Those venturing out to the Memorial University Botanical Garden this September are advised to have bread in their pockets to keep the fairies away.
The university’s garden staff has combined resources with folklorist Dale Jarvis of the St. John’s Haunted Hike to present The Fairy Path, an exploration of fairy folklore, especially along Mount Scio Road.
Jarvis will share tales gathered from primary sources with visitors and then send them on their way with fairy lanterns to explore the botanical garden at twilight.
Both Jarvis and the Botanical Garden director Kim Shipp agreed, with smiles, that a great deal of fairy repellent is needed.
“The whole bread in the pockets thing has survived in Newfoundland in a way that it hasn’t in other places where there’s still a fairy belief,” Jarvis said, during a September Zoom conversation.
The impetus for the walk is to build an exciting summer experience — something never done before — for visitors to the 110 acres that the Botanical Garden. In the winter, it hosts its Merry & Bright Holiday Light Festival, so having something not as big, to bookend the year is ideal.
“We’re hoping to grow that into more of a multimedia experience so that it’s an enjoyable walk through the woods,” Shipp said, adding some of the stories will feature Oxen Pond, which is part of the grounds.
The environment factors a great deal into the Fairy Path, as Memorial University has been looking at how to talk to kids about nature. One of the Botanical Garden’s key missions is to spark curiosity around the natural world.
“Fairies are the personification of nature,” Jarvis said. “It’s not that fairies are bad or good; they are like nature in that they are somewhat unpredictable and we have to respect them in the way that we need to respect nature and how we interact with nature.”
But the fairies discussed are not those of Peter Pan or Fern Gully fame.
“I don’t want to make it sound like it’s supposed to be educational, because it’s supposed to be fun, but I think a lot of times people don’t necessarily get a good introduction to local folklore,” Jarvis said. “If they’re reading about fairies, they’re reading Irish material or they’re watching Hollywood movies.
“I want to tell the story that from one road over,” Jarvis added. “Those stories get a little bit drowned out by the mass-media stuff.”
He cited a book by folklorist Jeremy Harte, Explore Fairy Traditions, which touches on Newfoundland fairies, which is a blending of Irish and English traditions, including those stories about stealing away children and replacing them with changelings.
One of the stories he’ll be sharing is of a girl named Margaret who lived near Thorburn Road. She kept hearing the fairies calling to her by name, and she followed the voices deeper and deeper into the woods until finally a couple of older boys found her before she was lost forever.
“It’s probably best not to go with the fairies. If they try to take you away, you might never get back,” Jarvis admitted, with a laugh.
Storytelling is not the only art that will be on display, though. Shipp added that the garden is the backdrop, and its twilight hours are where it’s at its most beautiful.
“It’s so special. I love that time in the garden,” she said. “I love highlighting the different parts of the garden.”
The ambience adds to the experience, Jarvis said, and the transition from day to night is what augments his storytelling.
“I’m very proud to be able to tell these stories, and I think Newfoundlanders in general are very proud of their oral tradition,” Jarvis said. “Telling our own stories, and showcasing our interesting local fairy beliefs, I think is an important part of why I want to do these kinds of events.”
Although it’s a test event, the response has already been great, with two nights already sold out. The Fairy Path with storyteller Dale Jarvis runs from Sept. 18 to 22 at 7 p.m. at the Memorial University Botanical Gardens.
Photo courtesy Memorial University Botanical Garden