Kabouter @MagiesSentrumAmsterdam


Bronze statue honoring 1970s  Amsterdam’s eco-anarchist Kabouter movement

Magies Sentrum

KABOUTER is the Dutch word for gnome or leprechaun. In folklore, the Dutch Kabouters are akin to the Irish Leprechaun, Scandinavian Tomte or Nisse, the English Hob, the Scottish Brownie and the German Klabauter or kobold.” Wikipedia

The Kabouter movement was no longer active when I arrived in the world in Leiden in 1979, but I still believe in gnomes. When I moved to Amsterdam in early 2000, drawn like a magnet to its magic center, I hadn’t known that gnomes were still living in the city.

My first encounter with a gnome I can remember took place when I was 33, long after adolescent disenchantment with childhood’s magical thinking had set in. One day, while camping in Alberta in the Canadian wilderness, I ate a handful of magic mushrooms and was busy exploring the surrounding countryside.

Close to the river that flowed past my campsite, a clod of earth had broken off from the surrounding turf, revealing underneath a wonderful world of mycelium threads: an intricate tangle of shrub and grassy roots.

Suddenly it was there; a bearded figure short in stature, with lively twinkling eyes.

My first reaction was pure surprise… Kabouters actually exist! But over time I’ve been especially touched by their engaging helpfulness. In this first encounter, the gnome helped chop wood and light a small campfire to cook on and keep warm.

They like to help with humble practical tasks – they are earth spirits. But the first spark of connection was certainly lit there on a river bank in Canada. I’ve had several more encounters since- the stocky subterranean figure appearing in different guises, depending on the location and vegetation, but always recognizably a gnome. Once, years later, back in the Netherlands, one addressed me with a strangely resonant voice, as if from the bottom of a well, from inside my wardrobe.

applying probiotic moss mix

I first became familiar with the Amsterdam Kabouters when I was invited to participate in the demonstration for the 50th anniversary of the Kabouter Movement on September 15, 2019, which took place on the Spui. The ideals of the Kabouters appealed to me because they correspond closely to the ideals of the Lebensreform (Life Reform) Movement that began in Germany and Switzerland in the late 19th century.  I’ve studied the original Life Reformers for years and they are close to my heart. The Lebensreformers, unlike typical revolutionary movements committed to the sudden overthrow of social and political institutions, set out to radically change the social organism over time, from within, like a virus or tumor. Throughout the early 20thcentury, this emergent counterculture consisting of artists, farmers, and pioneering free thinkers in areas such as education, agriculture and health science, created cells within the existing social formation in order to transform it bottom up from the inside out.

The impact of Lebensreform is most obvious in the Netherlands today in health food shops, yoga studios, muesli, nudism and sandals with socks etc., but the movement’s legacy runs much deeper in the international growth of environmentalism and climate change activism, ecological thinking and innovative and creative resistance to the ideology of perpetual growth.

As with the Kabouters, the Life Reformers’ principled repudiation of modernity and industrialism was matched by an equally passionate desire to get back to Nature; to recover an idealized Edenic existence. Like the latter-day student communards of Paris 68, the Kabouter counterculture sprang out of what lay buried beneath the city streets:

underneath the Spui’s cobblestones, the beach

The Kabouters grew out of the damp grey, sea shell-encrusted Amsterdam clay. The movement took shape under the sign of the Gnot[1] – an image of an apple with a dot and stem – later planted in the city center in the shadow of the Lieverdje– the famous statue of a street urchin celebrating adolescent mischief.

The Spui remains an active magic center for playful resistance to business-as-usual. It’s a nursery for tending old commitments, channeling new ideas and energies. Along with Rudolph Steiner, Pyotr Kropotkin (1842-1921), the bearded anarchist activist-thinker who supported small scale agriculture and argued for cooperation over competition as the dominant vector within human evolution is the link back to the past – he is the proto-Kabouter.[2]

Many years have passed since the Gnomes first showed themselves in Amsterdam. Their prophetic warnings have stood the test of time. What Frank Zappa and the Kabouters in the 70s called “plastic people” – humans cut off from Nature, molded from the outside by cheap goods and advertising are now stuffed full of microplastics that are carried on the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Today’s global agribusiness and fossil fuel industries are locked into a vicious cycle of overproduction, resource depletion and environmental devastation. Rather than simply denouncing disaster capitalism, the Kabouters helped pioneer direct action alternatives: getting involved in Amsterdam’s municipal government, squatting empty buildings to counter homelessness and rising rents, creating alternative distribution networks for pesticide-free produce, setting up Knetter shops providing cheap second-hand clothing, organic fruit and vegetables.

One day in the fall of 2020, in the middle of the first COVID-19 lockdown- Year One of Nature’s global blow-back- a friend connected to the first generation Kabouters phoned to ask if I’d be willing to make a work to commemorate the 50th anniversary. The next morning, I woke up in a kind of green haze thinking of that first encounter on a river bank in Canada, and in two hours I pulled the gnome out of a greasy lump of Amstel river clay. First, a kind of inverted embryo emerged under my hands in the shape of the pointed cap, and not long after, ten bare toes got a foothold. Then, as the hours passed and the clay settled, the gnome shrank a few centimeters. Once dry, I decided to cast the gnome in bronze using the lost wax method.

The Kabouter is for me the child before time – a short but powerful protector of what lies beneath the concrete, bricks and asphalt and the flat grid of fields we’ve taken from the sea. It’s a token of both the past and the future- a reminder of everything we’ve already lost, and, more importantly, everything we’re still responsible for.

That is what the Gnome means to me.


[1] The Gnot is a multi-valent symbol invented by Robert Jasper Grootveld and Bart Huges that took on all kinds of forms on paper, including an embryo, skull and a flower and eventually crystallized in the sign of an apple. Sometimes the Gnot was placed in a triangle, which presumably referred to Amsterdam as magical center point in a canal and river delta landscape.
[2] However, bearded or not, there are Kabouters of all genders.


photography by: Michael van Oostende and Lila Cavaleiro