Exploring Canada's Hidden Landscape: American Elves, Gnomes, Fairies and other "Little People"
A Face to Face Encounter Event
On an August morning in the southern coastal forest of British Columbia, a young couple stroll a familiar forest trail covered in moss and lichens, through a cleft of large, split rocks, into an open glade surrounded by mature Douglas Firs. The nearest town is Sechelt on the Strait of Georgia, a ferry trip away from Vancouver.
Sitting quietly on a log, they are unaware that something completely unexpected is about to happen; something neither of them would have ever imagined, nor will ever forget.
From behind the path off to their right, a wiry, small, dark brown old man with leathery skin, three and a half feet tall and just as close, steps in front of both of them. All are startled, stunned, totally riveted. As one of them described it to me, it was “a highly charged moment,” “a combination of shock, surprise, whoops!” The small being wears no clothing yet “is not lacking clothing either.” His body is sinewy, all essential muscle, nothing fat or flabby.” The limbs “look more like tree roots.” His brown face “expresses a powerful emotion.” “He is an old, wizened character with an energized body and a high vitality.” He stares at them, eye to eye. They feel a presence of large energy more powerful than themselves. The little man stomps his right foot, bends over and makes an angry motion with one fist. Then he slips back to where he appeared from. He was close enough to touch, but the British Columbian would not dare to. “The feeling of energy was so intense. It wasn’t one to mess around with. I didn’t want a confrontation with this.” They turn around and look, but the being is gone. All of this happens in the intense span of five seconds. After a stunned pause, they say, “We’d better go.” “Yes, I agree.” They both stand and leave, deliberately silent, not speaking until they reach the house.
“Did you see what I saw?” and they both describe the same thing.
“It was gnomish,” he tells me thirty-two years later, yet emphasizes that he could still see every detail of its face as vividly as if it were yesterday.
“I wanted to use the word gnome because of a certain ‘grotesque’ quality. But it was not chubby and cute.” He still puzzles at its contradiction, of a being that had every appearance “of solidarity” yet also something “more light and vision.” There is something unnatural about the speed with which it appeared and disappeared “like a sudden glimpse into a realm you would normally not see.”
After thirty years he reflects to me that it was “scary at the moment” while still being one of those “gifts of life experiences.”
Welcome to the elusive, misty, twilight world of the Canadian elementals, nature spirits, elves, gnomes, fairies and, as was described in this encounter experience, the American Goblin.
Such themes are usually consigned to either folklore or to the ‘Goblin Universe’ where things are placed that have not been catalogued as “real” by the institutions of Natural Science. Yet truthful, reputable citizens have seen them in Canada as well as elsewhere and continue to encounter them, and to describe with clarity and lucidity the details and circumstances of what they have encountered. I know. I collect these reports in a project I founded called the ELFEN Project, which stands for Elemental Life Form Encounters in Nature. The project attempts to bring a structured methodology to a phenomenon that begs the question: Is all this real?
The Subject of Fairy: Where Does It Fit?
The perception of our world and our universe is in a constant state of revision. Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington often compared science to an ichthyologist studying ocean life by casting a net into the water and examining its contents. The scientist believes that anything that can't be caught by the net (like the small organisms that pass through the holes), that can't be sampled or measured, can't be addressed by science and does not exist. But when the net is changed or improved, what can now be caught and measured suddenly exists, and so our world is changed.
When the power of telescopes was improved in the twentieth century, astronomers were able to identify whole new galaxies that once were thought to be just small, gassy clouds (nebulas) in our own galaxy. The 100-inch telescope improved our clarity of vision of an astronomical phenomenon and changed our understanding of the universe.
Like the small organisms in the ichthyologist's ocean, fairies and little people have been beyond science's ability to sample or measure them. Therefore, science concludes that they don't exist. That makes it difficult to assign a discipline to fairy studies. They depart from folklore studies when they become an investigation of actual, living "truth claims." The subject of fairies has no reality basis for psychologists except as an abnormality of perception. Since nature spirits are probably in some kind of hybrid state of matter and energy, the biological sciences have no interest in them, and they are not human enough for anthropologists. Religious institutions, on the other hand, do acknowledge them, classify them, and have written edicts forbidding sexual relations with them.
