le Fey. Morgan is present in Sir Gawain and the
Green Knight and Yvain: The Knight of the Lion. In Malory's
Morte d'Arthur, Morgan is set on destroying Arthur,
who was believed to be the illegitimate son of Morgan's
Faeries were a popular subject in art of the 18th
century. Paintings of this type transcended the Romantic
period into the Victorian era; they were believed to
be a form of escapism from the harsh industrial time.
The artist William Blake portrayed faeries as a part
of nature; tiny keepers of the earth. It isn't certain
where the faerie house tradition began on Monhegan Island.
But when maritime painter Francis J. Waugh came to Monhegan
Island in the early 1900's, the beauty of the island's
forest inspired him. He published Clan of Munes in 1916.
His book described faeries living in the woods - in
that romantic age, faeries were very popular. Although
the book was not well received, the drawings inspired
by the Cathedral Woods may have sparked the long enduring
practice of house building.
Woods is virgin spruce forest perched on craggy rock
cliffs. The trees grow in shallow topsoil, making their
roots nearer the surface, creating nooks and crannies
that faeries could inhabit. Tiny landscapes created
by young spruce, pine cones and moss allow imaginations
to wander. The lack of animals on the island help to
make the Cathedral Woods a unique and important ecological
structure. For the last 80 years, children have built
shelters of dried twigs and pine cones. But then, children
and parents began to think that bigger was better, and
the houses became more elaborate. They started to build
houses that suited them, instead of the faeries. Some
homes sported driveways and drawbridges, carpets and
ponds. Artists in residence joined the building frenzy,
creating competitions among themselves for the most
In most areas of the world, faeries are known to be
a part of a larger picture - a vessel for energy that
moves through all living creatures and plants of the
earth. The universal belief of their association with
their habitat is twofold; faeries need the earth to
survive, and vice versa. Although the faeries preferred
to live quietly, among the materials given freely to
them by their beloved forest, believers started to destroy
the very thing that kept the faeries alive. They broke
branches from living trees and brought in foreign materials
like plastic and toys. Some faerie house builders ripped
delicate moss from its home on the forest floor; causing
a need for regeneration that, according to experts,
could take up to ten years. Parts of the forest began
In an effort to preserve their rare charge, the people
of Monhegan Island created Monhegan Associates, Inc.
- a form of conservancy that keeps a large portion of
the island undeveloped. In 1996, the ecology committee
of the Monhegan Associates, Inc. decided to remove all
references to faerie houses in brochures and other tourist
literature, in hopes that the excessive building would
stop. There are approximately 70 full-time residents
of Monhegan Island; with the tourist population swelling
the count to over 300 at times, the growing number of
tourists have contributed to the problem. Residents
of Monhegan Island are desperate to preserve their living
legend. The future of the enchanted island lies in their
hands - and in the hands of the believers.
If You Go:
Monhegan Island is located approximately 11 miles
off the coast of Maine. Ferries are available from Port
Clyde and Boothbay Harbor. No cars, motorcycles, or
bicycles are allowed on the island, so remember to pack
lightly. Lodging is extremely limited - for contact
information, go to the Monhegan Island website.
Cathedral Woods should be your priority. Keep
to marked trails. Do not pull tender tree limbs
or bark from trees. If you are not sure if an
area is accessible to walkers, ask a resident
2.A faerie house should always be built in proportion
to a faerie - the tinier, the better.
3.In building houses, use only materials "offered"
by nature. Dry twigs that have fallen from trees
are great faerie house frameworks. Dry pine needles,
made soft by time, is the only padding a Cathedral
Woods faerie will use. Pulling moss from the forest
floor causes it to die - something a fairy would
4.Faeries abhor manmade items in their shelters.
Keep trinkets, charms, and other toys in your
pockets. Gum wrappers, newspaper, and other litter
should be disposed of in the proper containers
(Fireboxes are not meant for litter. Please carry
litter out if a can is not available.).
5.If you find your shelter is destroyed, don't
worry. Faeries rarely use a house more than once
anyway. Would you, if you could sleep outdoors
in such a beautiful forest?
6.Shells and other materials found on the shores
of the Island should never be used for faerie
houses. Those items belong to the sea faeries
- the mermaids. Forest faeries never intrude on
the property of mermaids. And vice versa - be
careful to keep the offerings of the Cathedral
Woods where they belong.
For more information on fairies or Monhegan Island:
The New Monhegan Press - contact through website www.monhegan.com
Realm: Nature Spirits of the World
Colombraro is a freelance writer/photographer with credits
in several local and national magazines. She invites
your comments. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
or visit her website at: http://www.dovekeeper.com/
With the permission of the author, this article is
reprinted from Renaissance
Central Issue 1, Volume 1
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