MONHEGAN ISLAND, Maine - It may have started with "The Tomten,'' and the inscription inside the book jacket: "Because we believe in the little people."
The Tomten is an old-world Old World gnome who keeps night watch over a farm deep in a forest. Only animals understand him when he speaks. My child calls "hallo!" to the Tomten on woods walks, sees his tracks in the snow.
Or perhaps it was the selkie-woman in the film "The Secret of Roan Inish" - the one who was part seal, part human. The way the seals called the people back to the island; how a little girl saved the day because she, alone, believed.
Maybe it's a function of ancestral memory, a child's recollection of stories told across time, of banshees and fairies, of poems recited, such as "The Stolen Child" from W.B. Yeats: "Come away, O human child!/To the waters and the wild/ With a faery, hand in hand,/ For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand."
Fiona believes in the little people.
Fairies and sprites, gnomes and tomtens - and the occasional troll. They populate her forests and her islands; they gather in her dreams.
And she is convinced that they are in need of shelter.
. . .
Fiona and her friend Emily built their first fairy house three autumns ago in a neighbor's wood in New Hampshire. They raised birch-bark walls at the base of an ancient hemlock. Laid flooring of the softest white pine leaves. Stocked the pantry with fallen acorns, stacked a winter's worth of well-seasoned cordwood outside the door. The whole creation measured no more than eight inches wide.
The next day, our neighbor discovered something on her morning walk.
Leaning against the fairy house was a piece of birch bark, inscribed with curious script:
"Dear Fairy House Builders,
We love this house! It is the only one in the woods. It is getting very full - we fairies are bumping into each other since there are so many of us in the house. When that happens, a little fairy dust gets spilled! We were wondering if you would have time to build an addition?! Thank you from all the fairies."
The note was written in blue (the juice of mashed blueberries, we decided) and glittered faintly with what could only be fairy dust.
. . .
Monhegan Island is a tiny bauble in the sea, a head of land some 10 miles off the Maine coast, about halfway between Kennebunk and Bar Harbor. It is a fishing village and an artists' colony, a solid Maine village in winters that swells with ranks of tourists in the summer.
Hiking trails lace through Monhegan's woodland and coastline; seals bask on rocks. Beach roses line the roadsides, there are bindweed and sweetfern in the meadows, bayberry and blueberry and beach plum near the shore, snapdragons and poppies swaying in gardens.
People say the wee folk favor this place.
For generations, islanders and visitors have built houses for the fairies to inhabit - delicate creations of fallen twigs and pine needles, elaborately decorated with pinecones and periwinkles.
Tracy Kane made Monhegan's fairy houses the subject of a video and of her 2001 book, "Fairy Houses." Kane tells the story of a girl who visits an unnamed (but recognizable) Maine island and builds a house that the fairies visit.
Kane's book and video inspired fairy house builders from coast to coast; fairy house building "events" are held at libraries and children's museums. Even L.L. Bean has gotten in on the act, holding such an event in Freeport.
"There's this universal child out there," says Kane, "and it's in adults, too.
"I've had a lot of people who want to go [to Monhegan] because of the book," says Kane, "but even more people who create them in their own backyards or local woods."
On Mackworth Island in Falmouth, Maine, which is connected to the mainland by a causeway, a portion of the woods has been officially dedicated as a "fairy village" where children are welcome to build houses for sprites.
Stories for children illuminate landscapes. Robert McCloskey, Barbara Cooney, and Charles E. Martin have taught many children much of what they know of Maine - the shore and the islands, the lupines, the coves and the hurricanes, the hills where blueberries grow and black bears wander.
What child would not want to walk the real paths that wend through her storybooks?
Our daughters, 6 and 7 years old, tromp off the boat ("land ho!" they had cried, spying Monhegan's shore) and walk up the hill, arms flung over each other's shoulders.
They walk through the village and onto the Cathedral Woods path. They spot one fairy house, then another, breaking into an occasional run to find the next. Each scouts her spot carefully, doubling back and back again before settling on a perfect site. Emily builds in a damp place by a brook, nearly invisible from the trail. Fiona chooses a hidden hollow on the east side of a fallen fir tree, facing sunrise.
A wood thrush sings, clear through the quiet.
The children gather fallen pine needles and cones, small stones, fallen birchbark, an errant chestnut. Emily concentrates hard on her bark roof - it must not leak. Her house is narrow and low-slung, a miniature longhouse.
Fiona's house is Seussian, with balanced bunk beds of stone, a curved bark slide, just for joy, and a delicate wooden teeter-totter for the fairy children. She leaves the chestnut for their supper.
. . .
One does not just tromp into the Monhegan woods and throw up fairy condos with abandon. There are strict building codes for this sort of thing.
Kane's storybook child finds a sign in the woods (reminiscent of one that used to hang in Cathedral Woods):
"You may build houses small and hidden for the fairies, but please do not use living or artificial materials."
