Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A flight of fancy

The Fairies Have Their Tiffs with the Birds -- Arthur Rackham

The best part of my day was my lunch break, as it was the only time I got to spend a few minutes outside, scrambling around the brush and grasses on the edge of Lake Decatur, down the street from my work place. It wasn't just enjoying the warm winter sunshine and looking for birds.

It wasn't even the excitement I felt upon seeing a northern mockingbird in the shrubbery, a first sighting for both the year and the county, and all the more satisfying for being unexpected.

No, the truly nice part was that, as I crouched under the the branches and hopped over stumps and peered across the frozen water, I was actually having fun. I felt just like I used to as a child when I'd run around in the woods pretending I was looking for fairies or dragons. (Not really all that different, I suppose, as fairies, dragons and birds all have wings.) I didn't feel at all like a disgruntled office worker who's passed the far side of forty. Really, I don't know why everyone doesn't just run outside and play on their lunch break; it's like finding the potion of youth.

On my way back to the office, my magical interlude with the mockingbird being much too swiftly over, I thought of the book I read last night, having borrowed it from Library on the Go for my Kindle, The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World by Mary Losure. (I actually just looked it up on Amazon and realized it's a children's book, which explains why it was such a quick read!)

The book is about the girls behind the Cottingley Fairy hoax, Frances Griffiths and her older cousin Elsie Wright. When Frances was around ten, she and her mother stayed with family in Yorkshire, England, while her father fought in the First World War. Elsie, who was five or six years older, was quite willing to befriend her cousin, but Frances still had time on her hands after school, while Elsie, who had left high school at thirteen, was at work.

Frances loved to wade around in the stream, or the "beck," behind the house, frequently getting her shoes and clothes muddy. When scolded, she defended herself by saying that she could see fairies there, and Elsie suggested the adults would have to give her a break if they showed them some photographic evidence.

What? This was faked?!? -- Cottingsley fairy photo

As Elsie had a talent for art, she painted some cut-out pictures, stuck them with hatpins, and the girls produced their evidence. The pictures went into a drawer, and that probably would have been the end of it, except that many people of that age (the immediate post war period) were fascinated by the supernatural. Elsie's mother attended a Theosophist talk on nature spirits, remembered the photographs, and mailed them off to a leading member of the Theosophical Society, Edward Gardner. He was so excited by them that he got Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) involved. Doyle believed in fairies, and he did not believe that a pair of country girls had the wit or talent to fake the photos. Once things had gotten to that point, the girls didn't feel able to confess what they had done, and it wasn't until decades later that they admitted the hoax.

Both women insisted that, although at least four of the five photos were faked (of the last, they had contradictory accounts), they actually had seen the fairies. To be honest, my impression has always been that Elsie was just being playful, but Frances really did see something, who knows what? We might as well call them fairies. After all, there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, etc.

The Wish Fairy of the Sunshine and Shadow Forest -- Alice Ross Colver (1919)

I find it interesting how much a product of that particular age this story is; interest in Spiritualism, seances, magic lodges and all things occult had been gaining steam for a couple of decades, and then the tragedy of the First World War lent a sense of urgency to many people's, such as Conan Doyle's, attempts to prove that there was "more" out there. As early as 1848, some other young ladies, the Fox sisters of Hydesdale, New York, rose to fame with their ability to talk to spirits by means of "rapping," years later confessing to a hoax, and then leaving room for true believers by recanting the confession.

It seems that the "supernatural" (which I'm defining very loosely here) has its fads like anything else. I remember when angels were all the rage in the nineties, and while I like angels (doesn't everyone?), I am still trying to recover from the stifling sweetness of that awful TV series, Touched by an Angel, whose only redeeming feature, as I recall, was that some of the angels were rather easy on the eyes.

And remember the UFOs? I'm not sure if The X Files was so popular because the zeitgeist was into aliens, or if people believed in aliens because they liked the show, but it sure was popular for a while. (I recall seeing a documentary around that time that mentioned that polls reporting belief in UFOs skyrocketed after the series came out.)

I can never decide if I'm more "Mulder" or "Scully"

Just for the record, I was never convinced that the truth is out there, but I sure was addicted to that show for a while.

It's interesting how every once in a while, something comes along that not only captures the popular imagination, but seems to answer a deep-seated need for the mysterious and fanciful, the suggestion that much more lies behind the reality that we can see and touch.

One of my favorite recent offerings presented the mystery in the form of a puzzle box, and even though I was rather disappointed in the ending, I am still entranced by the way the series appealed to my curiosity and sense of wonder.

A scene from Lost

As frequently happens, I feel that my train of thought is getting derailed the more I ramble on, but what ties all of this together -- my nod to some of my favorite TV shows, the Cottingsley fairy photographs, my moment of fun on my lunch break -- is that they all provide a glimpse of something expansive, enchanting; to some, even fearful. (Legends warn that many who stumble into fairyland do not come back; likewise, far too many in our workaholic world scorn finding time just to explore and play, even for their over-scheduled kids.)

Despite the hours I spent outside as a child, I never did see any fairies. I sometimes think that I've found something even better in birds, those other beautiful, winged creatures with the power to enchant. And no matter how old I get, every time I scramble through the woods, I know that if I just pause for a moment, and let myself find a bit of wonder, perhaps stretch out my sense of possibility...just a little...the child I used to be will take a few steps with me.

Do you believe in fairies, even a little bit? What keeps your sense of wonder going?

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting post! I loved the sentence,"...the child I used to be will take a few steps with me." I feel that way whenever I see, up close (but, thankfully, not personal), an unexpected creature such as a bear or a coyote. Or, when a bird surprises me, just by being there, such as a pileated woodpecker did today. As for fairies, I'm not sure, but my vote is yes! on ghosts. MOM