A long ethnographic history in Canada acknowledges these entities, yet they are relegated to the status of mythic creatures who act as metaphoric expressions for daily life experiences. If left to mainstream science, Canada's hidden landscape, like that of Scandinavia, Iceland or Great Britain, would stay hidden for a long time still.
Studying Fairies Indirectly Through Human Beings
The ELFEN Project study is producing a great deal of descriptive information and many surprising connections, correlation's and patterns. But things are not more simplified as we proceed; they are indeed far more complex. First, it is difficult to even agree on a collective term or phrase for what this study concerns. I, and others, prefer to call them 'little people;' some prefer 'pygmies' or 'dwarves.' These terms, however, can be confused with human conditions that are racial, genetic or anatomic. 'Fairies' could be a collective category for them all, but to most people, 'fairies' suggests a very specific image of a winged sprite which is even more misleading, and in contemporary usage is a provocative and derogatory slang for homosexual males. If you look up the history of the word 'fairy', you find that its plural and its derivatives, just in English, are spelt ninety-three different ways. 'Elementals' is a preferred collective term even though I choose not to follow the Neoplatonic Greeks who organized them in accordance with the four elements of the earth. Despite the fact that the range and diversity of descriptive entities are too diverse to be embraced within the collective terms of 'fairies', 'nature spirits' and 'elementals', I will use them in the interest of brevity. This is more for convenience than as an act of recklessness, since, over time, no consistent term has proven best. So these three terms will serve as central concepts.
If we could study elves and gnomes directly in their homes and living environment by observing them and talking with them, it would make things much easier. This would be no different from the way anthropologists studied cultures of Australian aboriginals in the outback; primatologists studied chimpanzees in West Africa; or I, as a social scientist, studied bird watchers. I went to where they concentrate and gather, I observed them, measured and timed their activities. I spoke with them, directly and in depth, using systematic interviews, shared their activities, gained insight into their psychology, motives, food preferences, activity peaks, economic expenditures, and the positive and negative impacts on the environment, and on one another and the communities they visit.
I've never seen a fairy, elf, gnome or any other kind of elemental nature spirit. I have never seen a mountain gorilla either, but I know others who have, including George Schaller who studied them, and I have seen the evidence for their existence and held one of their skulls in my own hands. I believe mountain gorillas are real and they exist (although precariously) and have no guarded skepticism on the matter. Studying the fairy world, however, is a second hand experience. Validation through physical evidence is scarce and usually inconclusive. The subject is elusive, "betwixt and between," unpredictable, subject to their time not ours, unavailable for an extensive sit-down chat or photo or video shoot. And if either of these happened, the photo, film or video would be disbelieved. People would doubt your sanity, and the event would even leave you wondering if the whole thing truly ever happened outside of your own imagination. None of the events of an encounter experience or its subsequent aftermath seem familiar or commonplace. There is hardly anyone to whom you feel comfortable talking about it, no matter how much you need to. Women might be more likely to use their closest friend (also female), while men, after telling their wife, may also share the experience with someone in the role of a comfortable "listening post" such as their barber or bartender. The receptive listener, who is first sought out, must be nonjudgmental in contrast to the more judgmental community figure of a priest, minister or the family doctor. The memory of the event festers, swirling in the mind and body like a leaf in a whirlpool, finding no still harbour. It's a secret, and all secrets are burdensome. Talking about it to a complete stranger who is recording it on tape or taking notes is also an unnatural act. Yet I remember how relieved many people were to actually be able to sit down with me, a scientist who studies paranormal phenomena, and finally feel some affirmation on a deeply troubling matter. Even before I began my investigation into this subject and while I was totally undeclared on the matter, an Inuit guide, for example, quietly, in whispered tones, shared with me the unsettling event of observing during a caribou hunt a little man on the Arctic tundra chasing caribou with a spear. It was an almost cathartic release of a guarded secret, followed by an infusion of joy and relief which transformed his countenance to one of glowing tranquility.
I wonder whether the poet W.B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory experienced these feelings when, in 1898, they went door to door, visiting the local peasants, to collect information on their encounters with fairies in Galway, Ireland. When G.K. Chesterton, author of the Father Brown mysteries, wrote of fairies in his autobiography that "It is...normal men like peasants who have born witness a thousand times to such things; it is the farmers who see the fairies. It is the agricultural laborer who calls a spade a spade, who also calls a spirit a spirit; it is the woodcutter with no axe to grind...." It is principally through interpreting these "anecdotes" that we seek to understand the fairy world. It would be easier to study mountain gorillas within the rainforest of the Virunga's.
