Chasing the Blue Forest Sprite

Cedar forest and extensive roots amid glacial erratics flank Jackson Creek on the right, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It was a cold November day, after a light snow, as I wandered the Jackson Creek old-growth forest. Centuries-old cedar, pine and hemlock towered above me, giving off the fresh scent of forest. The trees creaked and cracked, swaying in a mischievous wind.  I left the main path and descended the leaf-strewn 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 forest. It was as though I’d entered an enchanted forest in some fanciful fairy tale.

Cedar forest on slope of Jackson Creek Park in early winter, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Not far from the river, I approached an old yellow birch tree, large trunk rising 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. Radiating out from the tree, moss-covered roots snaked out like tangled ropes in a profusion of brilliant green. This was fairy country, I suddenly thought.

I dropped to my knees, crouching down, and set up my tripod and camera to capture this magical tree from the perspective of the forest floor. Head almost touching the ground, I inhaled the scent of loam and decaying leaves. 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, as I set up my equipment under the squirrel’s careful stare, that I was in the presence of an enchantment. Like I was peering into a secret dance of feral celebration. But being there and appreciating it, 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.

Old yellow birch tree and moss-covered roots with approaching blue sprite from left (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When I returned home to look at the images I saw that my camera had captured a wispy blue entity that flowed into its 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!

Forest sprite peers around a yellow birch tree, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I read up on sprites. According to European lore, a sprite is a supernatural entity. They are often depicted as fairy-like creatures or as an ethereal entity. 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. According to alchemist Paracelsus, the term ‘water sprite’ is used for any elemental spirit associated with water. They can breathe water or air and sometimes can fly. They also possess the power of hydrokinesis, which is the ability to create and manipulate water at will. Also known as ‘water nymphs’ and naiads (or nyads), these divine entities tend to be fixed in one place. Slavic mythology calls them vilas. Sprites are not corporeal beings (like selkies, mermaids and sirens) given that they are not purely physical; 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.

“Dancing Fairies” by August Malmström

After consulting with several friends—some who purported to know much more about sprites than I did—I concluded that this sprite was, in fact, a forest sprite and it was blue because it was near the water. Friend Merridy suggested that “forest sprites, normally green, may turn blue if a nearby brook calls to them.” 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.” Which this one certainly was. Friend Craig then pondered, “Are digital sprites in our world or in an electro-magnetic world? Or something else?” He was referring to them showing up on my camera without me even noticing they were there. When I told him 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.” Thanks, Craig! That was helpful…  

Glacial erratic boulders in Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Century-old beech tree, decaying and moss-covered in early winter, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Ancient cedar tree stands next to an ice sheet on the path beside Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I visited the forest many times after but saw no sign of any sprites. Perhaps Craig was right; they were hiding from me.

Then, on a foggy late December day, after a light dusting of snow, I returned to document the ice forming in the river. Islands and columns 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. At times, I had to scramble and seize hold of branches to haul my way up precipitous banks from where I’d captured sculptures of ice ‘pearls,’ ‘platforms,’ and ‘columns’ on the river. 

Ice forming on Jackson Creek in early winter, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Ice ‘pearls’ forming on shore by rushing river, Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The fog grew thick as my walk eventually led me into an area of eccentric lopsided cedars in a ‘drunken’ stand by the river bank. The cedars sent out a tangled tapestry of gnarly roots I had to negotiate. I could feel the earth-magic. I dropped to my knees again and set my camera and tripod to the level of the roots. That is when I saw the blue sprite again! This time the sprite wasn’t playful; it appeared startled and disoriented. But, I managed to capture it as it fled the scene in wisps of blue smoke. As I left the forest, my thoughts returned to this serendipitous moment. Had I interrupted the wood /earth sprite in its work in the forest? These sprites are known to have the power of chlorokinesis, the ability to grow and control plants at will. When I checked my images at home, the sprite appeared to float near one of the cedars.

