Fairy Houses and the Natural World: An Interview with Renee Simmons Raney
E.A.T. South is excited to welcome Alabama naturalist and author Renee Simmons Raney to our farm for two workshops on Saturday, December 2. Ms. Raney gracious took some time out of her busy week to talk with Farmer Caylor about the workshops.
Caylor: Please introduce yourself. What do you want people in Montgomery to know about you?
Renee: I’m Renee SImmons Raney, I work for Alabama State Parks and my office is at Cheaha State Park: the highest mountain in Alabama. My home is in Choccolocco, AL. My husband and I built our house where I had a playhouse on my grandfather’s dairy farm. We maintain our one acre vegetable garden in the same location that my grandparents had theirs. Formally, I’m a wildlife biologist and cultural anthropologist, however, I’ve served the state of Alabama as an environmental educator and storyteller for over 20 years. I was the Director of Education for the Anniston Museum of Natural History for ten years and the Assistant Director of Jacksonville State University Field Schools for twelve years.
C: What’s a fairy house and what inspired you to build your first one?
R: When I was 5 years old, I was in a meadow investigating our cows, wildflowers, butterflies and dragonflies. I heard a sound I had never heard before, not a bee or a bird. It turned out to be a little man the size of my pointy finger with wings like a damsel fly!
The first chapter of my book is about my encounter with this farm fairy. I ran home and told my Irish grandmother about the fairy. She clapped her hands and said that I had the gift of sight. She took me back to that big old white oak tree where I first saw him and taught me how to build my first fairy house.
Sometimes the fairies might bring me a tiny token of appreciation: a wee basket, a coin, or a carving. I bring my collection of fairy treasures to my workshops and the children are mesmerized.
When I started to kindergarten, I thought all children played outside and had these connections to the natural and unnatural (fairy) world. I realized that that many children had not had the chance to play outside like I had. I began to teach children to build fairy houses outside at recess...and I never stopped teaching!
This imaginative and creative activity gave me a better understanding of natural history and the connection between all living things. I’ve taught environmental education to over half a million people in Alabama, everything from botany and ornithology to nature journaling and creative play outside. It’s my background, the fact that I was raised with my own marvelous personal landscape for creative play, that drives me to connect children of all ages from 3 to 103 to our natural world and especially to inspire folks to visit state parks, green spaces, to "play outside" and , of course, to support sustainable farming in our state. My philosophy is that "Every moment spent in nature is a Once Upon a Time moment."
C: Do you have a favorite fairy house story or fairy story?
R: I’ve got so many and love them all. I've led over five thousand people through this activity and I’ve never seen a repeated design. Each structure is unique. If I have to pick only one, my heart takes me to an encounter I had during a fairy house workshop with a family that included an autistic young man, Tommy, who was 10 years old. During the workshop families move to their chosen sites or habitats away from the group, build the fairy houses considering what one would need (food, shelter, water, view, etc.), and then gather back together to take a tour of our creations. The children are allowed to tell about their fairy house. During this particular workshop, when we got to Tommy’s house his mother pulled me aside and said that said she would explain the house because Tommy never spoke to anyone outside of the family. As she started to say, “this is Tommy’s house,” the young man told her, quite loudly and plainly, he wanted to explain his house, his creative process. It was a groundbreaking and wonderful moment. It was all I could do not to cry.
Later, his mother called me to say that Tommy invited all the neighborhood kids together to build their own fairy trail. He had never played with the children in the neighborhood before. Since that day, I've implemented this workshop with many other diverse groups including special needs, gifted, multiple disability, and even university-level architectural students on farms, forests, public lands, private lands, urban-scapes...if we build them, they will come!
I recently found out that a teachers that attended my Windows to Nature: Fairy Houses for Educators workshop implemented my curriculum for her students, and their fairy houses will be on exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Tuscaloosa this month. I’m so excited!
C: Anything else you'd like to share?
R: One of my joyous "epic life moments" was during NewSouth Montgomery's publishing of my book, Hairy, Scary but Mostly Merry Fairies! Curing Nature Deficiencey through Folklore, Creative Activites and Imagination, when Dr. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods who coined the phrase "nature deficit disorder," previewed my fairy book and wrote "This is wonderful! The world needs more fairy houses, and more books like this one. Hairy, Scary, but Mostly Merry Fairies! will enchant young readers and is sure to inspire creativity in nature.”
Once you learn my Windows to Nature fairy house technique, you can do this wherever you go. You can leave fairy houses in other places for people to find and enjoy. While teaching an all adult fairy workshop one participant said, "This is marvelous therapy. I am calm, happy and so relaxed. If you had taught me this ten years ago I would have saved thousands of dollars on counseling."
When I lead a teacher or educator workshop, I include K-6 grade resources, but I’ve discovered that high school teachers, media specialists, and college professors are using my curriculum for their students. There is no age limit for creativity, nature exploration, and imagination!
For more information or to schedule a workshop, folks can visit www.reneeraney.com
Join Renee and E.A.T. South on December 2 for two workshops:
Windows to Nature: Fairy Houses for Children and Families, 10 am to 12 pm, tickets are $20 per family and can be purchased here.
Windows to Nature: Fairy Houses for Teachers and Educators, 1pm - 3 pm, tickets are $15 and can be purchased here.
Copies of Renee's book Hairy, Scary but Mostly Merry Fairies: Curing Nature Deficit Disorder through Folklore, Imagination and Creative Activities will be available for purchase at the event.