Even narrowing the material we save to events of personal experience, the next threshold is a cautious minefield of psychiatric disorders and psychological and sociological manifestations. Included among the reports from our respondents are incidents that could be interpreted as schizophrenic delusions, sleep paralysis, pseudoblepsis, familia imaginoma, pseudologia fantastica, pathetic fallacy, stress withdrawal manifestations, perceptual readiness, cultural transpositions, a need for objectification for a less dysfunctional self identity, personified imaginary friends, and good old honest misinterpretation of an observation. Beyond all this, there are a great many regular people to whom we listen who claim to have actually met nature elementals, sometimes even communicated with them, and 11% of the time, someone else with them sees the same thing they do. G.K. Chesterton, author of the Father Brown mysteries, wrote of fairies in his autobiography that "It is...normal men like peasants who have born witness a thousand times to such things; it is the farmers who see the fairies. It is the agricultural laborer who calls a spade a spade, who also calls a spirit a spirit; it is the woodcutter with no ax to grind...."
What Are Elves and Fairies?
My short explanation for this world of the “liminal personae,” which I will state as a construet (a nontestable statement to account for a set of observations), is that it is about “real,” not imaginary, beings and societies. They exist in sustained stages of excited vibration fields. Type forms of nature spirits function and stratify within differing frequencies, and groups and individuals must be able to modulate their frequencies for us to see them. Gnomes and elves seem to sustain states visible to us for several hours, while only minutes for fairy sylph forms. These encounters seem to occur in a multiple presence environment, a parallel reality on the fringe of human perception, which is displayed in one or both of two scenarios, one "self-transformative," the other "environmentally permissive." In a self-transformative event, our "locked-in" mental constructions and experiential models relax, fracture, break down, are over-ridden or 'equalized' by purposeful influences, internal or external. A circumstance is environmentally permissive when or where environmental locations exhibit variance to permit a greater equivalency in the properties and tensions of our visibly seen light frequencies that partition the perceptions of life dimensions as we imagine them. They are called 'Ingress portals," and are often connected with misty places, flowing water, electrical storms, places of crystalized structures, ley lines and other places of magnetic fields, geothermal activity and rocks with selected high spin mineral atoms. The expressions "the veil is thinner" or “the veil was lifted” also refer to such circumstances. There also seem to be many encounter events that occur with pure serendipity, the third and most random of encounter venues. A line gets crossed, like on the telephone, and your life is intersected with someone else’s.
Visiting the world of fairy requires that a threshold be crossed. This usually requires a series of ritual actions which include creating a repeatable ceremony; mental preparation; a willingness to go with the flow; and fostering a mind set of respect, courtesy and graciousness. Threshold rituals are always uniquely personal to the individual.
It is not my intent that all of this distract from the romance where all of a sudden, on a sunny afternoon, devoid of mindfulness, ritual, mystic gurus or geothermal influences, a gossamer-clothed sprite with butterfly wings lands on your finger in front of a daffodil. I still wait for that in my heart, but as a scientist I just can’t admit to it.
Thresholds into the world of nature spirits revolve around the purity and sincerity of your personal intent and character, and their conscious willingness to extend a connection and invitation. It is my impression that the human race is a bad neighbor, despised, distrusted and best avoided; yet in seeming contradiction, some of them respond positively, eagerly, and even over-exuberantly when individuals they trust and believe in come to their attention. My interviews and conclusions lead me to believe that their "race" have many who fully acknowledge that we need to work together to correct environmental destruction we often describe as development, to restore damaged ecosystems and to learn to extend respect to all other life forms. Amazingly they, or at least the individuals that speak on their behalf, maintain a sincere hope this might occur.
Most encounter experiences involve a mutual acknowledgment of one another, usually in a very shallow way, but the elemental realm seems to respond enthusiastically to events which celebrate them and to people who have opened up channels with them. It is reported that they may be present in large concentrations, hundreds at a time, on such occasions.
The cooperative effort to work with local nature spirits at Findhorn, Scotland, in creating a vegetable garden led to a concentration of spirits there. Biodiversity of life occurs in patches of disproportionate importance across landscapes. Concentrations of numbers of nature spirits are often reported where life is thriving and vibrant such as in well cared-for gardens, responsible farms and nature sanctuaries, the latter more so when children are visiting. It is believed that land, abandoned, robbed of soil nutrients and/or chemically poisoned and the presence of human negativity and greed are intolerable and contradictive to the energies and consciousness of earth elementals. They are believed to migrate en-masse to places where it is more natural and comfortable for them to work and exist.
