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There's Gno Gnome Like a Garden Gnome

By John Gould / April 12, 1991



FRIEND Alice asks if I have my garden started. How pleasant to have a friend named Alice who is curiouser about the crops in Wonderland! At this writing, on the first day of 1991's spring, the answer is yes and no. The maples have been reluctant to offer their sweet harbinger, and I have not yet laid my mittens in mothballs. But I do have some petunias sprouted in the southerly window, and my tomato seeds are germinating in their flats. I am projecting happy thoughts with every hope of fruition. The magic Maine date is still up ahead - the 19th of April. On Partiot's Day we bury the green pea seeds in the chilly till as a get-ready for the Fourth of July. April 19th is a holiday only in Maine and Massachusetts, recalling the shot heard 'round the world. In Massachusetts they reenact the ride of What's-his-name and shoot at a few knavish Redcoats in simulation on Lexington Green, but here in Maine we just plant green peas. Peas planted on Patriot's Day should, if the June blizzards aren't too se vere, give Maine the traditional concomitance of the fresh salmon on Independence Day.

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I am hoping to introduce a gnome into my garden this season. This is a desire comparable to that of Elmer Keith, who said one day, ``I've always wanted a donkey.'' In my visits to Germany I saw these garden gnomes, but was not interested to the point of wanting one. It is estimated that some 35 million garden gnomes exist in the world at large with well over half of them in German gardens and on German lawns. They are characterized as a German custom. Ceramic, mostly, they sit in mute stewardship of the cabbage and posies, and in all respects are as essential there as was a donkey to Elmer Keith. They are ``cute'' and amount to a charm or a token whose worth is unknown although the location is noted. My desire to own one at last is perhaps something only Alice would understand.

Well, not long ago some unbeliever in Germany brought suit against a neighbor because the neighbor had a gnome in his garden, and the silly thing kept leering at him to cause great inward discomposure - we might say it ``gave him the willies.'' We can all be grateful that the learned German judge hove the case out das Fenster and told the plaintiff he was muddled, and that gnomes are a precious German tradition worth public respect and admiration. So I felt it would be nice of me to support the estimable judge by finding a gnome for my garden and placing it betwixt the gnasturtiums and the gnemophila.

But now a disturbing bit of information has come my way. A sociologist in Kiel, of the Hanseatic League, has been studying garden gnomes for 18 years, which should be quite enough, and his scholarly report tarnishes the reputation of the leprechaunish statues. Hans-Werner Prahl is the name of this icon-buster, and he says the German gnomes go far back into Turkey, to the days of Cappadocian supremacy in Asia Minor, and they have no validity as guardians of gardens.

Since that area is mountainous and not adapted to gardening, this is plausible. Dr. Prahl surmises the gnomes began as good-luck pieces with African origin, and were based on pygmy slaves who were brought to Cappadocia to work in the mines. Sometimes I take a day off and wonder what the world would do if we didn't have learned researchists to study such matters and render such useful reports.

The first gnomes were carved from stone. Since these pygmies from Africa were credited with ``magic powers,'' popularity ensued, and eventually they were mass-produced. But they didn't get into Germany for a long time. In the 14th century they remained Cappadocian, or Turkish, and were introduced into Italy in 1420 by merchants. Since America was then undiscovered and the gimmick business undeveloped, trade moved otherwise and came into Austria and Germany. Dr. Prahl says the first garden gnomes appeare d in the meticulously configurated posie beds of the German gnobility in 1420. This is a good thing to know.

The gnomes did move to America with the immigrants, and today the things are fairly common in the States. Wherever folks of German background have their Plant'n-und-Blom'n you'll likely see a garden gnome in charge, sitting with dew upon his brow and meditating in a fortunate manner. Next time I'm their way, I must ask Hanni and Geerd if they know their German garden gnome is really a Gturk.