By Jessica Ravitz
SARATOGA SPRINGS, Utah (CNN) — She appreciated magic from an early age. As a small child living in Colorado, she used to sneak across the street to sit in the center of a clump of trees. She’d look up and imagine what could be, what life would look like if she could live among them.
Her Aunt Marilyn saw and appreciated her fascination with discovery. She gave her gifts of tiny boxes that held hidden gems. They were little surprises like pint-sized glass mushrooms she placed along her windowsill, fueling her young imagination.
Her aunt died before she was 10, but her spirit still inspired the girl. She was in her 30s when she spotted her first hollow tree, an enormous live oak on a plantation in Charleston, South Carolina. She couldn’t help herself and climbed right in. She peered around in wonder and, just as she did decades earlier, dreamt what was possible.
“If this was my tree,” she remembers thinking, “this is what I’d do.”
The road to discovery
Here’s where we must hit pause.
Before you read further, if you haven’t already, please watch the video at the top of the article or just below. Only then will the rest of this piece make sense. And spoiler alert: If you keep reading first, you’ll ruin the surprise of the video later. Don’t be a gnome-hater.
Done watching? Great. Now, let’s move on.
Last time we saw Robyn Frampton was June 2014. She and her sons were loaded in their white minivan, leaving behind a legacy in Overland Park, Kansas.
The whimsy of the Firefly Forest they’d created along a suburban wooded trail captured the imagination of children and adults, drew strangers together in wonderment and comforted a family reeling from grief.
Frampton’s fairy houses and fanciful tree-hollow homes — and the effect they had — were chronicled in “The Gnomist,” the critically acclaimed short film that was acquired by CNN Films and featured last month on “Great Big Story.”
By the end of the film, the evidence of their efforts — with one exception — had been removed. The family behind this dreamlike world, a mother and two sons still finding their way after a divorce, uprooted and drove off into the unknown.
That was about a year and a half ago. We set out to find Frampton and see what happened next.
‘Unlike anything I’ve ever experienced’
Saratoga Springs, Utah, is a quiet bedroom community about 35 miles south of Salt Lake City. On the morning drive there, sunlight cuts through scattered clouds and the Wasatch Range to the east, the rays twirling in an enchanted dance. The snow-capped mountains loom majestic. We step out of the cold and into the warm home and embrace of the woman we’ve come to visit: The Gnomist.
Tears spring to Frampton’s eyes easily. They come when she speaks of the overwhelming reaction to the film, which was released in the hours leading up to the November 13 Paris terrorist attacks.
So far, the film has been viewed online about 2 million times. With the world steeped in hatred, filmmaker Sharon Liese says “The Gnomist” somehow has emerged as a salve, an uplifting ray of light, a reminder of humanity’s goodness.
Frampton can hardly believe the standing ovations she’s gotten at screenings and can’t bear to look up at the masses.
“It all comes at me,” she says, her eyes welling. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”
She recalls the strangers who’ve reached out, including those who’ve cried on her shoulder. She laughs about the band of “ninja moms” she met at the Kansas screening, a group that scoured the trail at night in search of the bandits who were stealing and breaking doors. And she opens up a big box to reveal a homemade fairy house, just sent to her by a young person in Colorado.
The attention and adoration both touches and baffles her. She insists that she was only a facilitator in Overland Park. What she did, she says, was as much for herself and her children — whom she was desperate to shield from the pain of divorce — as it was for anyone else. Everything that transpired was thanks to others, she says, and a gift to her.
“I was there in chains. I felt like there was no hope for me,” says Frampton, who hadn’t yet finished college and couldn’t find work for more than minimum wage. “The flame that burned inside me, it was taking its last dying breath.”
Hundreds of notes fill a scrapbook she lays out on the floor of her sunny front sitting room in Saratoga Springs. Inside are messages that make her laugh and others that choke her up.
Words left for mythical fairies bolstered her, miraculously appearing at just the right times. As she struggled to believe in herself, a child scrawled in red marker, “I belive [sic] in you.” When she felt particularly down, a stranger wrote, “People who take time to bless others are truly special!”
On days when she felt broken or couldn’t catch her breath because she was so scared, she’d spot little girls at a fairy house squealing with glee.
“How can that not make you smile?” she says. “To see someone delighted, delighted me.”
She learned to remember that she wasn’t alone in feeling pain and was reminded that others have it worse.
“I wish I can stay sober for the rest of my life. … 9 days clean from heroin today,” wrote one person. “Please bring mom home safely,” said another. And then, of course, there was the one remembering Allie “Little Owl” Fisher, who died of a rare brain cancer at age 3.
Reproductions of fairy and gnome doors are scattered about Frampton’s bright rental home. People request them as artwork and she offers them as gifts. They line the top of a kitchen credenza and lean against the wall by the front door.
There’s a new one she plans to send to Greg Ruether, the director of parks services who insisted the fairy and gnome homes come down. The poor guy emerged a villain in the film and has endured ugly phone calls and the wrath of audiences. Frampton, however, knows he was working within the confines of his job. She also knows what viewers don’t: He agreed to let her keep building until she left Overland Park — and guarded her secret.
