Our summer of storms has changed the Highlands. At Madam Brett Park in Beacon, the heavy rains saturated the ground, toppling creekside trees and sending them downstream to smash against the shuttered footbridge over Fishkill Creek.
One old giant managed to avoid that fate: It fell onto a slender island that lies upstream of the bridge, creating a makeshift bridge, which gave me pause.
Years ago, I interviewed Evan Pritchard, a Native American anthropologist, about Indigenous names for the Highlands’ landscape. He told me that this particular island in Fishkill Creek was a special place for the Munsee Tribe, a subset of the Lenape. They referred to it as M’singwe Island, named after the spirits that inhabit it, tiny magical figures invisible to humans unless they reveal themselves.
After Madam Brett (who died in 1764) learned of this legend, she began calling it Fairy Island, and many Beacon residents know it that way.
I’ve read enough folktales to know that when someone tells you that a place is inhabited by spirits, what they are saying is: Stay away. But I have always been curious about things I’m told to ignore. Every time I’m down at Madam Brett Park, I find myself wrestling with conflicting urges: Be cautious and respectful, especially when dealing with a culture that is not yours. But invisible woodland spirits? How can they reveal themselves when I’m on shore?
Now there was this bridge. I took a photo and showed it to my wife and 12-year-old son over tacos. “Is this an invitation, or a trap?” I asked.
My wife thought it was a trap, pointing out that woodland spirits aren’t known for graceful invitations. “If I remember correctly, they’re mostly into unauthorized baby-swaps,” she said. My son offered to build a remote-controlled, wheeled robot with a camera attached to send across the log when his robotics class starts again next month.
Some journalists report from war zones. And some find themselves Googling “How to appease forest spirits?” in the middle of the night. Apparently, you need to make an offering of mead. Would beer work? Can their tiny, ephemeral hands pop open the can? Is making offerings to elves compatible with Leave No Trace principles? Which breaks down first, a culture’s myths or an aluminum can?
Based on the faded logos on the cans I found on the island, the M’singwe have been appeased with beer for a good while. The island was well-guarded, in the form of a carpet of poison ivy.
I did hear a sound that took me a minute to puzzle out. Anyone who has been to Madam Brett Park knows the sound of the falls, which can range from breezy to deafening. But at the eastern tip of the island, the rush of the falls harmonizes with the tones caused by the north and south sides of the creek. From M’singwe Island, the footbridge and the waterfall looked like nothing I’d ever seen before and, for a moment, I forgot where I was.
If that’s not magic, I’m not sure what is.