At Home with the Gnomes

My wife is particular about the creatures that occupy her garden. Birds of all types are welcome. The neighbor’s cat is not. Turtles that munch on clover are welcome. Deer that mow down her daylilies are not. This even extends to inanimate objects. Frogs live in our pond and frog figurines surround it. But not all figurines are allowed. We only have frogs in natural poses. You won’t find any frogs playing banjos in our garden.

And then there are the gnomes. There is nothing natural about them, but they have somehow multiplied over the years and lurk in several corners of the garden. There are large ones and small ones, some painted and some au naturel (not naked, just unpainted). We have so many of them, they needed a place to live. That’s why I finally completed that gnome home I have been promising to make.

According to the New World Encyclopedia, a gnome is a type of legendary creature that lives in dark places in the depths of forests and, more recently, in gardens. Modern traditions portray gnomes as small, old men wearing pointed hats. But, historically, the term “gnome” has included a variety of creatures. Goblins, for example, come out of German and British folklore and are usually described as troublemakers as opposed to the more benevolent fairy. Elves are from Norse mythology and leprechauns are diminutive supernatural beings in Irish folklore, usually depicted as small, bearded men wearing a coat and hat.

The earliest appearance of gnome-like statues was the representation of gods in ancient Roman gardens. It is believed that the very first contemporary garden gnome (with its iconic red hat), was made in Germany and brought to England in the 1840s. Gnomes have been a presence in the English garden—and later in North America—ever since.

The “traveling gnome” was introduced in the 1970s and became widely popular during the 1990s when people began stealing gnomes and taking them traveling. Thieves usually sent photographs of the gnomes to the owners, showing them that their minions were safe and sound, and enjoying their newly gained freedom and independence. Over time, the prank became popular on a global scale, with many cases of stolen traveling garden gnomes appearing in photographs in front of famous landmarks worldwide. Today, we even see a gnome front-man with a cute British accent for a well-known travel website.

Most gnomes—whether they be satyrs, pans, dryads, elves, brownies, or goblins—hoard treasure and interact mischievously or even harmfully with humans. But some gnomes, it is said, are helpful to plants and animals. Judging by my wife’s success in her garden, those are the ones that live with us.

Our gnomes are only active after dark and appear to come inside the house on occasion. Some people have ghosts or poltergeists. We have gnomes. Our gnomes rank somewhere between mischievous leprechauns and benevolent fairies. They nurtured us through the pandemic by giving us a sense of peace and calm. They help my wife with her plants in the garden, nudge both of us to go on long walks, and stir up gentle breezes to tickle the wind chimes during my afternoon naps on the porch.

On the other hand, when my wife comes into the room and asks me to call her cell phone so she can locate it, I’m pretty sure the gnomes have hidden it. When we are watching TV on a clear, calm evening and the electricity goes off—just long enough to force a reset of all the clocks and electronics—that is classic gnome behavior. And recently, when we were headed out for our evening walk and discovered that a box turtle had somehow clambered up a small step and plopped into the fishpond—well, there is only one explanation for that.

Early humans created gnome-like creatures to explain the unexplainable. Every culture, it seems, has a version so there must be something to it. As a Christian, I see God’s handiwork in my life, which might include sending the gnomes as his angels. That is why I built the gnome home. It not only looks nice nestled in the garden, but it also makes our little buddies feel welcome and gives them a place to call home. Maybe, now they will spend more time in their own yard and less time hiding phones and dropping turtles into our fishpond.

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