France-based Mike Alexander, GV’s European correspondent, offers a humorous look at garden gnomes—objects gardeners either love or hate.
This year, for the first time in 100 years, organizers of the world’s most famous garden exhibition, the Chelsea Flower Show in England, allowed garden gnomes to appear at the event (they were once considered “too tacky” for the exhibit). Just a few short years ago this open display of slavery would have been fiercely fought by one of the several liberation movements opposed to the cruel treatment of these little forest dwellers. The French group, Front de Liberation de Nain de Jardins (FLNJ), who has long struggled to prevent this sort of abuse, appears to have been crushed by European authorities’ “anti-terrorist” units.
In 1996, the FLNJ boasted more than 1,700 members and claimed to have been involved in the freeing of 7,800 captive gnomes who were sold into bondage. Their sister organization, MALAG in Italy, had also been highly successful in their campaigns to release the little people from servitude, going one step further by creating a gnome sanctuary in the Lucca province of Tuscany. Both organizations have largely gone quiet and it is suspected that most members have disbanded after European authorities began their crackdown (though the FLNJ still maintains an active French-language Facebook page and MALAG has a dormant Web site).
In 2008 in Brittany, in the north of France, a 53-year-old man was arrested for being in possession of 170 garden gnomes. Although he never confessed to being a member of the FLNJ, thus began a major offensive against the group’s members that has seen them becoming less active ever since.
The keen European interest in allowing the gnome trade to continue is not completely clear, but there are rumors that high-ranking government officials are profiting from both the capture and trade of these innocent little creatures.
For hundreds of years European mystics have believed that gnomes are the most important element of the spirit world, quietly living beneath the Earth in forested areas. And by all accounts, gnomes have shown no aggression toward human beings during our long history of inhabiting the planet together. Even so, in the 19th century, the Germans became the first to capture gnomes and spread stories that they made excellent garden helpers. It did not take long before other nations began to show an interest and in 1847 British aristocrat and landowner Sir Charles Isham brought the first captive gnomes to the UK, where he hoped they could be forced to work on his estate at Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire.
Of course, few involved in this trade in captive labor had taken account that gnomes turn to stone when exposed to the sun. When they proved to be of no use as a free labor source, another idea came up: using them as garden decor. Thus began a horrific trade in what is probably one of the cruelest forms of forced exhibitionism in the Western world today. There are estimated to be 25 million captive gnomes in Germany alone.
So, despite strides being made in places like the U.S., where one gnome has risen to be the very visible spokesperson of a successful travel-planning company, the global future for gnomes now looks bleaker than it has in more than a century.
Gnome Frenzy, an online shop dedicated to “Finding good homes for happy gnomes.”
Barga Gnome City in Tuscany, Italy
The Gnome Reserve and Wildflower Garden, a family-friendly “home” to over 1,000 gnomes and pixies in North Devon, England