On one hand you may trade or collect the little statues known as garden gnomes as kitsch – trashy but somehow cool objects that are not quite art. Pink flamingos are also both kitsch and cool. Hitler teddy bears are definitely kitsch but very uncool. Maybe your parents have one of those paint-on-plywood figures of an old lady bending over the flower bed. Call ahead before the holidays to make sure these are removed before you arrive with the kids.
But what is a gnome, and why did someone think he should be puffing his little pipe under the shade of a marigold? Did some primitive soul once believe these cranky dwarves could protect a garden from insects and weeds? The pagan mind is now so remote to us that we must now have a hard time believing that they believed what we believe they must have believed. Oh my.
A practical look at the present, however, can clear up the question pretty quickly. Hollis and I recently took a slow and sober tour of our kitchen garden. There were no onions because the onions had already been brought in to the secret shelves in the darkroom. The garlic had been cured and was in a big basket somewhere. Strawberries were in the freezer waiting to become jam. We ate all the asparagus. All of these things were done without the assistance of invisible little people.
True enough, I suppose, but what has happened since these easy springtime victories? Sweet potato slips have been hiding in the upper bed waiting for some distant deliverance. Okra plants – the great barn yard weeds of the South – cower (like cowards) under the mid-day sun, their sparse leaves falling, their tiny pods afraid to grow. The tomatillos make extravagant bushes and paper lanterns with tiny green peas inside.
Then there are the sacred tomatoes. A spectacular procession left the greenhouse in May. They bushed and vined, bloomed and twined, until the world was sure to be deep in fruit. The bees worked through the long days. Hollis watered and worried. But to what effect? A spectacular harvest of stink bugs (would you get this one dear?) and blotchy tomatoes have been the end of all our work.
We have manured and mulched. We have weeded and worried. There must be something, some skill or luck, some ancient wisdom missing from this organic battleground. Perhaps a guardian soldier who knows the ways of this world and the last could guide us next year. He doesn’t have to be tall. He just has to be serious.