But some ill-informed builders flout the rules. They tear up mosses and snap off spruce branches to carpet fairy dwellings. They build oversized fairy houses, decorate with amulets, plastic furniture, and store-bought glitter.
There is concern, in this fragile ecosystem, about the effects of fairy house sprawl.
Lucia Miller is cochairwoman of the ecology committee of the Monhegan Associates, the group that owns and cares for Monhegan's conservation land.
She said fairy-house building is not encouraged. And she would rather in go unmentioned.
"I don't think there's an official position on fairy houses, per se," Miller says. But, she says, the Monhegan Associates "officially oppose touching any living wildlife."
But if people must build the fairy houses, she says, no living materials - including moss, branches, ferns, flowers, mushrooms - may be picked or disturbed. Nothing artificial should be left in the woods. She objects to shells and sea glass imported from the island's shoreline. And please, keep it small and inconspicuous. Most people who walk these woods would like to experience them as pristine.
"Building a discreet little fairy house that isn't in your face as you walk the trail - I don't think that anybody objects to that, if it's quietly hidden behind a tree and doesn't involve living material," Miller says.
"But," she says, "I don't like to find things in the woods that didn't come there naturally."
Now, the sign suggesting the existence of fairy houses is gone. At the head of the trail is the less-poetic notice:
"These wildlands are all privately owned. Please help keep them pristine. No smoking or fires. No wheeled vehicles. Do not disturb vegetation. Pack in: Pack out. Stay on trails. Thank you."
Emily is horrified to discover a stack of quarters in one fairy house, a sprinkling of pennies in another. She thinks it highly improbable that the fairies have left these behind in thanks; she suspects an ignoble human attempt at bribery.
Fiona shakes her head.
"Well, the fairies sure won't come to this house."
Later, they find a house decorated with broken-off ferns, green and wilting.
Emily plants her hands on her hips and stomps one foot. She is furious.
"Fairies," she says, seething, "only like DEAD NATURE."
We follow the path to an outlook above Squeaker Cove. Cliffs fall precipitously to the ocean. Gulls ride the thermals. The children sit well back from the edge, munching sandwiches and pondering the ocean.
"What's on the other side?" one of them asks. Ireland, England, Europe.
Ireland? Like in "Roan Inish?"
Can we go?
Not today. It's far.
We opt against the rugged shore trail with the children, doubling back to the Long Swamp trail, and cutting across to Whitehead and the lighthouse. At the Monhegan Museum, which is housed in the old lighthouse keeper's house, the girls discover the book "Island Winter" by Charles E. Martin and stand, transfixed, listening to the story of a child's life on this island.
Later, upstairs, Fiona stops in what had been a small bedroom.
"This is where the children who lived at the lighthouse slept," she says, realizing.
And she stares out the window onto their island world.
At the Monhegan House, we read the children "If Once You Have Slept on an Island," and they sleep as the ocean roars maternal, ever-present.
. . .
We hike past Calf Cove toward Pebble Beach, hoping to catch a glimpse of the whiskered harbor seals, hauled up on the rocks. But the seals are either absent entirely -- or have chosen the leeward side of the rocks for their afternoon bask. The kids seem not to mind. It is windy, and sunny, and they are deep into a game of "I am thinking of an animal that begins with the letter O...." (Otter? Ostrich? Orangutan?)
A rain begins to fall as we return, and a cloud of concern sweeps over Emily's face. Her roof might leak.
She hurries to the woods. Emily shores up her roof. Fiona redecorates with pinecones and arranges a fallen leaf on one of the bunks for a fairy blanket.
At home, the fairies often leave signs of their presence. A note, scribbled on birch-bark. Fallen apples carried off or gobbled up. Mussed beds.
Fiona and Emily wonder if the Monhegan fairies know how to write. Then fret that they simply wouldn't have time to write to all the children who build houses in these woods. The task would be too enormous. And if they left a note for one child, wouldn't everyone expect a fairy note? Plus, then wouldn't people start leaving notes to the fairies on paper, which is an artificial material? This is all very complicated. They discuss the ramifications.
After supper, we read "Blueberries for Sal" and "One Morning in Maine." The moon rises above the lighthouse; the children sleep solidly, and wake late.
In the morning, they find scraps of birch bark slipped beneath their bedroom doors, this time covered with a different curious script, this time in green.
The children, wide-eyed and breathless, compare notes.
"Dear Emily, we are so glad you visited our island. Thank you for the new house with the good roof. It will keep us warm and dry. We had fun watching you and Fiona play. Please come back again. We love you! Love, the Monhegan Fairies."
There may come a time when hard cynicism and logic will overtake all children who dream of tomtens and build houses for fairies.
Then we will quote to them Chris Van Allsburg, who won the Caldecott Medal for his children's book "The Polar Express."
"The inclination to believe in the fantastic may strike some as a failure in logic, or gullibility," Van Allsburg said. "But it's really a gift. A world that might have Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster is clearly superior to one that definitely does not."