I’M A SUCKER FOR ENCHANTMENT, especially when it arises from unlikely places. By a year and a half into the pandemic in the fall of 2021, I had become increasingly frustrated by the incursion of scientific measurement into daily life, from never-ending COVID testing to forehead thermometer readings. As valuable as such tools can be, I longed for my daily life to be filled with more of the unquantifiable mystery that fills our world, even if we only notice it in exceptional moments. Following the alchemical experience of losing my father early in the pandemic, I was inspired to learn more about my ancestors. Seated at my home computer, I began a genealogical investigation that eventually took me to three continents. I relished my meandering online journey, pausing to appreciate the storied lands of the Celts, the fantastical creatures that populate their folklore, and the enduring belief in them among modern people. I did not expect to encounter these legendary creatures on my city block in Somerville, Massachusetts.
I was walking past the abandoned gas station near my home, expertly dodging the fatal combination of uneven pavement and dog poop, when I saw it.
A tiny dinosaur was winking at me, its skin shining in the morning sun. Ordinarily, a stray plastic toy would not hold my attention, but something about this little guy was different: my prehistoric admirer was not alone. I knelt down to investigate and discovered an unlikely spectacle underfoot: I had stumbled upon a DINO FARM, at least according to the wooden sign where the name was scribbled in black Sharpie. The dinosaur stood with thirteen of its brethren in a tiny corral bounded by a fence made of ice pop sticks atop a green piece of wood. I was mesmerized.
Photo: Olaf Elf
When I stood up and scanned the area, I discovered a profusion of mini structures blanketing the gravel-filled lot. My eyes landed on a curious wooden sign that read ELFLAND EST. 1382. Next, I saw the Elfland Weather Station, the Peabody Museum of Elfology, and Elfland Curling and Spa—complete with a sauna. A tiny post office stood nearby, along with a library, a grocery store, and—wonder of wonders—a hedgehog stablery.
What’s going on here? I thought.
Elfland initially coalesced in the late summer of 2021, when a young boy from the local community reported seeing a sign posted by elves indicating that they were looking for homes. The boy and his parents were moved by the elves’ plea, constructed a couple of tiny houses for the elves, and deposited them amid the rocky ruins of an abandoned gas station. Their friends and neighbors were charmed and contributed more structures. Then random strangers started leaving their own structures and, lo, Elfland was born.
Scottish folklore tells of a realm called Elfland—similar to the Fairyland of Irish lore—but here, local people of all backgrounds joined in the fun, contributing their creative talents. A popular Instagram channel sprung up to document the daily, elf-scale developments unfolding at Elfland, followed by multiple news stories in Boston media outlets. Meanwhile, hand-drawn flyers bearing messages of elfly solidarity began popping up all over the city. One simply said I BELIEVE IN ELVES and featured a drawing of a clog-clad elf smoking a pipe.
Photo: Olaf Elf
This feast of creative frivolity briefly ground to a halt that November, when an ominous sign appeared in front of Elfland. It announced that there would be a public hearing the following month to determine the future of Elfland. A real estate developer had designs on the property. Local children’s book author and illustrator Jef Czekaj responded by installing his own sign next to the notice that implored readers to DEFEND ELFLAND. It was bright yellow and featured a singular drawing of a Santa hat–wearing elf with an unmistakable air of impish disobedience.
DEFEND ELFLAND signage began to proliferate, and a number of Elfland’s supporters turned up to the hearing. There, it was revealed that the developer would soon seize the site but intended to honor Elfland in the design of their new structure.
“Last thing Somerville needs is more unaffordable, cheaply made condo buildings … [w]ith some even crappier chain restaurants and shitty stores. Yuppie greed is real. #saveelfland,” one commenter responded on Instagram.
As the fate of Elfland hung in the balance, the community’s creativity only increased. In January, local artist Lena Warnke began soliciting contributions for an Elfland zine, and a large black-and-white flag donning Czekaj’s DEFEND ELFLAND design was installed at the site.
At first, I watched all of this from the sidelines. Then one day, I spotted the dried-out, miniature Christmas tree I’d set outside of my apartment for pickup at the center of Elfland. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that the tree now concealed another creature of mythic proportions: Sasquatch, rendered here like a cute cousin to Curious George. My Christmas tree and Sasquatch were soon joined by a satellite dish and widescreen television that someone christened the “Elfland Movie Plex.”
“I don’t know why, but we always get the coolest stuff on trash day,” said Olaf Elf, the mysterious, purportedly nonhuman administrator of the Elfland Instagram page.
As foretold at the public hearing, a notice appeared in April announcing that Elfland would be enclosed with a fence and locked for demolition in early May. Neighbors rallied, creating elaborate contingency plans and migratory trajectories for Elfland’s structures, some turning to the Elfland E11 Hotline that had already been in place for months.
Photo: Olaf Elf
The Elfland Defense Force—a squad of tiny plastic warriors and hot pink toy tanks—assembled at the entrance to Elfland, but some community members accepted that the Elfland we knew would soon be gone. Someone fashioned The Octavia E. Butler Memorial for Elflands to Come from a discarded black toaster to convey a more existential sentiment. It displayed these words:
“∆ll that you touch, you change
∆ll that you change, changes you
The only lasting truth is change”
I visited multiple times following the date to bid this magical community farewell. Lacing my fingers between the holes in the wire fence, I could see that the Elfland Defense Force remained intact. While halted at a traffic light one day a month later, I looked over to the old Elfland site and discovered two words scrawled in giant letters within the locked enclosure: ELF POWER.
Photo: Olaf Elf
I was pleased to discover that, following various attempts at resettlement, much of Elfland was successfully relocated to the Somerville Community Path, where it remains today. Bike Path Elfland, as it is often called, is home to a number of structures, including the Elfland Monument for Mythological Creatures and The Elfland Museum of Hopeful Art. At one point, the latter structure included a metallic sign instructing viewers to “take from and/or contribute to the exhibit.” In response, one person wrote: “Here we recover earthly intelligences shining through ruins.”
Finding beauty and possibility on an abandoned gas station site—from which “forever chemicals” are said to leach in perpetuity—requires a miraculous leap of imagination. Yet out of our fragmented ecology has emerged a new local myth—a vision of collective thriving through collaboration with the unseen and the practice of pressing discarded refuse into the service of enchantment.
“Elfland is a community, not a place!!” one Instagram commenter observed. “It will live on no matter where it is as long as we all believe!!”