 

Blue forest sprite floats by cedar tree, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When she saw the image, friend Merridy asked, “was the sprite entering the tree?” Thinking of incantations, friend Dyana asked if I’d had my recording feature on, which I’d never thought to do. On second thought, she decided that it might be dangerous. Not a good idea to anger a sprite. Friend Gabriela then 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… I hadn’t thought of that either. How would I hear their message when they were silent and so fleeting, I challenged back. She wisely responded, “Just ask yourself the question; you might be surprised when your next thought brings the answer. Since everything is energy, and you saw them at least twice, you’re probably connected with them.”

Sprite vaporizes behind tree, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I didn’t tell her that the question that came to mind after seeing the sprite was: I wonder what’s for dinner!

I must ponder this more, however. 

Cedar forest on a misty winter day, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Thinking of Gabriela’s interesting remark, I leave you with this rather sad but evocative tale by Vladimir Nabokov entitled “The Wood Sprite.” Told in the first person, it recounts the narrator’s experience when he was visited at his desk by an old wood sprite, “powdered with the pollen of the frosty, starry night.” The creature tells of his exile from a country wood in Russia, all cut down and burned amid the treachery of war. 

I was pensively penning the outline of the inkstand’s circular, quivering shadow. In a distant room a clock struck the hour, while I, dreamer that I am, imagined someone was knocking at the door, softly at first, then louder and louder. He knocked twelve times and paused expectantly.

“Yes, I’m here, come in…”

The door knob creaked timidly, the flame of the runny candle tilted, and he hopped sidewise out of a rectangle of shadow, hunched, gray, powdered with the pollen of the frosty, starry night.

I knew his face—oh, how long I had known it!

His right eye was still in the shadows, the left peered at me timorously, elongated, smoky-green. The pupil glowed like a point of rust….That mossy-gray tuft on his temple, the pale-silver, scarcely noticeable eyebrow, the comical wrinkle near his whiskerless mouth—how all this teased and vaguely vexed my memory!

I got up. He stepped forward.

His shabby little coat seemed to be buttoned wrong – on the female side. In his hand he held a cap—no, a dark-colored, poorly tied bundle, and there was no sign of any cap….

Yes, of course I knew him – perhaps had even been fond of him, only I simple could not place the where and the when of our meetings. And we must have met often, otherwise I would not have had such a firm recollection of those cranberry lips, those pointy ears, that amusing Adam’s apple….

With a welcoming murmur I shook his light, cold hand. He perched like a crow on a tree stump, and began speaking hurriedly.

“It’s so scary in the streets. So I dropped in. Dropped in to visit you. Do you recognize me? You and I, we used to romp together and halloo at each for days at a time. Back in the old country. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten?”

His voice literally blinded me. I felt dazzled and dizzy—I remembered the happiness, the echoing, endless, irreplaceable happiness….

No, it can’t be: I’m alone….it’s only some capricious delirium. Yet there really was somebody sitting next to me, bony and implausible, with long-earred German bootees, and his voice tintinnabulated, rustled-golden, luscious-green familiar – while the words were so simple, so human….

“There—you remember. Yes, I am a former Forest Elf, a mischievous sprite. And here I am, forced to flee like everyone else.”

He heaved a deep sigh, and once again I had visions of billowing nimbus, lofty leafy undulations, bright flashes of birch bark like splashes of sea foam, against a dulcet, perpetual, hum….He bent toward me and glanced gently into my eyes. “Remember our forest, fir so black, birch all white? They’ve cut it all down. The grief was unbearable – I saw my dear birches crackling and falling, and how could I help? Into the marshes they drove me, I wept and I howled, I boomed like a bittern, then left lickety-split for a neighboring pinewood.