This discussion makes inroads into the world of fairy which I convey in the form of personal insights and beliefs for which, as a scientist, I can offer no external validation, but also I do not deny the inferred truth, nor imply an absence of objectivity. This is a phenomena of broad parameters, past and present, where repetition of testimony is not necessarily validation. Human testimony is fallible. Acceptance of an event is less about methodology and more about plausibility and credibility. It eventually comes down to belief in the story and the storyteller. Despite our cautious and selective criteria, it is inevitable that we encounter and report misinterpreted events that may weaken the interpretations that shape our conclusions. Bodies of data, like institutions of individuals, are subject to a screening process. Singular examples may not survive scrutiny. Yet there is a collective identity that warrants respect, yet remains accessible to challenge and open to rejection or confirmation. Robert Kirk was a Presbyterian minister in Scotland's Highlands in the 17th Century who became fascinated by the widespread belief in fairies and in 1691 published The Secret Commonwealth which described the details of their life history. He became convinced of their reality and rationally concluded that the reports he published, if even "not the tenth part true, yet could not spring of nothing?"
The Elusive, Misty, Twilight World of the ‘Betwixt and Between’
The range of nature spirits in Canada embraces many elemental life forms including tree spirits, rock spirits, powerful overseeing beings called devas (pronounced day-va), some of them hundreds of meters high. There are a great many shape-shifting nature spirits that intermingle human and animal forms from wolves, deer, eagles, bear, moose and caribou to insects, frogs and toads. To confuse things further, shape shifting seems to be the rule in the elemental world, and sizes, in particular, seem to be a somewhat plastic feature with “little people” who can appear from three inches high to full size and in costume with gender and features that seem at times to be most appropriate for the observer’s expectations for elves or gnomes.
It is said that elementals are more dense and can hold their form longer. Earth elementals like gnomes, and elves, the most often seen in “encounter experiences,” are capable of communicating to humans, and their messages (which we save in detail) can be frivolous, critical, helpful, and instructive in their ways and reflect their serious concerns about our society’s environmental impacts.
There are also the “artificial elementals:” thought forms created by intense concentration, focus and repetition of ritual that assume an independent energy form and may prove troublesome. They are called ‘Tulpa’s’, and the Thai and Tibetan monks I studied with, were often called upon to exorcize them. (And I used to imagine that identifying spleenwort ferns, northern willows, or Appalachian salamanders was as difficult as it came.)
The new physics with its post-mechanistic paradigm of self-organizing systems, particle physics and quantum mechanics, has drastically altered our previous views of materialism and reality. In molecular physics there is evidence that our own thought energies will influence the movement of sub-atomic particles and molecular form. The very act of consciously connecting mental energy with an elemental nature spirit may involuntarily alter the visible expression of its energy form.
So while suspecting that this fluidity of appearance, transpositions between matter and spirit, and multiplicity of form probably mean that elementals defy classification, I will, nevertheless, boldly proceed to simplify and describe an inexact disposition of the most prominent cast members we have encountered in North America within the Goblin universe.
A Sampler of North America’s Nature Spirits
1. American Elves are the most frequently observed in encounters of earth elementals. The ELFEN Project files from direct encounters suggest the common form of the American Elf is medium size as elves go, 18-24 inches high, with normal human features and proportions including typical rounded ears, not usually pointed. Their hair may appear in bright colors (yellow, orange, blue, red) but is usually dark. The clothing is elaborate but often favors the human culture associated with them, e.g., wearing buckskin loin cloths and moccasins on native lands but they can also appear in baseball-type hats with visors and plaid shirts. In the Arctic they wear fur or hides. Other Caucasian cultural dress may at times seem “over compensated” (e.g., wearing too much, like a child overdressed from playing in grandma’s attic trunk). The choice of clothing may seem outdated by many years.
Trade with humans has been reported in a few locations as a long and persistent tradition, when elementals were more visible and shared stories, experiences and trade articles very openly and freely in certain places.
Elves can appear in a small form, three inches to one foot high (8 inches is common).
