Friday, June 17, 2011

Finding faerie fauna

There are fairies at the bottom of our garden!
It's not so very, very far away;
You pass the gard'ner's shed and you just keep straight ahead -
I do so hope they've really come to stay.                                    

                                               The Fairies.
                                               Rose Fyleman

These are the opening lines of a poem written in the 1920s after a series of fairy photographs had taken the world by storm.

The photos were snapped by two young cousins (Elsie Wright 16 and Frances Griffiths 10) at Cottingley, England. The girls borrowed Elsie's dad's camera and photographed cardboard cut-out fairies (copied from a children's book and fixed with pegs) to persuade Elsie's mum to let them play down by the creek (where the fairies lived).
Mr Wright was so annoyed at their prank he refused them further use of his camera, but his wife believed the girls' story and passed the pictures on to the Theosophical Society. Once the society had established that the photographic plates hadn't been tinkered with, a prominent society member – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) - declared the photos authentic, sparking fierce worldwide debate.

One of the purported fairy photos:
Frances Griffiths with the Leaping Fairy.
Image source: Wikipedia.

Elsie and Frances didn't come clean for more than 60 years.
In the 1980s Frances explained,
"I never even thought of it as being a fraud – it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun, and I can't understand to this day why they were taken in – they wanted to be taken in."

This incident (dramatised in the 1997 film Fairy Tale: A True Story) illustrates our deep-seated need for magical entities. Whether they're dryads, fauns and sylphs, pixies and gnomes, or elves, ents and hobbits, we show an incredible determination to populate the natural world with mystical beings.
But why?
Do we really need nature spirits to feel the enchantment of Nature?

Living here has influenced my thoughts about this. You see it's almost impossible to venture outside without feeling like you've slipped into the world of The Magic Faraway Tree.

All around there are rustles and scurries; an eerie trembling in the grass, a twitch of foliage seen from the corner of the eye, the ever-present feeling of being watched... An eye glints from a rock crevice, a wizened face peers down from the leaves or a huge horned figure looms darkly against the twilit sky.

One of the nature spirits that live at the bottom of my garden: a grey duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia).

Of all the local nymphs, the bushbucks are the most impressive. Haunting leafy thickets, they tiptoe past with an uncanny staccato, high-stepping walk; placing each hind hoof precisely in the print of the forefoot. When alarmed they freeze, disappearing magically into the dappled underbrush. You can look straight at them and see nothing, and then, quite suddenly, there's a face! Right there, staring straight back at you. It's like those optical illusions that jump unexpectedly from vase to human silhouettes and back again, only it's a lot more startling.

A bushbuck sylph. The home-range it uses by day is completely separate from the one it haunts by night.

After experiencing the African bush, I can't help but think that it's the loss of this life-brimming habitat that's created our need for magical entities.
Maybe we conjured a panoply of nature spirits to replace the wild beasts we'd driven away, and to populate northern lands that lie bereft of fauna for half the year. Are we simply trying to recreate our ancestral home: the abundant environment in which we evolved for millions of years?

So what's prompted this reverie on the origins of faerie fauna?

Well a couple of days ago I encountered a little Elemental more adorable than any human mind could conjure.

The dogs and I were returning from our evening walk when we rounded a corner to find a newborn bushbuck lamb standing by the track. 'Standing' isn't entirely accurate; it was sort of teetering on weirdly propped legs. Only knee-high with fluffy dark fur, huge bat-ears and a puppy's wet nose, it gazed at us, all bright-eyed with curiosity. And then, to my horror, it came tottering straight toward us! Of course my dogs went berserk, straining violently at the leash in their attempt to reach it. While I wrestled wildly with the dogs, it wobbled closer and closer, stopping only a metre (3 ft) from their slathering jaws.

I didn't get a photo of this spell-binding creature (although it stood gazing at us in wonder for at least a minute) because I needed both hands to constrain the dogs. I'm sorry I didn't snap my fairy-encounter because images of day-old bushbucks are even rarer than genuine fairy photos.

An anal-retentive fairy? Baby bushbucks won't urinate or defecate unless licked by Mum, and she gulps down all predator-attracting trace evidence (nothing like maternal devotion!). This little cutie is a few days older (and much lighter) than the sprite I met.
The photo was borrowed from here.

Many of the local antelopes leave their newborns hidden in the bull-rushes shrubbery for their first few days or weeks, but bushbuck mums go to an extreme. Their ankle-biters spend four months lying out alone (I wonder if they have imaginary friends?). And they seem to have the gift of invisibility because I've never before glimpsed a bushbuck less than two months old.
So why was this little creature approaching us? In fact, why was it even tottering about at all; I was certain we hadn't flushed it from its hiding spot? Was it a starving orphan? Was it currently imprinting on my huskies, and would be scarred for life (in every sense of the phrase)?

Then the answer suddenly materialised.
Mum, who'd been standing invisibly right next to us (undoubtedly biting her nails hooves to the quick), could stand the tension no longer. She leapt away into the undergrowth, and Junior, realising that something was amiss, wobbled away after her.
I gave a huge sigh of relief.
We must have stumbled on the pair during one of Mum's twice daily visits and her little darling was so obsessed with the prospect of guzzling milk, it paid little heed to who provided it!

Now with encounters like that, who needs fairies?

Back in 1918, Frances Griffiths mailed one of her fairy photos to a friend in Cape Town (where Frances had spent much of her life). On the back of the photo she wrote,
"It is funny, I never used to see them in Africa. It must be too hot for them there."

I'd suggest that there's just too much competition.

Puck? No, a young male bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus). Unlike other solitary antelopes, bushbucks aren't territorial (except perhaps mature males) and they enjoy a bit of company. When two meet, they greet each other cordially and mosey about together for the next hour or two.
Photo posted on Flickr by bwana4711.


  1. What luck --- for all concerned! Judging by the look on that baby bushbuck's face, being young is serious business.

  2. Bloody awesome!!! So incredible wonderful written, an unmitigated little ode to the secret spirit of nature.
    Maybe there is still another reason for the need of magical entities: our drive to anthropomorphize. I always thougt the adorable little duikers are not from this world ;-)

    Heartwarming view onto the miracle of nature, beautiful photos, and oh, I so love the little bushbuck baby, and Snail's comment on its face.
    Thank you, Lynda!

  3. Murderous snakes, frogs for friends, and now faeries in the bush. Your life is facinating and you write so well!

  4. Hugh,
    Nothing like baby antelopes for a bit of cute.

    Maybe it's living alone that makes this little guy so solemn. As a hermit, I've noticed that it's very difficult to share humour across the species barrier.

    I think you might be right about the anthropomorphizing. The flaw in my argument is that native African people are also seriously into nature spirits. Of course lots of their magical entities can change at will from animal to human, so you never know exactly what you're meeting. (Perhaps I need to examine my mongooses more closely!)

    Thanks for your encouragement. If I get faeries in the bathroom I'll let you know.


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