“There I pined, and could not stop sobbing. I had barely grown used to it, and lo, there was no more pinewood, just blue-tinted cinders. Had to do some more tramping. Found myself a wood – a wonderful wood it was, thick, dark, and cool. Yet somehow it was just not the same thing. In the old days I’d frolic from dawn until dusk, whistle furiously, clap my hands, frighten passersby. You remember yourself – you lost your way once in a dark nook of my woods, you in some little white dress, and I kept tying the paths up in knots, spinning the tree trunks, twinkling through the foliage. Spent the whole night playing tricks. But I was only fooling around, it was all in jest, vilify me as they might. But now I sobered up, for my new abode was not a merry one. Day and night strange things crackled around me. At first I thought a fellow elf was lurking there; I called, then listened. Something crackled, something rumbled….but no, those were not the kinds of sounds we make. Once, toward evening, I skipped out into a glade, and what do I see? People lying around, some on their backs, some on their bellies. Well, I think, I’ll wake them up, I’ll get them moving! And I went to work shaking boughs, bombarding with cones, rustling, hooting….I toiled away for a whole hour, all to no avail. Then I took a closer look, and I was horror-struck. Here’s a man with his head hanging by one flimsy crimson thread, there’s one with a heap of thick worms for a stomach….I could not endure it. I let out a howl, jumped in the air, and off I ran….

“Long I wandered through different forests, but I could find no peace. Either it was stillness, desolation, mortal boredom, or such horror it’s better not to think about it. At last I made up my mind and changed into a bumpkin, a tramp with a knapsack, and left for good: Rus’, adieu! Here a kindred spirit, a Water-Sprite, gave me a hand. Poor fellow as on the run too. He kept marveling, kept saying – what times are upon us, a real calamity! And even if, in olden times, he had had his fun, used to lure people down (a hospitable one, he was!), in recompense, how he petted and pampered them on the gold river bottom, with what songs he bewitched them! These days, he says, only dead men come floating by, floating in batches, enormous numbers of them, and the river’s moisture is like blood, thick, warm, sticky, and there’s nothing for him to breathe….and so he took me with them.

“He went off to knock about some distance sea, and put me ashore on a foggy coast – go, brother, find yourself some friendly foliage. But I found nothing, and I ended up here in this foreign, terrifying city of stone. Thus I turned into a human, complete with proper starched collars and bootees, and I’ve even learned human talk….”

He fell silent. His eyes glistened like wet leaves, his arms were crossed, and, by the wavering light of the drowning candle, some pale strands combed to the left shimmered so strangely.

“I know you too are pining,” his voiced shimmered again, “but you’re pining, compared to mine, my tempestuous, turbulent pining, is but the even breathing of one who is asleep and think about it: not one of our Tribe is there left in the Rus’. Some of us swirled away like wisps of fog. Others scattered over the world. Our native rivers are melancholy, there is no frisky hand to splash up the moon-gleams. Silent are the orphaned bluebells that remain. By chance, unmown, the pale-blue gusli that once served my rival, the ethereal Field-Sprite, for his songs. A shaggy, friendly, household spirit, in tears, has forsaken your besmirched, humiliated home, and the groves that withered, the pathetically luminous, magically somber groves….

“It was we, Rus’, who were your inspiration, your unfathomable beauty, your age long enchantment! And we are all gone, gone, driven into exile by a crazed surveyor.

“My friend, soon I shall die, say something to me, tell me that you love me, a homeless phantom, come sit closer, give me your hand….”

The candle sputtered and went out. Cold fingers touched my palm. The familiar melancholy laugh pealed and fell still.

When I turned on the light there was no one in the armchair….no one!….nothing was left but a wondrously subtle scent in the room, of birch, of humid moss….

Now that I think of it, I know the blue sprite’s message. And now you know it too.

Cedar forest and roots amid glacial erratics in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Ecology of Story: Place as Allegory

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Birds on Deer Lake, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

An allegory is a complete narrative whose images and material things represent an abstract idea or theme such as a political system, religious practice or figure, or a philosophical viewpoint. The entire narrative is a metaphor in which all components are symbolic. Most fairy tales, folk tales and myths are allegories. Examples include: Edmund Spencer’s Faerie Queen; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; and Beowulf.

