Most people, upon first setting foot into the wild depths of an old forest, are overwhelmed by the delicate beauty of ferns and brackens. Imagine their feathery fronds, filtering the sunrays like green combs running through a maiden's hair. The earthy odors of mosses and mushrooms mixing with the fresh scent of young fiddleheads sprouting into the green twilight. Cheekily, they beckon you on, deeper and deeper into the woods, urging you to gather their untamed elegance into your botanist's container – but beware! Many ladies get lost when they blindly follow the impulse to further explore the unknown.
Initially, this was intended to be a guide to collecting ferns. But it was with Miss Mori that I discovered yet another beauty off the beaten tracks.
I first met her at the Orange Glove Society, where we both heard a lecture about the fascinating forms of mosses and ferns as well as the various methods of depicting them. Most of the audience favored the traditional approaches of pencil drawings or embroidery, some preferred lithography, and a few even considered the growingly popular china paintings. It was then that Miss Mori brought up cyanotyping as a possible means for recording elegance in a scientifically rigorous way. It instantly drew my attention, and soon we both found ourselves equipped with botanist’s containers, field guides, and an assortment of chemicals in the shadowy undergrowth of a lovely mixed deciduous forest. We had collected and identified quite a few maidenhair and bracken ferns when – in our quest for more light to make the cyanotyping work – we came across a glade.
Illustration: There we observed our first dancing of Elves, and we fell in love with the idea to study them and to bring this lovely natural phenomenon to a wider audience.
Sadly, our first attempts with cyanotyping turned out rather unconvincing. Not only are Elves difficult to catch without a butterfly net (even though Miss Mori’s fingers are quite subtle, and the botanist’s containers served us well as short-term storing devices), but these little creatures also refused to lie still long enough to duly expose the primed paper. Instead, they wriggled about, intertwining their arms and their legs, instead of re-performing their various dances. And oh how wickedly they laughed and joked! (Any lady too faint of heart should consider bringing wax or earmuffs to protect her innocent mind.)
Thus, we were forced to postpone our work so we could recover from the Elves’ inappropriate banter and find a better way to preserve our studies for posterity.
Again, it was Miss Mori who came up with the perfect solution: There are simply other, better ways to create photographic drawings nowadays – dry gelatin plates are particularly suitable for ladies, since they can easily be developed in a kitchen cabinet in a far less harmful manner than the wet plates. Ask your local chemist for further information!
Now that we were better equipped, our second encounter with the Elves proved very satisfying. We met the lovely little creatures at the exact same glade, and Miss Mori succeeded in distracting them while I set up the camera. They appeared to be rather interested in her clothing, which obviously was very different to theirs.
(*Footnote: Though it would not befit a lady to bring this up in a proper conversation, it shall be noted for the interested scientist: Elves are clad in something resembling see-through shirts and slips in various tender hues, like rosé, cerulean, violet, citreous and saffron yellow. Usually, they wear delicate gay-colored flower crowns. But much to my chagrin, neither can be reproduced in photographs. This, of course, is why photography is still inferior to portrait painting – it cannot satisfactorily depict the rosy cheeks and coral lips of a loved one. Miss Mori's eyes, for example, sparkle in the most beautiful tint, but it comes out as plain black in all of my photographic drawings.*)
I cannot give an exact account of what it was that the Elves were saying due to my earmuffs securely covering my ears – but Miss Mori bravely refused to wear hers so she could communicate with the little creatures. They twiddled and tugged on her jacket until she took it off for them to examine. I was busy adjusting the proper camera angle and carefully unwrapping the photographic plates, which took me some time, so she kept shedding more and more pieces of clothing to distract her objects of desire – until, at last, I was ready. At which point Miss Mori’s appearance was not wholly unlike that of an Elf.
Illustration: With such help from her hands, I finally succeeded in capturing the most endearing scenery.
I strongly recommend bringing a warm shawl or a blanket or the like to such explorations to prevent chills and colds. Poor Miss Mori shivered all the while afterwards, and I had to warm her hands in mine. As with the earmuffs, a lady should always consider protection!
