With the latter variety, I have had some limited experience. While in England, a neighbor -- a soft-cheeked, white-haired woman with a love for crosswords and gardening -- would invite me over for afternoon tea and port, both of which she put away in grand quantities. During sunny days, conversation would invariably turn to the six garden gnomes who peered out from under various low bushes on her back patio. The fact that I could see them at all was evidence of my good nature, she said, as they would be invisible to anyone of questionable temperament. (This didn't explain how a gnome situated in the front garden was stolen years before by some "indecent rapscallion." But never mind.) My neighbor was a delightful conversationalist, university-educated, well-traveled, and happily married. Far from hampering her appreciation of the little people, these qualities made her an ideal gnome keeper. Over a few months, she imparted numerous facts to me: Gnomes are nocturnal. The gnome male is seven times stronger than the human male and possesses a brain capacity that is significantly larger. They can hold their urine for a full day and live well past 400 years of age. Heart attacks and baldness are unheard of in gnomes. Babies are born as twins and very rarely seen, as the females are exceedingly shy. Gnomes love to dance and will fashion the flimsiest excuses for celebration. (After the weekend, her gnomes often would be arranged in party groupings with their big pink grins, unabashedly flaking in the weak English sun.)
When I returned to the States and heard about Le Front de Liberation de Nains de Jardin (the Liberation Front for Garden Gnomes) -- a French activist group that abducts the wee garden ornaments, repaints them in unrecognizable hues, and sets them "free" in nearby forests -- I knew my former neighbor would be in a torment.
"Garden Gnomes do not prefer woods," I could hear her tsking over a steaming cup of Earl Grey. "Otherwise, they would be Woodland Gnomes, wouldn't they, dear?"
More recently, I heard about a German group that has taken the "emancipation" to a more ominous extreme, photographing abducted gnomes at international landmarks and sending the pictures to the gnomes' former owners. One such photograph was taken at Mount Rushmore with the captors wearing bandits' masks that barely hid their mirth. Copycat crimes have appeared in other regions of the gnome-loving world: Holland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Finland, Russia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and, here, in the United States.
To the gnome novice, gnome-napping might seem like a victimless crime, even a source of ceaseless, unending hilarity, but to the gnome keeper, this practice is horrifying. In Switzerland, Professor Fritz Friedmann, founder of the International Association for Protection of Garden Gnomes, is in the process of trying to pass legislation that would make gnome theft a criminal offense.
Liz Spera, president of the International Gnome Club based in Carmichael, Calif., agrees that the crimes are upsetting.
"You want to share your gnomes," says Spera, "but you really don't know if you want to put gnomes out in your front yard. People get attached to their gnomes. It's kind of a cruel joke. There's a mean side to it."
Without a gnome in the front yard, it's not easy to spot a gnome keeper, but Spera led me to Jean Fenstermaker of Santa Rosa.
From the outside, you couldn't tell. The Fenstermakers' residence is much like the others around it, a low, single-level home painted goldenrod yellow. The well-kept rock garden surrounded by a bare-wood fence is no real indication, even if you were to notice the squirrel statues on the front steps that wish you welcome. But, in back of the house, a fantastic world, known as Gnomeman's Land, exists, surrounded by an emerald lawn, meticulously kept up by husband Jim. The central garden is overseen by "matriarch" Snow White and her seven dwarves. (The mingling of species was frowned on by Professor Friedmann during a recent visit to the Fenstermakers', but the gnomes don't seem to mind.) In the central plot, gnomes are seen cavorting amid tiny hills and peering from behind micro rose bushes. Red-capped fishermen fling poles over the sides of little wooden bridges crafted by Jean's father. During the wet season, gnomes ride through the miniature stream called Bambi Creek in little boats, or lounge in small inner tubes, but even during the dry season, the creek offers no shortage of fish and sea monsters. Tiny bright roses called "Hi-Ho," "Baby Garnet," "Black Jade," and "Sequoia Ruby" line the road leading to a small gold mine, where the dwarves are busy at work. In the farmland area, amid peach-colored miniroses called "Barbara Mandrell" and tiny mailboxes for the Hamm family, pigs play with frogs in overalls, and gnomes carry chickens and eggs in little baskets. Tiny cows with motion detectors moo when the shadows from the trees overhead shift in the wind. Down Bunny Boulevard, gnomes are busy cracking walnuts for the squirrels while the country gnomes play their fiddles and accordions. A biker gnome sits outside a wooden gate, guarded by three pigs, begging entrance with a twinkle in his jolly, blue eye. A gnome with a wheelbarrow and a clothespin on his nose stops at the skunk crossing, while another fellow in a blue apron and red peaked cap mows a small patch of lawn. Pink hogs rummage through succulents called "Pork and Beans" near the beekeeper gnome's domain, where caterpillars in baseball caps loaf. There are tiny outhouses for gnomes and gnomettes, tiny benches, butterfly houses, and toadstool chairs. Gnomes ride giant snails and not-so-giant pigs. There is a miniature windmill, complete with alpine yodeler gnomes and little mountain goats. There is a little barbecue and picnic table with gnomes enjoying steins of beer surrounded by miniature roses called "Cupcake," "Secret Recipe," "Hot Tamale," and "Peaches and Cream."
Jean moves through the tiny kingdom, carefully pointing out each gnome's vocation, as well as the appropriately named rose that she has planted to complement it. In the background, Jim quietly tends the lawn, watching out of the corner of his eye with an indulgent smile playing across his lips.
"Now, this is a really rare treat," says Jean pointing to a minuscule baby gnome in a carriage. "You hardly ever see a baby gnome, or their mothers. They're very shy." Of 127 gnomes in sight, only three are female, I am told. Quite suddenly, Jean lets out a little yelp, pointing excitedly at a glossy-faced gnome sitting on a hill with a sunflower growing out of his hat.
"What's that? Where did he come from? I've never seen that gnome before, I swear." She turns slowly to look at her husband. "Jim?"
Jim shrugs, without looking up, but I know he's smiling.
"Did you do that?" Jim says nothing. "Was it the Meyers?"
A neighbor waves from over the fence. "Get an unexpected visitor, did ya?"
After a heartfelt thank you, Jean explains that the Meyers have been known to sneak in at night to place foreign gnomes in her garden.
No gnome thefts in these parts, just gifts.
Still, Jean is cautious. Although she loves to share her gnomes through slide shows and visitors (as her photo album can attest), she would hesitate to put any of them out front, in the path of potential harm. Jean's concern for the gnomes' well-being is such that, unlike most gnome keepers, she takes her garden friends inside during off season, and repaints them every three years, a point of contention with Professor Friedmann, who believes gnomes prefer to weather naturally, as they are guardians of nature. Jean's gnomes seem happy enough. (A group of Woodland Gnomes appears at the edge of the trees, riding deer, taking baths, playing card games with monkeys, and riding teeter-totters with frogs.)
Even if one of her unmarried girl gnomes is still in braids and wearing a -- gasp! -- red cap.
As we settle down to iced tea and cookies under the gnome sock, which is flown only when important people come to visit, Jean smiles. "I have heard people say there is a sinister side to gnomes, and I think it's unfortunate people would say so. I don't like to think about that," she says. "They bring nothing but good luck to my garden, and it always makes me smile to look at their happy faces."
In front of all those twinkling eyes, wise gray beards, and jolly round bellies, I hardly have the heart to point out the decidedly Siberian cast of her latest garden boarder. Hopefully, the better-tempered gnomes are on the case.