The Gnomist is a short award-winning documentary by filmmaker Sharon Liese, supported by CNN Films. Released within hours of the 13th November attacks in Paris last year, it relates the real-life story of ‘Firefly Forest’, a fairy village established covertly in Overland Park, Kansas. Overnight fairy doors started to appear in the boles and roots of trees; then more elaborate structures including fully-decorated fairy houses, theatres, and signs, designating the neighbourhood ’12 Hollow Tree Lane’ and conveying messages of hopeful magic. What resulted is a fascinating account of modern folklore in the making, deeply moving in the way it responds to our need for consolation in the face of loss.
Watch the video – and keep the Kleenex handy…
Deep in the forest of Overland Park, Kan., little gnomes made a home. But how did they get there? This is the story of paying it forward, one little house at a time. A Great Big collaboration with filmmaker Sharon Liese and our friends at CNN Films.
On one level it shows how traditions are started. Under the cover of night the ‘gnomist’ of the title would install new fairy structures. In the day it would seem they had magically appeared, emphasizing the sense of wonder and surprise. Their presence was enthralling to local children, who would relish the beautifully-crafted details of the Little People’s domiciles with squeals of delight. For them it was a confirmation of a still-magical paradigm not yet dispelled by reality. Against a backdrop of terrorist attacks, the innocent enchantment of Firefly Forest is made even more poignant, and I would say, necessary. As TS Eliot wrote in ‘The Four Quartets’:
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Within the same poem, Eliot says: ‘Down the passage which we did not take/Towards the door we never opened/Into the rose-garden.’ (Burnt Norton). It has been said (by John Clute, Encyclopedia of Fantasy, 1999), that Fantasy ultimately leads to the Pastoral, a prelapsarian state in which evil is banished and we can once more live in benign relationship with nature, both inner and outer. However, once the Pastoral is reached, tension evaporates in a narrative and the story is over. Tolkien famously resisted the convention to finish at this point, but lingered on the homecoming (or its impossibility for some) in The Shire. In the novels, harmony is only achieved after the ‘Scouring of the Shire’ when evil is rooted out from the realm of the hobbits (i.e. us). Peter Jackson’s film trilogy dispensed with this chapter, but ends symbolically with the closing of the round door: the full circle creating the reassurance of a ‘closed ending’. What began having a negative value (the One Ring – the catalyst for the whole strife-filled Third Age) ends with a positive value (the round door, with its metonymic signification of wholeness, closure, domestic bliss, the circle of life, the separation of the private and public realm, and so on.). That final shot in ‘The Return of the King’ became, in a sense, the jumping-off point for the ‘Gnomist’. Although the secret architect was inspired by a walk in woods in Raleigh, North Carolina (coming across a hollow tree, she thought: ‘That tree could use a door’), on a mythopoetic level, her endeavour resumes Tolkien’s/Jackson’s dialogic. Thus began some guerrilla folklore.
It reminds me of the time I created a midsummer fairy picnic in the pocket park opposite my house in Stroud. My study eavesdropped upon the popular play area – and the sounds of children playing and laughing would waft up to me as I worked. Wanting to do something magical for the community, I posted up ‘An invitation to a Midsummer Fairy Picnic’, courtesy of Lord Oberon and Lady Titania. I deliberately left off any real name or contact number. I encouraged folk to dress up, and bring fairy cakes, stories, music and games to share. On the day I turned up in costume and was delighted to see families in fancy dress gathered there. No one knew who had placed the invite. We shared our fairy-dust sprinkled fare and had a jolly good time. I have since moved away from that area but I understand the midsummer picnic still continues.
Most poignantly, a wishing tree became the focus of many heartfelt messages, including from one mother who had suffered the terrible loss of her three-year old daughter, Allie, nicknamed ‘Little Owl’. She wrote a note in remembrance. A few days later a fairy door appeared named after her daughter. This act of selfless compassion deeply touched the family, who found some symbolic solace in this public ‘shrine’. Knowing somebody out there knew of their loss and was willing to articulate their empathy in such a tangible way was incredibly validating. For them, the magic was real.
The mysterious development of ‘Firefly Forest’ prompted much local speculation and its presence was featured in news bulletins. The municipal park authorities grew anxious at this unplanned incursion into their domain, and a fairy house was removed. This prompted the ‘gnomist’ to dismantle the fairy village, all except the house dedicated to ‘Little Owl’.
The film finally reveals the identity of the secret architect and another poignant layer is revealed: for the fairy village was created by a family forced to move every year. They had recently moved to the area and wanted to feel part of the community. But on another level each fairy house the mother-and-sons team built seemed to symbolise their own frustrated desires, or hiraeth, for a home. The magic they created for people by their act of gift was reciprocated as they took pleasure in the pleasure they gave, visiting their handiwork in the daytime, incognito. One blogger self-identified herself as the ‘watcher*’ of this phenomenon, photographing and writing about it. The film was made (with the participation of the ‘gnomist’ and her family), connecting the lives of three women (the mother, the watcher, the film-maker).
And then, in a heart-breaking coda, the fairy architects are forced to move on, leaving the state for Utah. Their act of enchantment failed to ultimately work its magic in their own life, beyond the feel-good of their selfless act. Alas, they weren’t in Kansas anymore, and for them, there was no place like home.
Yet the transience of ‘Firefly Forest’ seemed nominatively-determined from the outset. Its mysterious arrival and unexpected disappearance was all part of its myth – echoing countless ‘Brigadoon’ type narratives. A more academic taxonomy would be that Firefly Forest was a Temporary Autonomous Zone, to use Hakim Bey’s term. It was a powerful contemporary example of how people are more than willing to ‘buy into’ a folkloric paradigm – complicitly suspending their disbelief, wanting it to be true. And, in the participation – the writing of wishes and notes of remembrance, the leaving of offerings, and the co-creation of the accompanying matrix of folk-belief – the community collectively facilitate the re-enchantment of their own neighbourhood.
This inspiring community art project/act of kindness shows what can be done with a sprinkling of imagination, initiative and daring. It is a call to all of us to create some magic on our doorstep: you never know, you might touch someone’s life, make their day, or simply make them wonder… It leaves the door of what is possible open. Imagination is a spiritual vitamin and we are all enriched for coming into contact with it. The ‘gnomist’, the watcher, the filmmaker and her crew, and even CNN, should all be praised for sharing this magic.
The film-makers: http://www.thegnomistfilm.com/