The Elves’ dances appear to have four types, as we found:
Type 1, the Walk-Around
An Elf performs the basic dancing steps, humming to herself, then beckoning others to join in. Gradually, the walk-around becomes faster and wilder and grows into a twirl-around. Full of joy and happiness. Note that, at the end, most Elves do not keep their feet on the ground.
(*Footnote: You should strive to capture an early moment; otherwise, the photographs will come out blurry.)
Type 2, the Line-Dance
From the beginning, Elves form a line. With measured stride, they pace up and down, always following the same pattern, looking pensive and intoning a disharmonious melody (as Miss Mori assured me – I cannot give a reliable account myself due to my earmuffs and a lack of the musical talent that Miss Mori possesses).
Overall, the line-dances appear rather dull and uninspiring, though they are relatively easy to depict in photographs.
Type 3, the Sway of Longing
Similar to the line-dance, this type is doleful but carries much heavier emotions. Performing in solitude, an Elf sings with an unpleasant, plangent voice that evocates the crying of lovesick cats (and I had to endure it myself, since we stumbled upon one such creature by chance when I did not have my earmuffs on). Then the Elf wistfully sways to and fro, as if yearning for someone to hold. It grabs its garments, dances with itself, ever swaying longingly and oblivious to the outside world, like a sleepwalker lost in a dream. And while its movements may be repetitive and often the same, there is an odd beauty to this, reminding the keen observer of flowers withering or grass swaying in the wind.
The unpredictability of the appearance of such longing Elves, together with their restlessness causing them to always move around, without a pattern, and never staying in place long enough to get the camera angle right, makes it difficult to record this type of dance in photographs. But again, it was Miss Mori who found a way to depict the distinctive features of this dance. For science's sake, she arranged herself in the style of an Elf (see Footnote under Suitable Equipment) and reenacted the scene for me to preserve on my photographic plates. And since there were no flowers to be found, I quickly wound her a crown of brackens as a makeshift substitute. I must admit, the photographic drawings came out quite lovely.
Type 4, the Couple’s Dance
This final type of dance we encountered only once. It began as a Sway of Longing (Type 3), but unexpectedly, the yearning was answered by a mate. The little companions locked eyes and circled each other, dancing round and round, coming closer before again drifting apart. Sometimes, it seemed as if they had all but forgotten about the other, but as if connected and guided by invisible spider silk, they were gradually pulled closer and closer. And at long last, they clasped each other’s hands and danced and swirled around as one.
A lovely picture that we could only capture in our hearts, since all the photographic plates we had brought were exposed already. Miss Mori described the scene as similar to “blossoms blooming in spring or finding an unexpected letter from someone you adore.” This type of dance seemed to be marked by a certain freedom of expression, inspired by the spur of the moment. A very creative performance, and most likely, no two couple’s dances will ever be the same.
After a while, the two Elves had come so close that their chests and cheeks touched. This must have made them lose their balance, because they stumbled and fell to the ground, rolling about in the moss, limbs entangled still. At first, I thought they might have been hurt, given their loud wailing and moaning, but Miss Mori held me back, whispering, “Wait! They seem to enjoy it.” As always, she was right. The little companions giggled and made funny noises until they eventually sighed and lay still, as if exhausted from their not-quite-a-dance-anymore.
Having seen just one example, we cannot know for sure, of course, whether or not this truly is the finale of the Couple’s Dance. But it certainly is the most interesting type and in dire need of further research.
Advice on Display
Naturally, you will wish to show the fruit of your labor. It is best to display originals, not second prints, because their quality is better and they are truly unique – just like the experiences they represent. It is also wise to put them under glass to protect their delicate beauty and to ensure your pleasure of looking at them for a long time. Various places are suitable to exhibit your work. Miss Mori has hers in her bedroom, where they are a lovely match for her fern cyanotypings. “I think they like the company,” she says. Likewise, you may choose to hang them in your winter garden – anything with a botanical touch will nicely enhance their forestial origins. However, we would advise against placing them over the chimney, between the antlers trophies for everyone to see, as they may suffer harm from too much heat.
Sometimes, Miss Mori and me look at those pictures and then we look at each other and we are seized by the same urge: to go on. To further explore the wild nature, discover beauty unknown.
(Maybe though, we will try and re-enact a Type 4 dance first - for the sake of completeness.)