Gnomes

Those cute garden ornaments have a not-so-charming past.

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ILLUSTRATIONS BY BLANCHE DERBY

Both were fine gardeners, but my mother and my step-mother could not have been more different. My mother was impetuous, untidy, and passionate. My stepmother enjoyed cleaning and loved weeding. My mother, who claimed she had no beliefs, had a rambling, disordered garden with a magical quality that you felt as soon as you opened the gate.

My stepmother, with her abundant bosom and fluffy sequined sweaters, believed in many things spiritual. She had seen ghosts and angels; she had other world “contacts.” Gnomes and fairies were very much part of her world—and part of her garden, too.

So it was that my father and stepmother’s immaculate garden made room for other beings, which my mother scoffed at (even if there seemed to be more than met the eye in her garden!). In my stepmother’s tidy garden, there was even one unweeded corner where no one might enter, so the fairies would be free to do their own thing. Other spots were more hospitable still. There were little houses where they could dwell and a tiny waterfall where they could refresh themselves.

Gnomes liked to make mischief, sometimes just souring milk, sometimes stealing human children.

The garden was peopled, too, with plaster gnomes. With happy smiles, they fished in the tiny pond, hauled bright little wheelbarrows, sat cross-legged on cheerful red-spotted toadstools (apparently oblivious of any poisonous associations), smoked curly pipes (again unaware of the dangers of tobacco inhalation), and cradled plaster rabbits on their green-breeched knees. Their little red hats bobbed everywhere amongst the magnificent flowers—for my stepmother certainly had a green thumb.

Historically, gnomes were not so appealing. These earth spirits were mischievous denizens of a sinister underworld.

Paracelsus, a German-Swiss alchemist and physician whose full name was Paracelsus Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, is thought to have first described gnomes—creatures that lived in the earth through which, he asserted, they could move like fish through water.

Gnomes, goblins, and the like were part of ancient folklore and were connected with the underworld. These creatures, rarely loving, were hunched and hairy. Often they were thought of as miners working to extract gold and precious metals from deep underground. Indeed, the name “goblin” probably came from “cobalt,” a mineral believed to be deleterious to silver ore with which it occurred. (Paracelsus accepted the classical four elements—earth, air, fire, and water—as the basic structures of life. But unlike many of his contemporaries, he emphasized the chemical importance of medicine and combined the distilled essences of plants with various metals as cures.)

Gnomes and other earth creatures liked to make mischief, some-times merely souring milk, sometimes stealing human children and substituting “changelings.” A changeling child could be the parents’ explanation for a baby born with problems or a different physical appearance, including nanism (dwarfism).

In Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1714), the gnome who enabled the theft of the lock was given a name, Umbriel, and a personality. This gnome specialized in various kinds of mischief, including making pet dogs ill (not a charming attribute for pet lovers!). Pope also divided the spirits of earth, air, fire, and water, each of which had good and bad beings. Malevolent spirits had to be appeased, and householders often put out milk and food for them.

Human dwarfs, now more kindly described as little people, were sometimes adopted by the rich and mighty, and are often depicted in paintings, especially of the 17th century Spanish court. Sometimes statues of them were put into gardens, and as time went on were known as “garden dwarfs,” or Gartenzwergen. They became particularly popular in Germany, and as they spread, they evolved from mischievous beings to become the jolly plaster statues found in my stepmother’s garden. Their transformation was aided considerably by Walt Disney’s 1937 movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in which even the grumpiest was generally well-disposed. (Amongst the names rejected for these seven beings were “Weepy,” “Gaspy,” and “Dirty.”) In time, all garden gnomes or dwarfs became lovable, cheery guardians of our yards.

My mother, like many English lady gardeners, had a certain snobbishness about “tacky” gardens (and indeed about fluffy sequined sweaters, too!). You never would have found gnomes in her garden, or in the famously elite Chelsea flower show. Indeed, generally speaking, when Latin names were bandied about, plaster ornaments were eschewed.

This may be changing, as most fashions inevitably do. Increasingly I see fairy houses, plaster gnomes, and toadstools along with fancy steel gardening tools in some of the more “refined” (is that the right word?) garden catalogs I receive. It might be that (as in my stepmother’s garden) our world has become so neat and orderly that we need a little fantasy and a little magic to temper all that organization. In the past, there were plenty of dark corners and contorted trees to show us nature’s wild side. Now there are miles and miles of manicured lawns, shredded bark, and clipped shrubs. Frogs and slugs are eradicated. There isn’t a rabbit in sight, much less a fairy. Blacktop is made blacker, green grass is made greener. If you want magic, you’d better help it along.

The death of my father and stepmother were not far apart, and both wanted their ashes spread in the garden.

My brother and I started in opposite corners, each clutching a black plastic bag of their remains. As so often in England, it was raining and windy.

We faced each other through the rain and began walking clockwise and widdershins, crisscrossing the garden, dipping into our bags and scattering the contents, as if sowing the seeds of our memories onto the damp earth. Neither of us had adored our stepmother, but she had adored her garden.

Ashes stuck to our shoes and raincoats, and by then we had exchanged bags and forgot whose ashes were which. Where were the parts of our father, now dead? Would he have wanted to be so mingled with my stepmother, or did he, as he sometimes claimed, still love my mother, too? But he, as well, had loved the garden. Streaked with wet ashes, we had no answers. It rained and rained. Some of the ashes landed gently in the fairy corner, dissolving in the sleety rain. The plaster gnomes had been removed by then, but some ashes landed in their little pond, where they sank and were ignored by the goldfish. It seemed to take forever.

We finally were ready to leave and shook out our wet clothes and the empty bags. As we did so, the rest of the ashes swirled like magic spirits leaving, into the dull gray sky.


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