The Pixie-Elves Form is more prevalent in southern England but are uncommonly reported in North America. They stand two feet high, with sharp facial features, pointed ears, chins, and noses. Typically they are more slender than the human anatomy. They are playful and mischievous. The “Fagle” form is also about knee high (29 inches is our precise average), is encountered in groups, and like the pixie form, frolic with laughter and may partake in the adventure of following people for some distance after a preliminary period of peeking at them from around corners and objects. When a group playfully accompanied a woman into a health spa in Edmonton, they modestly all appeared wearing white towels which they wore over one shoulder like a Greek toga. Fagles dress “gnomish,” often wearing toques, all looking mostly the same, but each one distinct. The woman who experienced the visit at the health spa with them stated in an interview that “I just knew in my head that they were called ‘Fagles’.” Upon viewing her sketches of them, we’ve used the term ever since.
Full Size is typically adult size. I had full size elves described to me frequently in Wales. These were said to be distinguishable from humans by their sharp facial features and mannerisms, and that they kept their own company. They were most frequently observed at the open markets. They were believed to interbreed with humans, and there is a rich folklore and a discouraging church dogma on the matter. ELFEN’s descriptions of full-size elementals are diverse and inconsistent. I have stood with people who claimed to have them in close view at the time. Light clothes, greater light energy, oval wings sometimes reported, a more evolved energy than the typical earth elementals. Closer to devic beings, people with gifts I don’t possess insist that they do not confuse them with angelic beings or disembodied spirits. The huldre-folk (Huldu) or “hidden people” of Norway and Iceland are often full-size elves.
For many of these American elves, of all sizes, the anatomy may on occasion appear exaggerated in proportion or incomplete (sometimes noses are absent or too elongated, or heads larger). American elves are typically small to tiny wingless entities of otherwise normal human proportions. Dark skin color or other shades may be regionally distinct as is reported in Scotland. Only a few credible interviews in the ELFEN files place wings on them, including a yellow form in the mountains of North Carolina.
2. Canadian Gnomes are often bearded, with high boots or even soft leather footwear (sewn up the center), and are 2 1/2 to 3 feet in height in the Canadian Rocky Mountains and British Columbia ranges, while 24” is more common on the west coast. A Gnome made reference in a conversation to a very small form of beings (gnomes? or elves?) of female gender that occupied the holes in the hillside of a colony of bank swallows, assisting them in nurturing their young and other animals. They are respected for their compassion and active stewardship.
Gnomes are often seen wearing a sagging toquelike cap (and sometimes the pointed red hat of the Norwegian gnome), tunic shirts and sometimes plaid shirts like loggers wear. Most reports of this form occur in and west of the Rocky mountains and from Southern Ontario east, but not typically in the prairies. In Huntsville, Ontario, a tiny and persistent six-inch ‘gnome’ with a pointed red cap has a history of awakening sleepers at a retreat centre where it rested on their pillow. I have often speculated that pointed red caps may really be energy spikes, but red caps have had a sudden resurgence in our interviews lately, including an encounter where the red cap lay loose on the head like a toque, but once the gnome was out-of-doors it appeared upright and conelike.
Our files suggest that it is gnomes and trees that have the most information to impart to people, and with gnomes the subject may be as unpredictable as the circumstances. For example, in one report gnomes seemed preoccupied with the subject of their teeth. "I understand you want to know more about our teeth." "No, not really, I never thought about it." Then the gnome proceeded to describe the details of three sets of teeth over their extended lifespan. Within seven days of this interview, a highly respected clairvoyant with a lifetime of experience with nature spirits casually described to me having walked past a crouched gnome on the top of a rock who smiled at her, then pointed to the inside of his mouth, laughingly saying only, "Look, I have no teeth." Incidentally, this is what we at ELFEN call a descriptor linkage (two related data points, neither of which is considered to validate the other). We regard three such linkages as constituting a pattern, which offers some validations and has more interpretive value but is not necessarily more important than an anomalous isolate (a piece of data with no apparent relationship to another).
3. American Goblins are similar in size to the Canadian Gnome, but they have primitive, rugged, unpleasant faces and frighten people. Goblins are squatty; may wear hides or furs, never clothing, and they are bare footed and not always humanlike in toe count or structure. They are the most feared form of Little People, and sometimes are exorcised by shamans. They are not commonly reported but when they are, they stand out. The opening encounter described in detail of the powerful little man in Coastal British Columbia who shook his fist, we would consider to be an American Goblin. Brian Froud illustrated them well in his Fairies books. Even in North America, goblins have an evil connotation. In the book Life Counts, the author describes the human butchers in 1879 Michigan, slaughtering the passenger pigeons as "Goblins in human form."
