Early one fall, several years ago, my wife Robin & I were planning our Christmas gift shopping list. We asked my mom, who lives with us, and has everything;
“Mom-What do you want for Christmas?”
“A really neat Garden Gnome.”
Which made perfect sense. Ever since my boyhood days growing up in Northville, Lake Placid, and Saranac Lake, Mom has always been a great gardener. Wherever we lived, she always had the best flower beds and gardens in town. Onions, carrots, tomatoes, peas, beans, some Godawful abomination called “parsnips”, broccoli and brussels sprouts.
Brussels sprouts are extremely Adirondack frost & snow hardy. I remember going out to mom’s garden, even after the first snow, to harvest them for dinner. I don’t think my little brother liked brussels sprouts much, but unlike parsnips, which I despised and would often wait until Mom and Dad left the table to hide in my shoe, I loved brussels sprouts!
Brussels sprouts were also my “Pine Street Gang” snowball fight secret weapon. Every winter, we built two massive snow forts facing off against each other in our side yard, right over the spot where mom’s vegetable garden stood every summer. We built igloos, tunnels & walls, piled up snowball ammo, then picked teams and had snowball wars. It might be illegal now, but back then, it was great fun!
The snow would get deep. We’d pile it up with our shovels and tunnel it out. Woe be to the one who ended up with a rotting broccoli or brussels sprout plant smack dab in the middle of their snow fort igloo! They sure stank!
Well, at some point I realized that brussels sprouts could be weaponized. I began taking hunks of rotten brussels sprouts plants and hiding them in the center of my stash of snowballs. They proved very lethal, especially on a direct hit, in a snowball war.
Beyond her brussels sprouts growing prowess, as a member of The Village Improvement Society, my mom, with some landscaping help from my dad, built, across the street from our stone Stevenson Lane house (what I later learned is referred to historically as “The Murray House”), what still exists to this day as “Triangle Park”. One of my first paid summer jobs as a kid was mowing it.
My apologies, I digress. This is supposed to be a story about garden gnomes. So, I’ll flash forward. My mom still spends her time nurturing her many beautiful gardens here at our shared home here in Watertown. As a result, “Garden Gnomes for Mom” went right to the top as my wife and I prepared our Christmas shopping list.
Shortly thereafter, Robin & I found ourselves on our annual Christmas shopping trip to Lake Placid. Lo & behold! Right in the display window of a big shop on Main S treet- a set of three awesome looking hand painted wooden garden gnomes, each a foot and a half tall. They seemed perfect! We went inside the store and inquired.
“How much for the Garden Gnomes in the window?”
The saleswoman’s response:
“I’m sorry, Those Gnomes are not for sale today. Come back on Monday or next week. They might be for sale then.”
Just our luck! We apparently walked into a store in downtown Lake Placid and tried to buy the only 3 items not for sale! Leave it to garden gnomes! I thought I heard them snickering amongst themselves as we exited the store.
Undeterred, we redoubled our efforts. We searched high and low, hither and yon. We finally found ourselves at Owl’s Head Rustics, just outside of Keene. What an awesome place! They had elegantly rustic wood everything! I could have gone broke there in about ten minutes. Good thing Mrs. Claus was along with Outlaw Santa to supervise.
They had all sorts of beautiful wood furnishings and finishings, accented with imagery of bears, moose, deer, and pine cones. In the end, we left with a nice pine cone decor area rug, and (unbeknownst to me at the time) my wife, Mrs. Claus, later snuck back down there with my elf daughter and I ended up with a hickory rocking chair for my den under the Christmas tree.
But alas! They too had no garden gnomes.
Well, as luck would have it, we found ourselves back in Lake Placid about a month later. I returned to the same downtown main street store. The three gnomes were gone from the window. I walked up to the counter. A different saleswoman was there.
“I was here to ask about the wooden garden gnomes you had in the window. I tried to buy them about a month ago, but was told they weren’t for sale. Are they still available?”
The woman behind the counter winced in response….
”OOOHHH! I’m so sorry! No one ever should have told you that! Unfortunately, we sold them just last week.”
That’s garden gnomes for you! They’re sneaky!
Shortly thereafter, I was driving through Watertown with Mom. We were on our way home when we spotted some very nice chainsaw carvings for sale by the road. We stopped and bought one- a Bald Eagle, perched majestically on a rock. The piece was extremely well done.
We met the carver, hard at work carving other projects in his shop. I could tell right away from his saws, his setup, and the quality of his work- two things for sure- This guy knew his way around a saw- and this guy had talent!
I’m no slouch with a saw myself. I cut firewood & when the need arises, sometimes fell trees. This guy though- he was far more than “no slouch”. He was clearly an artist!
