Buffy and Binky investigate the new arrivals at the Fairy Village, which Davidson created about four years ago to send good vibes to a dying friend. (Photo by Tina Griego)
The December issue of the magazine is hot off the presses and when you get a chance to leaf through it, you’ll find a list of 41 secrets of the city. That, in fact, is the cover headline: “Hidden Richmond: 41 Secrets of the City.” This is why we live in cities: Turn a corner, open a door, peer into an alley, and something new is bound to reveal itself. You just have to know where to look.
This is a story behind Secret No. 8.
It must be said that Secret No. 8 is no secret if you live in Church Hill, because the woman behind it “does not do subtle.” Her name is Jean McDaniel. There is some poignancy to this story, but that doesn’t come from Jean, either. She’s a no-nonsense type. You might call her a tough broad. She has her soft spots and her sharp edges. Her longtime friend Betty Hull says, “She is just really authentic. She’s a very unique person … If Jean is your friend, she is your friend forever — and you don’t want her as your enemy.”
Longtime Church Hill resident, Jean McDaniel, 66, taking her two pet geese, Buffy, 25, and Binky, 1, for a little walk. (Photo by Tina Griego)
So, let us get out of the way what is not in the magazine. Yes, McDaniel does happen to have cancer. Yes, it is, “picking up steam.” And this knowledge would give the genesis of Secret No. 8 a poignant twist, if McDaniel were to allow it. Which she does not. “When you get down to it, we are all on the slope to croaking, anyway,” she says.
Begin, then, with her birds. She loves them. Geese, in particular. She has two of them, Buffy and Binky. They are gorgeous creatures of the breed American Buff, the color of snow and raw linen and walnuts. When McDaniel takes them for a walk, they pad down the street with great dignity and a smidgen of pomposity, once prompting a child to exclaim to McDaniel: “They walk like they rich!”
McDaniel is the Bird Lady of Church Hill. And Church Hill, should you not know, is a neighborhood that may as well be its own small town, held together as it is by its unique history and evolving identity, and by the possessiveness and pride of many of its residents. This combination has led to some spectacular neighborhood association disagreements, of which McDaniel occasionally was a part.
But I digress.
As fond as McDaniel is of her geese, it is the finches that play the leading role here. At the time this story begins, McDaniel and her husband, Garnett Ryland, had 18 of them, and the couple used to let them fly freely in their home on East Grace Street. They were a happy lot, McDaniel says, and when she went for walks in the woods, she would collect for them twigs and lichen and pinecones and acorns left behind by Mother Nature. McDaniel would place these offerings upon a table at home and the birds would pick what they liked and take them back to their cages. Eventually, McDaniel would make a few birdhouses of these objects, milk carton-sized abodes with roofs made of pinecones.
McDaniel’s block of East Grace Street was barren when she moved there in 1978. It is now lined with maples, save where it intersects with 28th Street about a half a block west of McDaniel’s house. There, on the northeast corner, stands an elm, the roots of which drew her artist’s eye. The curves and folds and shadows beguiled her.
About this time, roughly five years ago, McDaniel’s friend Mary Ann Buffington was struck by ovarian cancer. The finches in flight, the rootedness of the tree and the sorrow of a too-far-gone illness striking a friend not yet 57 years old moved McDaniel. She took the houses she’d built with the guidance of her finches and placed them among the roots of the elm.
So was born the Fairy Village – Hidden Richmond Secret No. 8.
“I wanted them to look like they were growing out of the tree,” she says. “But they were never meant to be out in the weather, so they just fell apart. I put out the word to have people come by and leave positive thoughts for Mary Ann. Good karma. Good vibes. Let her know she was being thought about. She never saw it because she was in the hospital and she never left the hospital, but she knew it was there.”
McDaniel says she intended to remove the Fairy Garden, but people started leaving tokens and notes beneath rocks, and children adored it. “It took on a life of its own,” as she says in the magazine.
The Fairy Village extends around the base of the elm tree on the corner of E. Grace and 28th streets. McDaniel intended to remove it, but “it took on a life of its own.” (Photo by Tina Griego)
The Fairy Garden or Fairy Village, as she calls it, today is an elaborate, intricate place, spreading outward from the elm. The great house is made of paper mache and would blend into the bark, were it not for the faux-oxidized copper of the witch’s hat turrets. From its front door winds a path lined in silk flowers and on its grounds wander tiny dwarves and fairies and such. On most Saturdays, McDaniel brings out miniature ceramic tables laden with miniature ceramic breads and cakes and produce for the village farmers market. (Last year, my down-the-street colleague, Mark Holmberg, had a nice story on WTVR-CBS 6 about the Fairy Village and another “outlaw plantings" — outlaw because technically they exist upon city property.)
The Fairy Garden has its critics, who invariably describe it as “tacky.” Earlier this year, a vandal or vandals stomped through it, kicking it apart. But it has been restored to vitality and McDaniel maintains it. Someone with excellent fine motor skills not long ago crafted a lovely wire table-and-chair set out of champagne bottle tops and left it for the sprites to enjoy. Someone else left some Mardi Gras beads.
On Dec. 15, it will be four years since Mary Ann Buffington’s death. When McDaniel built for Mary Ann the original Fairy Garden, she knew that she herself had multiple myeloma. It’s a rare form of blood cancer. For many years, McDaniel was asymptomatic. But over the last few years, “it has blown up,” McDaniel says, as she says most things: matter-of-factly.
“I knew it was going to happen. I didn’t know when. As I see it, you have no control over it; you can’t do anything to stop it. You can’t do anything to make it go away. And I’m not afraid of dying. I’ve had a good life. I’ve done pretty much what I wanted to do. I’m where I want to be.”
The greatest concession McDaniel, who is 66, has made to her illness is to restrict her three finches and the lone cockatiel to the upstairs of the house, and Buffy and Binky to the yard. But she says she recently told her doctor that, compromised immune system or not, she is going to allow the geese to return to her bedside and, “if that makes me sick, you’re just going to have to fix me.”
McDaniel is undergoing tests to determine whether she is a bone marrow transplant candidate. If successful, it would buy her some time, she says. Maybe, she says, it is also time to see if one of her neighbors is willing to take over maintenance of the Fairy Village.
I don’t see McDaniel giving it up until she must, because she is stubborn and because the garden is its own kind of medicine. It has become an expression of collective imagination, a whimsy fed by the delight of children, the creativity of its maker and the goodwill of passersby. That is its magic. That is its secret.
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