A long, long time ago, the Earth belonged to the creatures of the wood. By creatures of the wood I mean gnomes, elves, faeries, etc. They tended it and took care of it, played in it, danced and sang in it, cared for wounded animals, worked out disputes between species, sat on mushrooms discussing matters of importance and drinking Labrador tea, rode down streams on leaves and bark, parachuted from trees on dandelion seeds. This was the world into which mankind was born. These early days, when man was but a newly arrived dinner guest who hadn’t yet taken over the house, are fairly well documented in the literature and folklore of the world, so there’s no need to go into it here. What I am interested in, and what I am asking you to be interested in, is the question, “Where did all the gnomes, elves, faeries, etc. go?”
The friction between man and the wood creatures began with the discovery of agriculture. With this discovery civilization arose and spread. The forests were cleared to provide wood for shelters and fields for pastures and crops. Mankind had set up camp. No longer just a visitor in someone else’s world, he pushed the wild back from his newly built doorstep. At first, this wasn’t a problem. There weren’t that many people and everyone else felt that it was only fair to allot them their own half-acre to do with as they wished. Some of them even decided to help out. Gnomes moved into the barn houses and helped with the gardening chores. The devic spirits of the vegetables helped humans better organize their crops and plan rotation; taught them the correlation between planetary and lunar cycles and the agricultural year. They taught them to plant radishes when the moon is in Cancer, harvest when the moon is in Taurus. Many trolls felt that the heaping piles of manure were a change for the better, and decided to stick around too.
The rest of the wood creatures just backed off into the wood, occasionally playing tricks on the new settlers, like turning the milk sour, rearranging furniture, tipping cows, tickling people’s faces in their sleep and once in a while stealing babies and leaving bundles of wood in their place.
But man’s dominion spread (and spread and spread and spread) and the forests got smaller and smaller and smaller. Things got real crowded in the woods, and things were getting worse in civilization. Most farmers weren’t listening to the devic spirits anymore. People found they could increase their output by disregarding the needs of the earth. They were raising productivity and killing the soil. Petrochemicals were just a step away. Most of the devic spirits and gnomes fled. The trolls stayed. Today, they live mostly under bridges and in the shallow mucky ditches beneath the metal grating on farm roads that cows are afraid to cross. Be sure to honk your horn before driving over one of these. A troll may be hanging from the grate, swinging over its living room, as they are apt to do after rolling in muck and manure. If you don’t give a warning honk, you may run over its fingers, and it’s not a great idea to get either your name or your license plate number on a troll’s shite list.
Now, there is little wild land left at all, and even that is shrinking at an unprecedented rate. There is simply not enough wild space for all the gnomes and elves, fauns and faeries, goblins, ogres, trolls and bogies, nymphs, sprites, and dryads.
So where are they?
Are they dead?
So, where did they go?
The answer is a bit surprising. They didn’t go anywhere. We did. Early humans had an intuitive knowledge of their role in nature, just as bears and raccoons and mice and every other critter does. They understood, from the ways of the wild around them, that nothing ever comes from nowhere and nothing ever just disappears. Things change form. Death is necessary for life to continue. They offered up their kills as sacrifices to the gods of nature. They offered praise, prayer, sacrifice and song to the spirits of the wild, to brother buffalo, brother deer, and brother tree.
Now we know that everything that ever existed continues to exist, in one form or another, and as far as we can tell, they were more aware of that back then than we are now. So, the sacrifice, song and prayer did not ensure the immortality of the slaughtered, either in body or spirit. That was already taken care of. What it did ensure was the continuance of the connection between the spirit of the slaughterer and the spirit of the slaughtered. Killing is risky business. The membrane separating the internal from the external is not necessarily as thick or as clearly defined as we have come to believe. Every time we kill, we risk killing the reality of that thing inside ourselves as well as outside. We risk breaking the connections that lead in and out of the membrane. Taking a life to feed life requires a keen understanding of the natural law of give and take. When we lost that understanding, gave up the songs, the sacrifice, the prayers, we lost the connection. Saying grace is not enough.
When we lose those connections, everything becomes dead – fish, rivers, frogs, mice, even each other. There is no way they can reach inside us any more. The five senses we are left with are not enough. We have given up those connections in exchange for the freedom to clear-cut forests with skidders, turn cows into milk machines and chickens into egg factories. We can experiment with animals, club seals, wear fur, and exterminate entire species. Not a twinge of guilt. The lines have been severed.
And we are all under the impression that it is the forests, the creatures, the spirits and the wild lands that are disappearing from the universe and not us. This is not so. Thinking like that is like thinking that if you stand on the end of a limb and saw that limb from the tree, that the tree will fall and you will remain standing. Bugs Bunny might be able to get away with that, but we can’t.