I took the eagle, and my mom, home. We put the eagle in her garden. I got to thinking;
“I wonder if this guy would chainsaw carve us a gnome?”
I got online, found some garden gnome pictures. Robin & I went back to his workshop. We showed him our pictures and asked;
“Any interest in carving a gnome?”
He looked at our photos, nodded, and accepted on the spot. We commissioned a set of three, for Mom, for Christmas.
As it turns out, only one gnome made it for Christmas. We named him “Saranac”. His pair of garden gnome brothers were still in the slammer. Apparently still doin’ a stretch for an Adirondack Outlaw job they pulled awhile back way up north.
When my son RJ helped me unload “Saranac” from my truck & hide him for Christmas, he asked;
“Dad, how did you FIND these garden gnomes?”
I replied, “Garden Gnomes are a sneaky, mischievous, magical lot. Sometimes YOU don’t find THEM. They know where you are. When they’re ready-THEY will find YOU.”
“Saranac” found us, that year for Christmas. We were supposed to get the whole set of three. But his brothers were still trapped somewhere inside a pile of logs outside the chain carver’s shop in their pine log prison cells. Their garden gnome parole had been summarily denied.
The second gnome finally made his garden gnome jail break the following May, just in time for Mother’s Day. It was a close call. Someone called the cops. They were hot on our tail. In the end, we talked our way out of it and got him home. We named him “Placid.”
Now “Saranac” and “Placid” were reunited, and free. We worked in tandem to plot the third gnome brother’s jail break.
I checked in several times over the course of the summer. At some point early the following fall, I spotted a block of wood with what looked vaguely like a garden gnome outline in a pile of unfinished projects outside the chainsaw carver’s shop. It became clear, however, that this garden gnome’s pine log prison parole was nowhere near imminent. In a bold last-ditch effort to secure his release, I offered to take him as he was, and finish carving him myself. His chainsaw carver prison guard immediately took me up on my offer. I selected a massive rough cut poplar log slab from the carver’s discard pile to use for his base.
So, there I was. I had never in my life chainsaw carved anything, let alone a garden gnome. I had a rough partially chainsaw sketched out garden gnome, a massive rough cut poplar log base, his two garden gnome brothers as models, and my trusty chainsaw. I stashed the unfinished gnome and his base out by my wood pile, where my mom would not see them. My goal was to have the third gnome finished in time to surprise my mom for Christmas. I think by then she had given up any hopes of ever actually seeing the third gnome grace her gardens.
I worked in my garage, with the garage door closed, but it’s pretty hard to be stealthy when one is working with a chainsaw. Folks wondered what I was up to. I let my wife and kids in on the caper, but I gave an alibi to my mom. Now, I won’t swear to it on any stack of bibles, but it is possible that was not the first time in my life that I had ever done that.
I tackled the poplar log base first. That seemed to be the easiest place to start, the most straight forward. I quickly learned that chainsaw carving is a much more difficult endeavor than cutting logs into firewood. It took me nearly two days to finish up that poplar log base just right. Everything inside my garage got completely sawdust covered in the process.
Just as I put the final finishing touches on the base, my chainsaw started belching smoke, I heard a loud “cachink”. My saw cut out. My heart sank. I knew that noise. My saw had overheated and seized. This garden gnome jail break attempt had just cost me my best chainsaw.
After nursing my wound for a day or two, I regrouped. I still had time before Christmas. I didn’t own another carve worthy chainsaw, and this close to Chrismas was not the best time to go buy myself another one. I’d just have to find another way to get the job done.
I went down into my workshop. My first thought was a router. I pulled mine out of the case, tested it out and practiced awhile with some different bits. I decided that was not quite the right answer. I wanted something that would give me finer detail. Then I hit on it. I would finish that third garden gnome with my Dremel!
So that’s what I did. I worked top to bottom. First his hat, then his eyebrows and eyes, then his nose ears and mouth. He introduced himself as his image and frame slowly revealed themselves. He guided my hand as I worked. We got to know each other. I realized that what the carver likely originally intended as hair was actually his backpack. I carved his hands, legs and boots.
Finally, his form was complete. I then carefully stained and spray painted him, gave him several coats of polyurethane, and a shillelagh.
Once complete, he formally introduced himself:
(My Saranac Lake High School nickname)
Now our Adirondack Outlaw band is complete.
Dutifully guarding my mom’s gardens while we plot our next caper.
Author’s Endnote: As to the original question: “What’s In a Gnome?”
I’m not entirely sure of the answer, but I suspect it includes a goodly dose of mischievous magic.
So, FAIR WARNING!
When Dealing with Garden Gnomes,
Proceed with Caution!