Day 808: Gnomes Akimbo

originally published March 18, 2014

Somehow I have resisted the overwhelming urge to adorn my lawn with kitschy trinkets and cutesy personalization. I prefer to express my individuality with my neighbors via the curious stench of empty liquor bottles and spring-thaw dog poo that meanders with the wind around my block. If someone opted to drop a plastic flamingo, a giant painted ladybug rock or a foot-high windmill replica into my possession as a gift, I would not display it in my yard.

I wouldn’t worry about offending that someone either – obviously if they gave me a gift like that they don’t know me at all.

But I don’t judge. Some people like to scatter tchotchkes around their yard like arbitrary sprinkles on a big green donut. That’s their thing, and as long as they don’t overdo it, I won’t criticize. Hell, it’s probably an effective way of giving people directions (“Turn right at the gas station, left at the tree shaped like two copulating ferrets, and mine is the brick house on the left with the sexy flower goddess out front.”).

But what really gets me is the gnomes.

Garden gnomes. They’re mythical creatures, I get it. But you don’t see a lot of homes with a minotaur or a three-testicled bat-wing unicorn out front (hey, I make up my own myths. So what?). The gnome phenomenon is no more offensive or weird than the pink plastic flamingo displays, except that they have inspired a bizarre wave of deviance among those who feel the lawn statuettes should be “liberated” in order to grant them the freedom that their mythical equivalents would treasure.

Gnomes were introduced to the world by Paracelsus, the Swiss-German alchemist / occultist, in the 16th century. They are little humanoids who dwell within the earth, and they have shown up as plot devices in fantasy and fairy tale literature ever since. Some people have reported seeing actual gnomes running about, leading me to the conclusion that people are astoundingly gullible. I found an article about a “creepy gnome” that was terrorizing a South American town. There’s even a photo:

Despite the inherent discomforting lore around these creatures, people began speckling their yards with ceramic gnomes in Gräfenroda, Germany in the mid-19th century. The fad spread throughout western Europe. Naturally, there’s a mystical snippet of a tale stapled to this – allegedly the gnomes come to life at night and help out with little garden chores, making the possession of one of these creatures a kind of talisman to ensure a quality garden.

It’s a cute story. The kind a gardening grandma would tell her grandchildren as they watch her gently laying her tulip seeds in a row, hoping she’s telling the truth and that these fiendish-looking ceramic beasts won’t instead choose to smother them in their sleep at night. But no one really believes it. Sure, there’s the goofball town in South America that can’t tell the difference between an ornery little person in a pointy hat and a lawn gnome come to life, but apart from them no one really believes gnomes are real, right?

Of course this doesn’t explain the Garden Gnome Liberation Front.

Yes, there’s an idiot fringe group for every cause, and gnomes are no exception. Gnome pranks – specifically the theft of garden gnomes with the expressed purpose of “releasing them back into the wild” have been going on for years. Perhaps you recall the secondary storyline in the film Amélie, in which the titular character steals her father’s gnome and sends it around the world with her stewardess friend, in hopes it will motivate her father to satiate his longings for travel. That film spawned the unfortunate Travelocity ads, in which a British gnome only marginally less obnoxious than the Geico gecko voyages from hotel to hotel, where he’s apparently not treated like the piece of plastic he actually is.

The Garden Gnome Liberation Front predates both of these morsels of popular culture. It began in 1997 in France, where garden gnomes are plentiful and apparently stealing from one’s neighbors is acceptable. Over 150 gnomes were stolen from French yards that year. The group’s leader was apprehended and given a stiff fine and a suspended prison sentence for his crimes. But like any group teetering on the murky side of great salad bowl of insanity, the GGLF would not be deterred.

Oh, how I wish I had a photo of this. The GGLF’s next move occurred in Briey, France in 1998. Residents awoke to find eleven garden gnomes hanging from the town’s bridge. Hanging by little nooses. A note read: “When you read these few words we will no longer be a part of your world, where we serve merely as pretty decorations.”

At what point does a penchant for prankery become a psychosis?

The GGLF went quiet for a couple of years, then showed up in Paris, swiping 20 gnomes from a large display at a garden show. The organization took credit for the heist, asserting that they were returning the gnomes to their natural habitat.

I’m normally supportive of minority causes, but this is ridiculous. The GGLF was still making headlines in 2006, and they continue to fund a website (though it appears inactive since 2011). There’s an English-language equivalent as well, and the whole thing reads like a tired joke. It’s not like there’s an actual place where these things could be sent, is there?

I’m kidding – of course there is.

Welcome to the… sweet jesus… European Gnome Sanctuary in Barga, Italy. Aligning themselves with the GGLF, a group calling themselves Malag (it’s a lengthy Italian acronym – essentially the same thing as the GGLF) has established a sanctuary consisting of the town’s parks and the grounds around the Castle of Barga. Finally, there’s a place these gnomes can go where they can be spared the tortuous routine of weed-eater whips and the wretched indignity of careless wandering puppies marking their territory.

Actually, unless dogs are strictly banned from Barga, the citizenry is probably powerless to prevent the onslaught of canine urine upon their gnome friends. Which raises the question – are the gnomes really better off getting peed on in Barga? Or if the town really does ban dogs aren’t they simply substituting one type of discrimination for another?

And does the fact that I’m now wrapping up a thousand words on the topic insinuate that I’m taking this all a little too seriously? Screw it, I’m going to spend the rest of the day drawing my own home-made mythical creatures. The gnomes are on their own.

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