It is we who have fallen away from the real world into a world where we may carry out our twisted sterile dreams without threatening the earth and its inhabitants. Ever wonder why the trees, stones, rivers and streams, birds, bears, frogs and snakes no longer talk to us as they did in the early tales of Native America, the Hindu, the Africans, the bible? It’s because we’re not around to talk to anymore. Every clear-cut, every vivisection, every mechanized slaughter of cow, pig or chicken moves our dream world further and further from the tree, making a reunification, which is still possible, more and more difficult.
Somewhere not so far from here, in the real world, the ancient forests are still standing, the buffalo roams the prairies, the sky is full of condors, the deer and the antelope play, and dodo birds still wander the sandy beaches, bumping into things.
Where there are still wild lands in our dream world, strong connections still exist. Bridges, tunnels, portals. Occasionally a traveler will get lost in the wilderness and find himself in the real world, returning the next day to find that a hundred years have passed, or never returning at all.
There are more ephemeral connections as well – brooks and waterfalls where you can still hear voices from the other side, if you listen carefully enough… When they sit by these waters, they hear loud clanking and screams. When they eat magic mushrooms, everything STOPS glowing and condos rise where forests stand. Our children can see their world in their dreams. Their children see our world in their nightmares.
And there is another connection. Sometimes agents from the other side infiltrate our world in an attempt to expedite reunification. Believe it or not, they miss us over there. Sometimes – more often than you might think – they send souls over to our world to be born as human babies. There are quite a lot of them actually – gnomes, elves, faeries, sprites, etc. running around in human bodies, doing crazy things like writing on walls, working in co-ops, running inns in the mountains, talking to themselves in the streets, making pottery, practicing witchcraft. They are planting biodynamic gardens, sitting in the back yard naked, arguing with satan. They are in asylums pumped full of Thorazine, in a classroom on Ritalin and lithium. They live with Indians. They run recycling centers. They are starting revolutions, corrupting the young, inventing paranoid conspiracy theories, making up religions. They’re directing movies, gobbling acid, drinking heavily and writing poetry.
The transition from their world to ours is not an easy one. It’s not easy on the soul and much is lost. They may have no idea who or what they are at first. They may or may not find out. They WILL know they are not like other people. They will know that this world is not theirs. They will faintly remember something better, where things made sense and worked like they ought to, where love and magic had the power to heal.
They will know what makes other people happy does not make them happy, and that what makes them happy makes them happier than anyone else alive.
They will see things others cannot see, hear things others cannot hear, feel things others cannot feel, and know things others do not know.
They will laugh a great deal or cry a great deal or both.
They will love humans individually, but have a hard time with humanity as whole, and that will occasionally approach loathing.
They will have a handful of very close friends, and often be very lonely.
They will be unhappiest when forced to act like a human and do things that humans do, want what humans want, or when they are convinced that they actually are one.
Things will not be easy for them. Because of their memories of the other side, the world will seem to them a wondrous calliope with just a few teeth missing on one of the cogs. Because of this tiny deficiency, the music is off key, the horses are crashing into each other and the children are frightened, bruised and crying.
The solutions will seem obvious, but no one will listen.
They will repeatedly be punished for shouting FIRE! in a crowded theatre, when the buildings really are in flames but no one else can see….They will get slapped on the wrist for pointing to the EXIT signs when everyone else is running around screaming and trampling one another.
They will be zealous, fanatical and didactic in their beliefs. They will feel utterly confused.
They will have ecstatic visions and babble incoherently. They will be extremely articulate.
They are prone to long periods of silence. They have no idea how to say what they really mean.
They spend a lot of time with children and animals. They will become drunkards and dope fiends, organic gardeners, soap makers, carpenters, madmen, magicians, jugglers and clowns, lunatic physicists, painter and scribblers, travelers and wanderers…
They will dress in bright colors, frumpy sweaters or all black.
They will smoke too much and drink too much. They will eat only macrobiotic foods. They will develop addictions to Mountain Dew.
They will often be accused of living in their own fantasy world.
They will make great lovers. Yeah, even the trolls.
They will spend too much time either making love or thinking about it.
They will speak to inanimate objects. They will have much brighter eyes than everyone else. They will expect their magic to work in this world and their love to heal, and will be crushed by this world, and often won’t expect it.
It will come close to killing them. They will visit the places where the connections still exist: the waterfalls, the mountains, the oceans, and the forests. They will draw on all the power they have, and sometimes, sometimes, the magic will work. And everything will be wondrously easy. The teeth will grow back on the cog on the calliope, the tune will right itself, the horses will bob gracefully up and down, around and around, and the children will giggle and sing with cotton candy stuck to their cheeks and noses.
They will spend their days trying to reconnect a branch that millions are busy sawing away at. Often it will be more than they can bear.
While the rest of humanity is busy working on new and more efficient ways to lay waste to the Earth with the push of a button, they are saving it. A handful at a time.
They will share a common conviction that they are the only sane individuals in a world gone mad.
They are right.
© 1993 Buck Young. Reprinted with blanket permission.