A list of unusual things you might stumble upon during a walk in the woods of New Jersey: rare Piebald deer; curious geological formations; an extinct volcano; the ruins of an old ironworks; a telephone pole farm; a terrifying, kangaroo-like beast with wings, hooves and a forked tail.
And then there are the handmade fairy habitats that line the Rahway Trail, an unexpectedly fanciful footpath within northeast New Jersey’s sprawling South Mountain Reservation.
Conceived by the Olmsted Brothers in the late 19th century, the 2,100-acre nature reserve located entirely within Essex County is home to numerous standout natural features: dramatic waterfalls, tranquil ponds, babbling brooks and gently rolling wooded hills bisected by popular hiking trails. Yet along the Rahway Trail, the vibe is decidedly more whimsical than anything else thanks in part to the wood nymph-friendly handiwork of local resident and non-imp Therese Ojibway.
Recently identified by the New York Times as the creator and chief custodian of the so-called South Mountain Fairy Trail, Ojibway — aka “Thumbelina’s secret architect” — has quietly and anonymously installed intricately designed fairy furnishings — ladders, doors, sprite-sized seats and more — in gnarled stumps, tree hollows, root formations and other oft-overlooked nooks and crannies along the 1-mile footpath for the past five years.
Ojibway’s doll house-sized creations — roughly 20 to 30 "little pieces of furniture" have been "put out, fixed up and replaced" according to NJ.com — are strictly made from natural materials — think: twigs, tree bark, rocks, acorns, even mushrooms — collected from the reserve. Manufactured plastic items are strictly verboten.
There are rules in the fairy forest
Essentially a one-woman operation who often tends to the uniquely accessorized footpath with her autistic adult son, Ojibway doesn’t mind if others are inspired and moved to leave behind their own fairy furnishings so long as the new additions are crafted from similarly forest-friendly materials.
Those who leave behind plastic items (Smurfs figurines appear to be especially problematic) alongside Ojibway’s original creations may very well return to the trail a couple of days later to find they’ve been rejected by friendly but highly selective unseen forces — unseen forces that, in reality, are a 60-year-old educator who works with children with developmental disabilities when not serving as steward of northeast Jersey's premiere fairy habitat. Ojibway usually visits the trail once a week during the less busy evening hours, a time of day when she's less likely to arouse suspicion as the Fairy Lady of Locust Grove.
Writes NJ.com’s Luke Nozicka after joining Ojibway for a routine maintenance visit along the Rahway Trail:
Within the last several months, more people have contributed to the fairy trail by adding their own decorations, such as dolls and toy Smurfs. The problem, according to Ojibway: They're not biodegradable.
'I'm sorry kids, but nice try,' she said, picking up toys left off the trail, which she places at the front of the path so children can reclaim them. 'We really discourage people from using plastic toys [or] plastic furniture because this isn't a doll house. This really is nature.
'Some structures made by others are not as visually appealing either,' said Dennis Percher, chairman of the South Mountain Conservancy's board of trustees. Percher described Ojibway as having 'great craftsmanship and creativity,' which is not even comparable to the recent 'copycats.'
In June, the South Mountain Conservancy decided to lend the then still-anonymous Ojibway a helping hand by posting a note sign that reads: “Please follow the Fairy House rules! Natural materials only. No plastic or glass. Do NOT paint trees.” (As the Times points out, it was actually Ojibway, not an overzealous collaborator, who painted green marks on trees —"fairy wings, she said, to direct children.")
A previous sign created by Ojibway stating that “Fairies Like: Acorns, pine cones, shells, flowers and pretty stones. Not plastic” had largely gone ignored when placed along the trail in a tree stump.
Ojibway, who first began visiting the reserve over two decades ago as both a personal retreat and as "a place of refuge" for her young autistic son, also shares design pointers and various updates on the official South Mountain Fairy Trail Facebook page, which she started (anonymously, of course) shortly after local residents began to notice of the petite furnishings that began popping up along the trail.
Even if Ojibway abides by a strict aesthetic vision and expects fellow amateur fairy furniture-makers of all ages to do the same, Dennis Percher of the South Mountain Conservancy explains to NJ.com the fact that she’s attracting kids — and their imaginations — to the great outdoors is nothing but a good thing: “If you can get people outside, especially young children, it's a wonderful thing. And if it happens to be under the pretense of an imaginative thing, that is just fine."
Just remember to leave Gargamel and the Barbie Glam Vanity at home.