Sarah Short and I have been friends for more than a decade, and she’s one of the most playful people I know. She’s now working on her combined MA/Teacher’s Training at Tufts as part of her explorations of play, in and out of of the classroom.
She wrote to tell me about a recent discovery she made while on vacation, and when I asked she wrote it up as a guest post, illustrated with photographs taken on site.
Make-Believe in the Forest
Play can often happen in unexpected places. Approximately ten miles off the coast of Maine lies the small island of Monhegan. The island offers many opportunities to hike, and plenty of places to sit on a rock and look out over the ocean. I visited Monhegan recently with my boyfriend Jeff, and we spent some time hiking the rocky trails. On our way back to the village, we took a path that took us through an area called Cathedral Woods.
Partway down the path, I spotted a construction by the base of a tree where a child had clearly built some paths and houses and such out of sticks and pine cones and bark. I was all excited to see this, and made Jeff take pictures of this use of natural materials. It was exciting to see that some child had spontaneously used this space and the natural construction materials that it provided, in order to play in this space that was not specifically set aside for this purpose.
As we continued down the path, more of these huts, houses, and tepees dotted the landscape. I took pictures of all of them; it became a sort of game of how many we could find tucked away in branches, streams, and roots. But things were starting to seem suspicious- there were just too many of them. Either some kid had been here for hours, maybe days, building an imaginary landscape to beat all others, or this was not the work of children at all.
The island has housed an artists’ colony for decades, so we hypothesized that it may be a local artist who created this series of natural sculptures along this woodsy trail. Based on sheer number of constructions, and the skill with which they were made, we had pretty much decided that this must be the case, when we saw two people up ahead, who looked like they might be building something.
Excited, we scurried up the path to speak with them. It turned out to be a young girl of about nine and her grandmother. We asked if they were the ones who had built all of these sculptures. They said no, that those had been built by others, but that the girl had built this one.
She gave me a tour of her fairy house, which was quite elaborate, and was connected by a path of sticks to another house that had been there already when they arrived. They went on to explain that Cathedral Woods is a place where people come to build fairy houses, and that it was not the only place in the area where this happened. Squirrel Island also has an area where fairy houses are known to crop up, and Booth Bay Botanical Gardens has a space set aside for fairy houses. The child (who had been busily working on her house while we were chatting with her grandmother) piped in, commenting “but there’s not a lot of space, and it’s not very nature-y”.
Apparently some of these fairy house areas are better than others, and clearly this child had an appreciation of the “organic-ness” of the activity. Nature and authenticity were important to her, as evidenced by her disdain for the “official” fairy house area. We finished chatting, took some more pictures, wrote down some of this information, and went along on our way, excited by this encounter.
As we walked along, spotting more houses as we went (some were wildly elaborate, including crab shells and sea glass into the architecture), we stumbled across yet more people building! This time it was a family of two parents with their three children, all between the ages of perhaps seven and twelve. Of course, we had to stop and interview them as well. I asked if they had come here before to build, and they said that the first time they came, they were in the wrong place- they kept looking for the fairy houses, but couldn’t find any (but they built one in that space anyway). While the children busied themselves with building (they later gave us tours of their various constructions), the parents told me that people in the area definitely know not only about the fairy houses in Cathedral Woods, but also about the unwritten rules that govern them. I was told by both sets of builders that the most important rule is not to kill anything while building a fairy house. That is, picking moss, and stripping bark off of trees is off limits. It was also clear from our travels through the wood that others’ constructions could be added to, but that no one purposefully destroyed houses that others had built.
It seemed strange and wonderful that building fairy houses in Cathedral Woods on the fairly remote Monhegan Island was an apparently well-known thing to do, yet we just stumbled across this magical place, knowing nothing about it in advance. Back in the village, Jeff and I opened our bags to look through the brochures and maps again, thinking we must have missed something. Nope. There was no mention of fairy houses anywhere in the literature that we had with us (and none on the island’s web site- I checked later). I am sure that a more extensive internet search would have turned up mention of these fairy house communities, but there was nothing in the official publications. I found it was wild and wonderful that this space was clearly one that families knew about (and respected the unwritten rules for), but that was not “official”in any way. This experience is a vivid example of a community using its existing resources to create a space for make-believe where children and families can play.
I was absolutely blown away and giddy at this accidental find.