Fairy trails on the coast of Maine

The builders of fairy houses generally use indigenous materials — whatever happens to be lying around. Photos by Monica Kissane

Guest perspective/Ralph B. Pears

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to explore many of Maine’s islands, secluded coves and inlets. When visiting such places with my family, the pleasures of discovery have frequently become even more poignant, as I’ve been swept up by my children’s sense of enchantment in the mystery and magic of unexplored places. Indeed, I sometimes become a child again myself! On countless islands and backwaters we’ve discovered caves, cabins, quarries, wildlife, and all manner of things out of the ordinary, but one of our greatest delights has come from discovering what are often referred to as “fairy huts” or “fairy cottages.”

Fairy huts are fanciful, miniature constructions of natural materials that resemble fairy-sized houses, gardens, lookouts, cemeteries, and occasionally even castles. Because they are frequently built in hidden, off-the-beaten-path locations, they’re often easily overlooked. But when you come upon them, they remind you that others have passed this way before you, and they conjure up visions of “little people” – leprechauns, elves, gnomes, pixies, fairies and other magical and mysterious creatures of our childhood imaginations.

While engendering delight and fascination for many of us, fairy cottages also occasionally conjure up the dark side of some people’s characters. In a number of locations along the Maine coast, controversy smolders over the alleged “damage” that fairy cottages are creating in the natural environment. Some ogres are even trying to outlaw the practice of building fairy houses!

Some years ago, Maine Public Radio aired a brief feature on the controversy as it was being debated on Monhegan Island. But the little cottages remain, and I suspect that there are more folks who enjoy them than those who don’t. Of course, how can one legislate or regulate against supernatural elves, pixies and gnomes?

While fairy cottages may appear anywhere, they seem to be more abundant on isolated islands. On one small island in Muscongus Bay, for example, I’ve observed a veritable village of fairy cottages scattered over a half mile of largely wild and uninhabited forest and random granite outcroppings. In truth, there is a lone human habitation on the island, but the human residents have welcomed children, parents and even elves, so long as the privacy and property of the solitary residence is respected.

In our many years of searching for the cottages and their elusive inhabitants, we’ve never actually observed any of the little creatures. But occasionally we’ve heard strange and ghost-like sounds from the trees and surrounding landscape. Sometimes frightening, but always intriguing!

We’ve found little cottages and lean-tos beneath “blowdowns” (trees felled by the winds) at the bases of both living and dying trees, along island streams, and in the crevices of rocks and granite faults. We’ve even found them perched high up in the trees, undoubtedly for protection from some of the very same ogres who would outlaw the inhabitation of the islands by these harmless, peaceful and elusive conjurers of dreams.

The builders of the fairy cottages appear to be true environmentalists or naturalists, for the materials used to build the little structures are always indigenous materials such as small stones and boulders, bits and pieces of trees and branches, sea shells, pebbles, empty snail shells, feathers, moss, and salvaged fishing gear cast up by the sea. But always, the little creatures of the islands do their best to collect and reuse whatever’s lying around.

Over the years, I’ve photographed a large number of the little structures. But in keeping with their enchanting nature, the photos, when developed, always show little more than a somewhat dull, two-dimensional collection of rocks, shells, twigs, moss and assorted other bits and pieces. The magic of the little structures that so enchants us, and the ephemeral play of early morning or late-afternoon sunlight that animates the little cottages, and hints at the unseen presence of their elusive occupants, is rarely captured.

On some islands the fairy cottages seem to have evolved, or perhaps devolved, into a community of rock cairns standing as mute sentinels to foggy offshore channels or beautiful visions of the setting sun. Occasionally a seagull may be seen perched atop one of these edifices, and the structures are frequently littered with the detritus of various birds of prey. Many cairns serve as a reminder of the long-forgotten granite quarrying operations that once thrived, and the hardships endured by those who preceded us on these islands. As such, the cairns deserve to be respected – to be left alone to the forces of wind and water and tide.

The next time you visit our enchanted Maine coast, take time to savor it from a child’s perspective. If you do, you may not want to hasten your return to the reality of the “adult” world, where turmoil, terrorism, tribulation and toil are frequently the touchstones of our daily lives. The transformative ability of these “hidden” locations – it makes them an even greater treasure. All one has to do is find them.

Ralph Buchanan Pears is a retired lobbyist. He began sailing with his father in the early 1950s, at the age of 8, aboard Olympic Class Dragon boats. These were followed by an array of daysailers and cruising boats ranging from Lightnings and Z-class sailboats to a 24-foot yawl of his own design, and on to a 25-foot Lock Crowther-designed trimaran. Today he and his wife Kathryn cruise aboard Blessed, a restored 1979 Cheoy Lee Clipper 36 ketch, from their homeport of Sebasco Estates, Maine.