The narrative of allegory is a fractal nest of symbolic names, places and things, that contribute key elements to the story (e.g., Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in Star Wars; Gabriel Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd; John Savage of Stanger in a Strange Land; Darwin Mall in Darwin’s Paradox; Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings; Lilliput in Gulliver’s Travels). Setting and place in allegory symbolizes the theme being explored (e.g. Orwell’s farm in Animal Farm represents a totalitarian world of oppression; the road in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress represents the journey of humankind; the island in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies represents the world at war).

As an aside, the science of place names, geographical names or toponyms (derived from a topographic feature) is called toponymy. The city of Montreal, for instance, is a toponym (named after le Mont Royal). Toponyms often come through the local vernacular. Given their link to cultural identity, such place names can provide a significant symbolic role in story.

Animal Farm-GeorgeOrwellIn Animal Farm, George Orwell uses animals to describe the revolution against a totalitarian regime (e.g. the overthrow of the last Russian Csar and the Communist Revolution of Russia). The animals embrace archetypes to symbolize the actions and thoughts of various sectors within that world. The pigs are the leaders of the revolution; Mr. Jones represents the ruling despot who is overthrown; the horse Boxer is the ever-loyal and unquestioning labor class.

John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, published in 1678, tells the story of a narrator who falls asleep and dreams of a man named Christian fleeing the City of Destruction while bearing a heavy burden (e.g., symbolizing his own sins) on his back. A character named Evangelist shows Christian the way to Celestial City, a perilous journey through the Slough (swamp) as characters called Mr. Worldly Wiseman and Hypocrisy try to lead him astray.

LordOfTheFlies-WilliamGoldingIn Lord of the Flies, William Golding explores the conflict in humanity between the impulse toward civilization and the impulse toward savagery. The symbols of the island, the ocean, the conch shell, Piggy’s glasses, and the Lord of the Flies, or the Beast, represent central ideas that reinforce this main theme. Each character has recognizable symbolic significance: Ralph represents civilization and democracy; Piggy represents intellect and rationalism; Jack represents self-interested savagery and dictatorship; and Simon (the outsider in so many ways) represents altruistic purity.

Many of Golding’s potent symbols to power his allegory come from the natural world. These include the use of smoke, fire, and snakes to invoke the imaginary beast (that exists within each of them). The scar left from the plane crash that destroys this natural paradise symbolizes our savage and destructive nature.

Allegories may also be powerful as satires. The social commentary of satires expose and criticize corruption and foolhardiness of societies, groups or even individuals through humor, irony and even ridicule. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is a good example of satire and parody. Swift targets politics, religion and western culture through satire. Aspects of place, landscape and setting are effectively used to feature his commentary. Another excellent example of political satire and use of place and setting with embedded character is found in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

TheHandmaidsTale-MargaretAtwoodExcellent examples of satires with less obvious allegorical structure (but it’s there) can be found in the genre of science fiction—a highly metaphorical literature that makes prime use of place and setting with archetypal characters to satirize an aspect of society. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is a satirical response to his observation of humans’ addiction to (sexual) pleasure and vulnerability to mind control and the dumbing of civilization in the 1930s. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four satirizes humanity’s vulnerability to fascism, based on his perception of humans’ sense of fear and helplessness under powerful governments and their oppressive surveillance. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale satirizes a society in which a woman struggles in a fundamentalist Christian dictatorship patriarchy where women are forced into a system of sexual slavery for the ruling patriarchy.

Other examples include Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein; The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin; The Time Machine by H. G. Wells; The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Each of these stories examines the world of the day and provides critical commentary through premise, place and character. In each of these stories, place and setting help define premise and theme (e.g., what is being satirized.)

 

 

MockUpEcology copyThis article is an excerpt from The Ecology of Story: World as Character released in June 2019 by Pixl Press.

From Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

Learn the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. “Ecology of Story: World as Character” is the 3rd guidebook in Nina Munteanu’s acclaimed “how to write” series for novice to professional writers.

 

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.