4. Trolls This classic Scandinavian form, while a cultural symbol in Vulcan, Alberta and the star of the Troll Forest in Scandinavian exhibits, is not widely reported in the North America landscape. In northwest Canada and Alaska there are ethnocultural reports of hairy "monster goblin creatures" that are often reported as having long tails reminiscent of the Scandanavian trolls. The Kutchin people of central Alaska referred to these as "tailed men." The Tanana of central Alaska have a legend that from across the ocean came a race of "tailed old men" who lived in rock dens, particularly around Batzulnetas. Nowhere else in North America is this reported, except for one highly credible current report told to me of a family of four- to five-foot trolls in a habitat of rocky forest land north of Vancouver. They were seen to be gentle guardians of the forest.
5. Little Hairy Men This is a non-human, like a tiny big foot or sasquatch; but with magical ability, including disappearing. The body is covered in hair but it is not shaggy except for the head and necks, sometimes shoulders. They are 2 to 3 feet high; never wear clothes, and are never seen in groups. The Tahltan called them “ku’s-taka” (monkey people); Inuit, the Ardnaing; Kutchin, Little Furman; Chipewyan, little hairy men or Hairy Ya-a. ELFEN has only one interview (and two other reports) of a recent encounter with a hairy man from Ft. Smith in the Northwest Territories. It threw a stone, and the dog couldn't see it. They have a northern distribution from the Pacific northwest coast to MacKenzie River to Hudson Bay.
6. Fairies (Sylphs) are popularly portrayed with butterfly or dragonfly wings. They are more often reported essentially as “glowing balls” of light, or somewhat symmetrical yet ragged, flowing, radiant, sometimes even pulsing, light energy. They are referred to as Light Fairies in Iceland. Wavering effects are reported, reminiscent of the manner in which heat waves rise from a hot summer road surface. Floating, dancing, or darting light spheres may vary in size from the head of a pin to a golf ball. Fairy forms typically appear in pure energy light form rather than with the popular fairy wings, which may be energy rays. Fairies are attracted to the energies of children, springs, flowing water, old trees and flowering gardens. Some report specific spots in their garden where fairies are very predictable. Most of the photographs ELFEN receives are of this form, but nearly all are flash or light anomalies. There are also alternative explanations for luminescent spook lights and jack-o-lantern phenomena. Some people confuse insects for fairies, such as salmonflies, mayflies, flashing fireflies, and winged antlions (which, in the Appalachians, can gather in dramatic masses).
Fairy forms also seem to manifest a more classic, anthropomorphic (humanlike) appearance. The following is illustrated from an ELFEN File from a fifty-one-year-old woman's fairy encounter in March, 2002 at Jasper National Park. She watched along the far bank of a small frozen rivulet just beginning to thaw, what she described as “a mystical dancing fairy.” It was only three inches high, alone upon a flat stone “protruding from an overhang of snow.” “Her hair hung to her waist and shown like a spider’s silken web,” with an iridescence you see through. She wore a jade colored dress. “Heat waves were coming off her body,” despite the cold. There were no visible wings. She moved like a ballerina, tapping her feet “but she was moving so fast” only the movement of a hummingbird was at all comparable. There was a shimmering green as “she tapped and twisted faster and faster till ‘poof’ she was gone.” The observation lasted from one to two minutes in duration.
Insights From the Files of the ELFEN Project -- an abstract of highlights from our interviews to date:
American elves and gnomes either “present themselves” or act very surprised when encountered. Small elves playing chasing games among themselves in the vicinity of human homes will stop attentively and stare back when they are conscious that a human is actually looking at them. It seems to be something they do not expect and it is uncomfortable for them. Even while people are viewing them, dogs usually cannot see them, but this does not seem to apply to cats.
For some, seeing ‘them’ was a blessing and a sign of good luck. Some native people feel it is unlucky to look upon them, watch them, or even to speak about them or refer to them by name. Others are reluctant to speak about them in order to protect them. Many native cultures comment that children and elders see them more frequently.
