This I Believe

Sara - Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania
Entered on July 11, 2007

Some people believe there is a logical and rational explanation for everything. Being a person trained in the field of ecology and forest science, I should probably be one of these people. Fortunately, I am not entirely; I have an irrational and unshakable belief in elves.

Where this conviction came from I’m not entirely certain. As a child I was a keen observer of the natural world. We spent many summers in the Adirondack mountains, which gave me plenty of time and opportunity to look at things. When hiking along a trail up a mountain or along a lake, it was easy to notice moss-covered boulders and tree trunks. It didn’t require a huge leap of imagination to see what a nice little bed moss would make for someone or something small. On close observation, mosses, lichens and liverworts can actually look like miniature landscapes and tiny forests. All they seemed to lack were inhabitants.

It may have been my mother who first put the idea of elves living on moss cushions in the forest in my head. She would claim it came from her mother, who was an artist – someone by definition prone to stray from the strictly logical and rational. In sequence, I have done my best to convince my two daughters that their love of the mountains and forests should reserve room for the existence of elves. And yes, they believe.

Not long ago, I admitted this irrational belief to a friend of mine, who happens to be a doctor. He offered a medical explanation, not only for elves, but for many mythical creatures – trolls, giants, vampires, dwarfs, and even faeries. And while he doesn’t deny that the world may be populated with these creatures, he believes they may have started out life as humans with various medical syndromes who were ultimately ostracized from society, forced to live deep in the woods or under bridges and may have become the basis for fanciful legends over time.

For example, there are patients who have been diagnosed with something called William Syndrome, a condition that presents with having a child-like face – although sometimes missing teeth; being engaging and easy-going; being very musical, and having prominent, pointed ears. Evidence from graves in Iceland have shown people with Paget’s Disease of the Bone, whose symptoms include ill-temperedness, nearly unbreakable bones, and ugliness as a result of related skull deformities. All of which add up to your standard-issue troll. Vampires of history may have had porphyria, a hemoglobin-metabolism disorder that is partially alleviated by drinking blood. Dwarfs have a condition that stunts the growth of the body’s long bones. An explanation for everything.

We Americans are a nation of realists, with only 4% admitting to a belief in elves. And yet, 54% of people in Iceland believe in elves. In a travel essay by Ann Waigand on Iceland’s Elf School, she writes that the school curriculum teaches there are 13 different varieties of elves, 3 types of hidden people, 4 varieties of gnomes, 2 types of trolls, and 3 kinds of faeries that inhabit this country. At least my colleagues who enjoy taxonomy might appreciate this careful delineation work.

In a day to day sense, I really don’t give elves much thought. I can’t claim to have ever seen one, nor heard one, nor had an extended conversation with one. I don’t even know what I’d say to one if I did see it. What I love is the idea of elves, the fact that there may be things we cannot see but still know are there. Or at least hope are there. The sheer irrationality of believing in elves is an antidote for a thoroughly over-analyzed, over-mechanized world. It’s comforting to think we don’t know everything. To think there’s still more to discover. And to keep us humble. Most of all, I can’t imagine hiking through a forest and not looking for them. When my daughters have children of their own, I will do my best to make sure that they believe.