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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 faeries alive.

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 sister.

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.

Faerie HouseCathedral 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 imaginative building.

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 to fail.

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.

1.Respecting the 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 for help.

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 not favor.

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

The Faerie Realm: Nature Spirits of the World

About Author:

Rosemarie ColombraroRosemarie Colombraro is a freelance writer/photographer with credits in several local and national magazines. She invites your comments. You can email her at or visit her website at:

With the permission of the author, this article is reprinted from Renaissance Central Issue 1, Volume 1



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