The door she’s made for him is black. A little window opens to reveal a painted gold heart. Written on the window’s door: “To the ogre with a heart of gold.”
There’s also a replica of the only door Frampton left behind in the forest: the turquoise one in honor of “Little Owl,” a full-of-life girl gone far too soon.
“The door is still there,” Kelly Fisher, Allie’s mother, says by phone. “It’s weathered. It’s beautiful. It’s even more beautiful because it’s withstood time so well.”
Fisher is now a close friend of Frampton’s. Fisher says she, her husband Kyle and their daughter Evie still frequent their door along the trail. It’s where they go when they need to feel close to Allie. On the day when Allie should have been starting kindergarten, they went there. Sometimes they still find notes. One recently read, “Praying for you.” Another said, “Hugs.” And on Mother’s Day, a stranger left Fisher a card.
“That door came into my life at my lowest time when I look back on it. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to make it through this grief,” she says. “It continues to bring gifts to our life.”
The experience in Overland Park keeps giving back to Frampton, too.
“It helped me to never forget what I value in myself and what I value in other people,” she says.
She moved to Utah, where she’d lived a few times before, to be near family. Frampton is one of six kids, has two siblings in the state, and her parents — who divorced when Frampton was 20 — live here, too.
But she also came with a mission to finish college. She’s taken on a heavier-than-normal course load at Utah Valley University in nearby Orem. She’s working as quickly as she can to earn her bachelor’s degree in psychology and will enter her last semester in January.
Frampton’s overwhelmingly busy. While grateful to be around people who love and support her emotionally, she still worries about finances and what will come next. There are also days when she still feels lost and out of place. Being a divorced Mormon woman in this community, one that is so family-focused, can sometimes be unnerving.
She’s learned to believe, though, in the journey. She hasn’t traveled the road she imagined for herself, but she trusts that she’s headed to exactly where she’s supposed to be.
The magic that remains
Frampton remembers the first time she spotted a hollow tree and thought to herself, “That tree could use a door.” It was while walking on a trail in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she lived before moving to Kansas.
Hollow trees are hard to come by where she lives now. So, too, are lush wooded neighborhood trails. Utah is a largely defined by desert, after all.
But along a path in Dry Creek Trail Park, in nearby Lehi, the fairies and gnomes may be stirring — this time with the approval of the parks department. A little yellow house sprung up in October atop a stump and nestled against an old tree. Painted inside the two front doors: “Let your light shine.”
The doors open to a tiny room with a tiny bed and a tiny bedspread. On the floor are emptied little jars labeled “pixie dust.”
Frampton isn’t sure future buildings along this path are the way to go. It’s a trial. She can’t and won’t allow herself to have expectations that this will take off as it did in Overland Park. That was a special time, a special place, and what needed to happen there did.
Her sons have moved on. They’re focused on school, friends and their own creative experiences. Parker, 16, still plays guitar and is his high school’s junior class vice president. Tyler, 14, inspired by the filming of “The Gnomist,” has become an amateur filmmaker himself.
What transpired in Kansas hasn’t left Frampton. How could it?
She has teamed up with an illustrator and hopes to self-publish the book she left behind in Overland Park: “Lost and Found in Firefly Forest.”
And she opens up the door to her garage to reveal her latest secret venture — one she can only work on sporadically these days. It is her happy place, where she can lose herself in whimsy.
An enormous, multi-tiered fairy home, fashioned inside a stump she salvaged from a tree graveyard and hollowed out, towers above her 5-foot-8-inch frame. A green shingled roof tops it. Doors formed from an old whiskey barrel are in place, as are some pieces of furniture, an indoor fireplace and bells for the doors.
She learned her way around tools — axes, chainsaws, grinders — when she was married and her husband was on the road for work. “If something needed to be done, I had to do it.” She constructed forts and castles for kids. She built furniture. She finished a basement.
Building, she says, has always made her happy. And when her creations make others happy, there’s nothing better.
She also likes to repurpose old items. Salvaged wire can be twisted to become furniture. Bins on shelves are full of wood and other scraps just waiting to be transformed.
“Where you come from doesn’t have to determine where you’re going,” she says.
Come spring, the big house will be installed in a memorial garden at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City and donated, with her friend Kelly Fisher’s blessing, by Team Little Owl, the foundation for brain cancer research created in Allie’s memory. It will include a mailbox with a special key that will be presented to young patients who will be invited to visit the house to pick up special packages.
Frampton can envision a career in organizational psychology. But if she could wave a wand and create her dream job, she’d build these houses for children’s hospitals across the nation.
Children’s hospitals are personal for Frampton, especially the one in Salt Lake City. Both of her sons, when they were much younger, had health scares that landed them there. Parker, as a 3-month-old baby, had to have surgery to separate a prematurely fused skull. And Tyler, before he was 2, was taken by life-flight to the hospital after aspirating on an almond in trail mix.
Those scares changed how she looked at the world and how she interacted with other people. She thought more about what she could offer, no matter how small.
“The truth is we’re walking around in a world of people looking down and feeling alone,” she says. “Part of the human condition is finding connections, whether brief and for a moment or eternal.”
And on the trails we each travel, the Gnomist says, we carry our own gifts we can share.