Never underestimate the power of popsicle sticks.
Rita Tateel has used them and other inexpensive materials to create a kind of happiness tree in her quest to keep cellphone-absorbed passersby from tripping over the buckling sidewalk.
Some people might set out cones or hazard signs, but Tateel decided to work with whimsy by creating a mini "habitat" for fairies and gnomes in the 100-year-old carob tree outside her Fairfax neighborhood home.
After all, it's the tree's massive roots that made the sidewalk look more like a roller coaster track. "I wanted to get people to stop and pay attention," she said.
And pay attention they have, taking photos and leaving piles of fan mail.
"I love your garden," gushed one letter signed by "Random Stranger." "Thank you for infusing a little magic in a world otherwise devoid."
The reaction has been both overwhelming and uplifting, Tateel said. "I saw one woman stop dead in her tracks with this huge grin on her face. Other people stop to thank me. It's so joyous, it makes my heart sing."
When Tateel started the habitat on Memorial Day weekend, her intent was to plant some succulents among the tree's gnarly roots and add a few fairyland touches, such as tiny doors and porches, spiraling walkways and even a waterfall and lake (made from blue aquarium gravel).
She was inspired by the fairy gardens she found online when she was researching succulent plants. "I just kept thinking, This tree has so many nooks and crannies … what can I put there?"
The answer was surprisingly simple and cheap, Tateel said. She visited yard sales and dollar stores to find inexpensive materials to create doors (out of popsicle sticks), fences and tiny, precarious walkways that circled the tree (using trimmed down garden trellises). She even broke apart pine cones to use their scales for shingles on little roofs.
Then she put everything on the tree and steeled herself against the likelihood of theft or vandalism.
To her astonishment, however, "not only has stuff not been taken, we've had a bunch of stuff brought in by strangers," she said.
For instance, at least three young neighborhood children, Thomas, Winnie and Charlotte, have adopted the site and make regular visits, bringing tiny items — sometimes handmade — to add to the display.
One visitor left an umbrella too big for the fairies, so Tateel dangled it from a branch, making it look like a fancy parachute with a fairy hitching a ride. Another visitor left a small mailbox at the tree, which is often stuffed with mail. And another dropped off a bucket of sidewalk chalk to encourage further enhancements to her rippling walkway.
Tateel says she's always enjoyed arts and craft projects, but her "Fairy and Gnome Magical Tree" has given her more happiness than she ever imagined. Her goal now is to share the wealth, by encouraging other people to create their own "magic trees."
"You can do this with any tree. It doesn't take a lot of work or time," she said recently. "I'd love it if, instead of neighbors complaining about traffic or car thefts or new McMansions, they could share this spirit of joy."
As if on cue, a walker named Beth Polito reined in her dog and spoke eagerly to Tateel.
"Are you the one who's doing this?" Polito said. "I just want you to know I love this. It makes me so happy. It brightens up all the crazier things happening in this world."
Tateel laughed, both delighted and embarrassed.
"I never met her before," she said after Polito went on her way, "but this is just what I'm talking about. People ask me, 'Aren't you afraid someone will take it away?' But what's the worst thing that can happen? Someone trashes it and I have to do it again."
Ultimately, Tateel said, "I do this because it makes people smile. And if it makes you smile, why would you want to mess it up? It's really an exercise in trust."
And whimsy, and a whole lot of popsicle sticks.
Here are some tips for starting your own magical tree
-- Succulents provide a fairyland feel and require very little soil to grow, which makes them good for tucking around tree roots. Scrape out soil around the roots, until you are hitting the root itself, then fill in with cactus soil (available in nurseries) and plant your succulents.
-- Go online and search "fairy gardens" for inspiration. You'll find endless ideas about creating bridges, doors and other habitats. The Facebook group "Fairy Garden Believers" is especially helpful, Tateel said.
-- Yard sales and dollar stores are your friends. Tateel spent less than $50 to create her tree. Also, check the garden section of your local hardware store for wood trellises that can be cut to size or little fairyland decorations like ceramic gnomes or mushrooms.
-- Popsicle sticks, both regular and thin, can be glued together and painted to make houses, doors, even window shutters.
-- Rivers, lakes and waterfalls can be created using flat glass marbles, available at dollar stores, or aquarium rocks available at pet stores.
-- Sphagnum moss, available at nurseries or pet stores, is great for creating woodsy roofs.
-- Practice trust, but be practical, Tateel said. Don't put anything in your magic tree that would kill you to lose.