The Gnome and the Drainpipe
Updated: Jan 16
Foreword: In the summer of 2012 I attended a 5-day workshop with cultural ecologist and geo-philosopher David Abram, author of the awarding-winning ‘The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World’ (1997) and ‘Being Animal: An Earthly Cosmology’ (2010). Hailed as “revolutionary” by the Los Angeles Times and as “daring” and “truly original” by Science, his work has helped catalyze the emergence of the burgeoning field of eco-psychology and he has been named by both Utne Reader and Resurgence as one of a hundred visionaries changing contemporary culture. I told the following story to him and the other participants at that workshop, after which he urged me to share my story more widely in the hopes that people will take seriously the idea of conscious intelligence permeating the natural world, and that this intelligence can communicate to those who have ears to listen and eyes to see.
The Gnome and the Drainpipe
My sister’s seventh birthday party was all but done when our gaggle of girls moved from the dining room into the basement of the small, newly-built bungalow, in a sea of the same on the outskirts of Edmonton, Alberta. It was March 21st, 1961. I was three and half years old, making my sister twice my age for a brief moment in time. For the party we wore matching dresses sewn with fabric sent by our grandmother in England, a grandmother I had yet to meet.
Before going down to the smell of fresh cement in the unfinished basement, we’d sung ‘Happy Birthday’ as the cake, with candles lit, was ceremoniously carried in by our mother, the most beautiful mother in the whole world, and placed on the table in front of my sister. The candlelight shone upon her face in the darkened room, the curtains having been drawn to great effect while the bunny-shaped pink blancmange, released from its mould, jiggled when anyone bumped the table. This was a birthday on the first day of Spring when bunnies would surely abound!
Our father, armed with his ever-ready camera and light bulb popping flashgun, took shots of the birthday girl holding her breath with eyes closed making a wish, then eyes wide open blowing out all the candles at once. We clapped and cheered around the table under brightly coloured balloons hanging from the chandelier. My brother, the only boy, squirmed in those itchy wool dress-pants he hated but had to wear for these occasions. Daddy didn’t sing ‘Happy Birthday'. He never sang, he said, claiming he didn’t know how but because I was young, I knew this could not be true.
Before cake we had played games that were new to me, as was pretty much everything, being of such a tender age. I was gently spun around with a scarf covering my eyes for Blind Man’s Bluff, and then again double-dizzy for Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey, placing that tail somewhere between the eyes. And after prizes and cake, my poor brother probably tired of so many girls, disappeared into his bedroom to play, maybe with that train set I coveted but was rarely allowed to touch.
Back in the basement, the rest of us formed a small circle near the washing machine, readying ourselves while my sister decided on a game of Hide-and-Seek. She was very much in command; it was her birthday after all. I was trying to make sense of the rules when she suddenly stopped mid-sentence. With a voice of high alarm, she pointed to a place where the grey cement floor gently sloped towards the drain only a few feet away from where we all stood. “Look!” she cried, “look!” sounding a lot like the ‘Dick and Jane’ books she read aloud when she came home from school. We all turned in the direction she pointed and froze. There we saw a little wizened man not much more than a foot tall standing next to the drain. With a face lined in wrinkles, a large nose and ears to match, he was dressed in dark clothes the muted colours of the Earth. Hardly daring to breathe, we watched as he wagged a finger at us furiously, speaking quickly in a gobble-de-goop language we could not understand. Animated, agitated and angry he was, but upset about what, we had no clue.
We stood transfixed, trying to make sense of his sudden appearance, let alone his decidedly bad humour. Strangely though, I felt little fear and was much taken aback when my sister, who obviously didn’t feel like-wise, cried out, “I’m going to get Daddy!” Immediately and instinctively I knew that our unexpected guest would not like the sound of that and I wished she hadn't turned on her heels to race up the stairs before any of us could think. Sure enough, while we were left to gape without comprehension at the gate-crashing gnome (gnome being the only word to aptly describe what we saw), he remained there but for a few seconds longer. Upon seeing my sister flee, he stopped his barrage, turned on his heels and appeared to disappear, de-materialize, evaporate really, down between the spaces in the grate of the drain. With that he was gone and we were left staring at an empty space wondering what we had just seen.
We tore our eyes away from the drain when my sister bounded back down the stairs a minute or so later with our father in tow. Confused by a distinct lack of evidence, she pointed and tried to convince our father of who or what had been there. We all nodded in agreement and support, trying to explain the inexplicable - that a strange little man had somehow appeared in our midst! Our father listened patiently, kindly attempting to reassure us that something like this was not possible before returning upstairs. Although unsettled and frustrated by our inability to prove that what had just happened had in fact happened, there was nothing left to do but get back to our game. We were children after all, living in the moment.
Later though, when tightly tucked in bed and kissed goodnight by both of my parents, I remember flitting back over the day. There had been balloons rubbed full of static electricity stuck to walls, the loud shock of a noise-maker unwound into my small face by my teasing big brother, bowls of cake and ice-cream but best of all were the little baskets made out of muffin cases with pipe cleaners for handles, full to the brim with jelly beans, now all gone. Suddenly though I was startled by the whisper of a memory that had almost been lost to the fullness of the day. There he was, that little man in the basement beside the drain, yes, but caught only just in the nick of time. I knew enough to know I did not want to forget him but acutely aware that I almost had! I reminded myself to remember in no uncertain terms. It felt important. Confident then that the memory had truly gelled and would not disappear, unlike the one who had fled down the drainpipe, I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
Epilogue: Years went by and I rarely spoke of this to anyone, for who would believe? I asked my sister if she remembered to which she replied that, "although we thought we saw ‘something’, it was probably just childhood imagination." Of the other girls present, we know nothing except for one or two first names and we moved away not long after I started school. When I was in my late forties, however, I decided to share this memory with my parents, bracing myself for raised eyebrows, especially from my father, proudly a man of science. Naturally enough he had no recollection of coming down into the basement on that day so long ago but he did have something to add:
“That’s interesting,” he began, “It reminds me of something. I don’t know anything about little men popping up out of drains but there was a sewage leak from that house, as well as from several others nearby when we first moved to that new development. Apparently something had been hooked up improperly or there had been an actual pipeline break so that effluent was draining into the ravine over by the school. They eventually came and did a repair.”
Aha, I thought, here was a (drainpipe) line of connection so obvious to me. Our angry little visitor had come as an emissary to complain that his home turf was being sullied!
And now in closing, and for those who are having trouble allowing the possibility of an Earth elemental taking form, I give you ironically a favourite line of my decidedly skeptical father, something he liked to quote on occasion in a overly-dramatic tone of voice that made us laugh:
“Take heed, oh ye of little faith!”.