The “little people” do intentionally communicate with people but some aboriginal children are not permitted to speak to adults about what the little people tell them. Actual communications, including hand signals (pointing, waving) occurred in 23% of the the encounters we studied. Hearing laughter (sounding like a group of small children), yet not being visible to the eye, has been reported in 11% of our encounter descriptions.
I have reports of their helping lost people, such as the time they aided an Inuit hunter lost in a snowstorm, taking him to his igloo and seeing him warmed and nourished before departing; or bringing special herbs to help a medicine man heal a very ill person; and directly intervening with people at a critical moment when overwhelmed by drugs and liquor. People have also described a wiser and bolder, shamanic type of figure within the elfin subculture.
Children seem to have a special connection with the little people. “They protect children from harm,” a Cree medicine man told me matter-of-factly. American elves frequently play with children and are mischievous by nature, playing tricks, hiding things and laughing at them. Elves have been reported to like to watch television and to turn the TV on at night when everyone else is asleep. In one aboriginal home where two particular elves have shared the house for thirty-five years. Gender may not be a valid descriptor, since in this home visiting grandsons play with “little boys” but visiting granddaughters play with “little girls.” Two- to three-year-old children have been seen making room for these two elves to sit with them while watching television.
Aboriginal people have told me, “we live in harmony with them. We acknowledge each other as if mutually sharing the same space.”
Encounter Profiles: Who sees them and where?
The profile which is emerging from the ELFEN Project of those who have encounters with little people is that males and females see them with equal frequency. Forty-six percent of encounters are in natural landscapes, and a surprising 27% are inside houses and an additional 23% in the vicinity of houses. In three different reports they have been present at the bedside when a person awakened.
Forests are the next most likely environment where one can meet little people (29% of the time) followed by the general countryside (19%), around water (15%) or around rocks (17%). Urban areas account for a surprising 25% of reports. Eighty-six percent of the time children encountered or played with more than one being. Adult encounters are also more likely to involve more than one being (61% of encounters) and only one entity (39% of encounters) and most of these are rather short fleeting events. Eighty-seven percent of all sightings were uncertain about gender, particularly when small elves appear in large concentrations (we developed a term for this: an elevation of elves or a folly of fagles), but of those sightings where gender was recognized, 85% were males and only 15% were females. In contrast to the common fable image of fairy encounters, people are not always alone when it happens, and this has provided meaningful corroboration in support of encounter events. People report being in the presence of another person 33% of the time and alone 67% of the time. For at least 62% of the time when another person was present, the encounter was confirmed by the other person. A child who sees them once is slightly more likely to see them again, as 53% of children have multiple sightings. For the rest of us as adults, repeat encounters only occur 30% of the time.
Behaviour of the Elves & Gnomes
Little People are frequently reported to take shiny things, rings and coins. In one new age store they have a fondness for removing and eventually returning Herkeimer diamonds, and in another store where they removed rocks and crystals, they were baffled by the complaint when confronted with the misdeed because they saw the crystals as theirs. They throw stones at people or in their vicinity. They are observed to disappear at will, darting away at abnormal speeds, sometimes leaping into hillsides or rock piles. Inuit report hearing their voices from loose rocky areas. In some regions of Canada and the United States they are heard to play flutes or drums, once banging on hollow trees with a stick. Aboriginal children are taught not to approach such sounds. Gnomelike little people have been seen along the roadside in large wooded areas north of Vancouver, and there is one report of a gnome looking in the basement window while holding an ax in his hand. A Rocky Mountain gnome walked with a raven companion and received a communication from the bird that caused him to hurriedly depart. Two elves were seen to assist a cat give birth to her kittens. A white spruce tree served as a mediator to connect one individual to the elves, who wished to invite him to a gathering to address what to do about the human problem.
I have quite a few reports and descriptions of them leaving footprints along sandy beaches and the shores of one island on a reserve where they are believed to live. University students in forestry report seeing tracks while tree planting in remote unpopulated places in northern Alberta. Tracks of little people are a common ethno-cultural report across Canada. House elves eat bananas, apples, grapes and oranges, and have been observed eating butter and bologna sandwiches with children. Gnomes were observed eating miner’s lettuce Montia and False Solomon's Seal, Smilacina in British Columbia.
