It was a cold November day as I wandered the endangered Jackson Creek old-growth forest. Centuries old cedar, pine and hemlock towered above me. The trees creaked and groaned, swaying in a mischievous wind. I sighed with the thought that this ancient forest might soon disappear to the encroaching housing development.
Leaving the main path, I descended the slope toward the river. My boots pressed through a frosty crust into the spongy ground of dead leaves and organic soil. I stopped and breathed in the fresh coolness of the air. A damp mist huddled among the trees, adding wisps of mystery to the ancient wood. It was as though I’d entered an enchanted forest in some fanciful fairy tale.
Not far from the river, I approached an old yellow birch tree. Its gnarly trunk rose as tall as some of the cedars and pines around it. Golden flakes of bark curled and formed craggy patterns around the girth of the old tree. Its moss-covered roots snaked out like tangled ropes in a profusion of brilliant green. This was fairy country, I suddenly thought with an impish smile, and felt it tug my soul with thoughts of home.
I set up my tripod and camera to capture the scene from the perspective of the forest floor. The fresh pungency of cedar, pine, and humid moss hung in the air. Nearby, the river chortled and bubbled in a content symphony of motion. A curious red squirrel parked itself on a log nearby to watch me. It didn’t scold me like they normally did when I entered the forest; like it understood. It then occurred to me that I was in the presence of an enchantment, peering into a secret dance of feral celebration. I had now become part of it; I was Alice going down the rabbit hole into a true wonderland…
It was then that I glimpsed it as I carefully took my timed pictures. A blur of blue. What had I witnessed? A motion? A colour? Then it was gone. But in that moment, I’d felt the spark of an elation that comes with a glimpse into a secret world.
Back in my small room in the city, I saw that my camera had captured a wispy blue entity that flowed into view and peered around the old birch at me with a kind of curious though mischievous grin. Had I just captured a blue sprite? Something was unmistakably there!
According to European lore, a sprite is a supernatural entity, a fairy-like creature. The word sprite comes from the Latin spiritus (“spirit”), via the French esprit. Given that the sprite I’d observed was blue and we were close to the river, I wondered if it was not a forest or wood sprite, but a water sprite that can breathe water or air and sometimes can fly. They also possess the power of hydrokinesis, the ability to create and manipulate water at will. Also known as ‘water nymphs’ or naiads, these divine entities tend to be fixed in one place. Sprites are not corporeal beings (like selkies, mermaids and sirens); they are more like local deities than animals. This explained the wispy nature of the being I’d seen peering at me from the tree.
I consulted with several friends. When friend Merridy suggested that “forest sprites, normally green, may turn blue if a nearby brook calls to them,” I reconsidered, particularly when she added that “water sprites can be distinguished by their chatty nature. They rarely go beyond the banks of a river or brook. Forest sprites are mostly silent.” My sprite, though quite curious, had remained silent. And yet, I felt a strong sense that it wished to tell me something.
When I told friend Craig that I would return in search of them, he observed, “if you’re looking for them, that might be when they hide. Or maybe not. Any type of sprite is probably good, mischievous or friendly.” With a spritely grin I thanked him for his advice.
I visited the forest several times after but saw no sign of any. Perhaps Craig was right. But, why had I seen this shy water sprite in the first place? What was its intention with me? There had been a kind of plaintive sadness in its rheumy eyes and timid smile. I’d felt a kindred connection somehow. Like the floating debris of a home long abandoned to the careless violence of progress.
Then, on a foggy late December day, after a light snowfall, I returned to document the ice forming in the river. Islands of ice had created a new topography for the flowing waters of Jackson Creek. Ice sheets also covered the forest path in places—making the walk somewhat treacherous. The fog grew thick as my walk eventually led me into a stand of eccentric cedars that leaned like drunks over the river bank. The cedars sent out a tangled tapestry of gnarly roots I had to negotiate. I crouched again and set my camera and tripod to the level of the roots.
That is when I saw the water sprite again!
This time it lingered with a look of plaintive determination on its wispy face. It seemed to float in and out of the old cedar like the tree’s own breath. It met my stare with a timorous plaintive look on its hoarfrost face, eyes glistening like melting ice. I knew its pale face—how long I’d known that sad face of solastalgia!
Then it vanished in a puff of blue mist.
Again, I shared with my friends the images I’d taken of this wispy being. In response to my photos, Gabriela challenged me: “did you ask what message they have for you, Nina? They keep showing up in your way, they might have a message for you or to be delivered through you to…” whoever. This somehow resonated with me. But how, I challenged, would I hear their message when they were silent and so fleeting? She wisely responded, “Just ask yourself the question; you might be surprised when your next thought brings the answer.”
I thought of what she said. What had I thought when our eyes met for that eternal moment? I thought of the forest and the river running through it, both home to the silent sprites. I thought of the plan to clear the forest and straighten the river into a lifeless gully. There would be no forest canopy to cool the river. The organic loam would shrivel beneath a merciless layer of concrete, brick and plastic.
First, the pines and cedars would fall in a thunderous maelstrom of screaming saws. Ancient beech trees would squeal as they were cut then crack with a final death shout. Then, with the clearing fires, the leaves of my precious old yellow birch would sizzle and take flight. They would join with embers of curling bark and soar in a vortex of billowing coal black fury. All that had once clothed the earth would be destroyed. The melancholy brook would flow through a killing field, itself choking with burned debris. Thick and oily, the lonely creek would grow dark and surly, smothering its own.
That was what the sprite wished to tell me: everything is interconnected. If the forest goes, the water goes, the sprites go, and with them the magic of life goes.
I grew tearful at the thought.
Forced to flee their home, where would the sprites go? Doomed to scatter into the concrete world of grey monochrome and unyielding progress, would they die along with their magic? I imagined them lurking in the sterile domain of human hubris—vilified, ridiculed, and ignored. I saw them shrivel to empty husks, discarded detritus left on the side of the road along with Tim Horton’s disposable cups carelessly pitched from a car.
I felt dizzy with guilt. What could one person do?
Then I smile. Much, in fact.
I will start by sharing this story with you…
THIS STORY WAS CONDENSED FOR WRITE ON! PHOTOGRAPHY BY NINA MUNTEANU.