Sparkly wings caught on tree limbs as children wandered the fairy village in a search for spots to construct their own miniature dwellings in the shaded forest. Their building material — twigs, moss, bark, mussel shells, pebbles and pine cones — could be found at the Gnome Depot, a pile of recycled natural material at the corner of the village.
It was the second day of the fourth annual Maine Fairy House Festival, held Aug. 6-8, at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay.
“This is our biggest event of the year,” said botanical garden Executive Director Maureen Heffernan, the woman who conceived of and organized the festival, which attracted a record of nearly 5,000 people.
Fairies are winged supernatural beings, human in appearance but the size of butterflies. Many European legends depict fairies as mischievous, even troublesome, but in the United States, fairies are symbolic of the beauty and enchantment of nature.
In one of the three fairy villages in the botanical gardens, cousins Reese, 6, and Katie, 6, of Lewiston built fairy houses together.
“My Pepe said that fairies might come and live in it,” said Reese.
“If fairies were going to live in it, I wanted to make it perfect,” said Katie. “I thought, ‘How about right next to that stump?’”
Baker, 5, of Chattanooga, Tenn., was ambitious in building her first fairy house. “It was really big,” she said. “We built a playground and swimming pool for [the fairies].”
“It was fun. I used bark, sticks, pine cones and moss,” said Avery, 5, of Gorham, sitting on the grass as she ate strawberry ice cream. “I left the door open,” citing a fairy house tradition that signals to fairies that the dwelling is available for occupation.
In the garden’s villages, the miniature structures eventually collapse. When that happens, garden volunteers recycle the sticks, bark and pine cones by returning them to the Gnome Depot.
“But you’d be surprised,” said Heffernan. “You go down there, and the way some people build them, they could be contractors. Some are built with stone. Some last through the winter. And people come back over the winter to build them.”
“The one rule to a fairy house is that you don’t use something that’s living,” said volunteer coordinator Amanda Russell.
“When [children] build fairy houses, they get used to playing in the woods again finally,” said Russell. “It’s simpler, it’s quieter, it’s just fun. That’s what this event is about: getting kids outside.”
The mission to draw people outdoors fueled the creation of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, which opened in June 2007 after 16 years of planning and building. The ornamental gardens and enhanced natural woodlands span 128 acres with 3,600 feet of shore frontage. The network of gardens includes the Vayo Meditation Garden, the Rose and Perennial Garden and the Woodland Garden.
The newest addition, the Bibby and Harold Alfond Children’s Garden, opened on July 8. Since its opening, the botanical garden’s daily attendance has doubled, according to Heffernan, and family memberships have increased notably.
The 2-acre children’s garden is a sophisticated design of flowerbeds, vegetable gardens and trees mixed with interactive elements such as a hay bale maze, weather station, walk-in wigwam and craft cottage.
“It’s a garden for everyone,” said Heffernan as she stood by the garden’s Blueberry Pond during the festival. “See how all the families interact and have fun together? In how many places do you see that?”
Children toted metal watering cans around a giant pumpkin patch. A tall windmill spun, powering the pump, which was gushing water below. Chickens paced and clucked behind a mesh fence. And a little girl sat on her mother’s lap in the story barn as they leafed through a book together.
“This place is spectacular,” said Marsha Cook from Maynard, Mass. “I spent the whole day in the children’s garden. The swings are fantastic. I came last year when this was all dirt.”
Behind Cook, carved rock whales spouted water as children ran through the mist. Flowers bloomed along the Rainbow Terrace.
At the festival, in addition to building fairy houses and exploring the gardens, people could attend workshops, such as “How to Photograph Fairies” with Robert Mitchell and “Making Fairy Babies” with Susan Beebe.
An elaborate indoor exhibit of fairy houses created by adults and garden staff greeted people as they walked through the main building into the garden.
“I make fairy houses at home,” said Russell, who built the centerpiece of the indoor exhibit — a community of fairy houses nestled in tree branches. “Last year I made [more than] 200 fairy houses. I do workshops teaching adults about getting kids back in the woods.”
A handful of vendors were scattered around the central lawn selling ice cream, fairy skirts, mystical figurines and puppets.
At 2 p.m., people gathered and sat on Great Lawn in a semi-circle to watch the Portland School of Ballet, ages 10-14, as they twirled and tapped their feet in the “Dance of the Four Elements” and “Gathering Pea Pods.”
At the end of the day, people congregated in the Lerner Garden of Five Senses where volunteers dressed as fairies served tea and cookies.
Children shed their wings in the parking lot as the festival wound down. They set aside their guises, knowing that the real fairies would be visiting their new homes that summer night.
Admission to the 2010 Maine Fairy House Festival was $10 for adults, $5 for ages 3-17 and free for children under 3. Plans are already under way for the 2011 festival, but the dates have not been decided. For information on the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, visit mainegardens.org or call 633-4333.
How to build a fairy house
Find a quiet place away from roads or busy paths.
Work with nature by choosing a rock, stump or hill for a place to build. Building on the ground is easiest, but sometimes fairies like to live in low tree branches.
Gather natural materials that are not alive. Twigs are most useful for creating the basic structure. Fallen bark is a good material to build up the walls and roof.
Use pebbles, shells, feathers, dried seaweed and pine cones for decoration.
Furniture can be made from small material — a seashell bed, for instance.
Leave the door open.