When elves are sharing the house, they seem to have more of a mischievous nature than the “house helper” brownie type of Europe. In Canada they jump on the bed, climb on your foot or rub your hair when you are sleeping, then disappear when you move. They can poke people in the side with a sharp finger or pull your arm when you’re eating your soup. There was one report of contact with a 'royal' form (more common in British folklore). She wore white robes, a headdress and cord with an object over her lower forehead. There was a lightness and brightness about her three-foot-high stature. She kissed him on his forehead.
Their Lives and Ours -- What Does It Mean?
American elves and gnomes show affinity for particular places or people. Sacred places on Aboriginal lands are often defined by the Cree as being places they don’t visit because the apstememkwesisak (little people) live there. Their ties to a place seem to be disrupted by environmental destruction and modification of their homes by the oil, gas or forestry industries or other forms of landscape changes. Many aboriginal interviews include the comment that “we used to see them frequently around our community” up until the time of large scale industrial intrusion. One Albertan native community believes that there was a collective movement away to a less disturbed mountain range. The Tall Cree in Northern Alberta testified before a former government panel on the impacts of a proposed giant pulp mill that they were concerned for the "little people" who lived along the river that would be affected by discharges from the mill. Most of the Cherokee people interviewed about little people, the "Ynwi Tsunsde," in North Carolina (in Stories of the Yunwi Tsunsdi: The Cherokee Little People) claim they "disappeared with alterations to the land, such as the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Fontana Dam, Fontana Lake and general population growth. Two Jasper gnomes distressed by the mortality of wildlife caused by the railroad trains declared there were not as many of them as there used to be, making it more difficult to chase the animals off the tracks at the approach of the trains. One person I interviewed, regarding his extended dialogue with an elf leader, summarized it succinctly, "They are quite angry now. They've had it. Not everyone is kindly disposed toward humanity."
In Holland and Iceland there are occasions when public roads or constructions will be redirected to not intrude on places believed to be occupied by nature spirits. This is a critical posture of respect for place and heritage and a disposition to at least speculate on a more embracing concept of community. We have lost our own sense of community. We are absorbed with ourselves; are seduced and held captive by our technology; converse largely on shallow superfluous themes; are poor listeners; and move about as if anesthetized of feeling, numbed and hardened to the stress, pace, noise and bombardment of visual advertisements, from which we seek seclusion. Few of us can even name the neighbors around our homes and apartments, let alone know anything about them, nor do we care. We poorly communicate with one another and rarely, truly connect with others. Elevated levels of depression, the decline of the nuclear family, the imposition of multi-national global impacts on cultures, social unrest, environmental irresponsibility, wars and armed peacekeepers, all tell us we do poorly at attempting to relate to one another and the physical world we imagine that we understand. We rarely probe beneath the superficial. Materialistic science and current models of how things work encourage that. We are completely unprepared to deal with “multiple presence phenomena,” to encounter “non-things” or to consider that there are life forms very real and physical even when they are invisible.
Something that is clearly shared by all who acknowledge the hidden landscape is that its biodiversity and interconnections are fragile, biologically and culturally. Perhaps equally fragile is the importance of our own personal linkage to this landscape, to reconnect to ourselves and the earth, not as a resource to be extracted but as a sanctuary that offers hope for a new generation who will question our present socio-industrial model of what is truly real, and how much of what blindly drives us is truly not. Fairies are still a spark of magic in the eyes of a child encouraged by creative, imaginative parents, usually the mother or grandmother. The images of fairies have increased in gardens, art and figurines where they have become a tangible symbol of simplicity, kindness and a gentle dutiful, caring presence. All of this is in contrast to the harsh, aggressive, bombastic advertisement images and the frenetic pace of the consumer society. Fairies in the Twenty-first Century have emerged as symbols of joy and happiness.
I have come to believe that the ELFEN Project is less about human encounters with nature spirits and more about human and societal estrangement from the world. Perhaps in a new reality we may find room for hidden landscapes and societies of the “liminal personae,” who live "betwixt and between."
Dr. Jim Butler is Professor of Conservation Biology, Wildlife and Protected Area Management in the Department of Renewable Resources, the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. He is a highly respected biologist and social scientist who lectures and consults on areas of protected places, endangered species, ecotourism and conflicts concerning people and wildlife on every continent of the world. He is founder of the ELFEN Project (Elemental Life Form Encounters In Nature), which is one of the few scientific investigations on this subject throughout the world. He is also an ordained Buddhist monk.
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