MONHEGAN ISLAND — It seems fitting that on one of Maine’s wildest islands, where famous artists have traveled to capture the natural beauty and famous philanthropists have helped to protect it – residents are all for keeping things in their wild and natural state.
Some might say it’s to the exclusion of some simple outdoor fun.
“There is 380 acres of wild lands that we like to keep pretty wild. Disturbing it is a big concern. But there is no way to control the fairy houses,” said Lillian Harris, the Monhegan Associates naturalist.
“The islanders want to see the pristine wilderness. They don’t want to see little things that people have made in the woods.”
Fairy houses, particularly those built on long-awaited vacation trips by urbanites, sprout up along hiking trails and in land preserves statewide. The simple premise of a fairy house, of course, is for children to create a wild house from natural material for an imagined forest-dwelling friend. The problem on Monhegan Island – and a problem that has existed there for more than a decade, Harris said – is fairy houses do not follow the leave-no-trace outdoor ethic encouraged by rangers and at state parks.
On Monhegan, in the one section set aside for the building of fairy houses, these small dollhouse-like creations are made from cut tree limbs, moss pulled from rocks and what could reasonably be called trash.
“Leaving pennies is popular. And some people bring in beer caps. We don’t outlaw them. But we discourage them. Some islanders dismantle them,” Harris said.
To help educate the public about Monhegan’s fragile trails as well as the island’s ecological history, the island residents this summer published “The Monhegan Nature Guide,” which is sold throughout Maine in independent bookstores and on the island. The section on fairy houses says simply: “Many Monhegan residents and visitors prefer to see the island’s forest in its natural state. Although it may seem like an innocent activity, fairy-house building degrades the forest ecosystem in several ways.”
The book offers guidelines to build houses, while also explaining: “While it is recommended that you do not build fairy houses, there is no way of enforcing the rule.”
There is a long history of islanders wanting to keep Monhegan wild.
In the early part of the last century, summer homes began spreading out from the island’s harbor. In 1938, Theodore Edison, the son of inventor Thomas Edison, took note of plans to divide up the wild lands for further development. Having a love for Monhegan’s rugged landscape, Edison began buying up the island’s forestland. By 1959 he had acquired 23 parcels.
Edison then donated most of the 380 acres that are now managed by Monhegan Associates, the island’s land trust.
Today the island residents have not forgotten Edison’s concern and generosity.
“I’m pretty sure nobody in the Associates thinks fairy houses are a good idea,” Harris said.
In the past year, the trails on Monhegan have been improved through a plan developed with a consultant. Slowly stone steps and water bars are being put in certain trails to prevent erosion on the island’s nine miles of trails.
Some residents aren’t even happy with these alterations to the landscape.
“I think things should be left as natural as possible. I’m not crazy about the steps and the water bars,” said Lisa Brackett, owner of L. Brackett and Sons Provisions, the grocery store in town.
“I think there is a way to do it and to keep a more natural appearance.”
Others see the beauty in the fairy houses.
Alisha Cerel, 22, a summer resident who fell in love with Monhegan on a trip last summer, said the work of exploring and interacting with nature is healthy for children. And she believes the work that has gone into upgrading trails is important.
“People should be able to enjoy things. My gosh, when older people come here they ask what they can do. You want them to be able to enjoy the coastal paths safely,” said Cerel of Medfield, Massachusetts.
Still, opposition to the fairy house craze remains widespread among residents, Harris said.
Brackett agreed the majority of fairy house contractors are over-the-top.
“It teaches kids to be creative in the summer. But what are adults trying to prove? Who can build a better fairy house?” Brackett said. “They’re fun. But they don’t need a lot of shells. They should be all-natural. You should have to look for them, that’s what makes them fun. They shouldn’t jump out at you.”
It’s obvious during a stroll through the Cathedral Trail that a dozen fairy houses include some that are quite elaborate. Some even are fashioned to trees, forming veritable fairy condos.
One fairy house with a bark roof is so perfectly shaped Harris stops to consider it. She stares at this fairy mansion, which is about a foot or two high, and then to a log to the right, where a very clear square plate of bark has been cleanly cut
The problem, Harris says, is the moss that is ripped up, the shells that are brought in from the beach, and the plastic balls that are left behind, conceivably as fairy toys.
Harris is one summer resident known as a “stomper,” an islander who takes down the fairy houses. And even those islanders who once enjoyed these tiny creations find them a quiet threat to the wilderness they call home.
“Little kids should be allowed to use their imaginations. My daughter and I built them in 1981. But I don’t like them today,” said Lucia Miller, who volunteers at the island’s museum. “Adults have got to build them so big. They look like big bridges. ”
To learn more about Monhegan’s trails and natural history, go to www.monheganwelcome.com.