It’s a small world after all

Posted by on Jan 31, 2013

bicycle terrarium
Those who know me, know that I am quite partial to many a trend of yesteryear. If you were to take a look inside my apartment or rummage through my wardrobe, you could be forgiven for thinking that you had stepped back in time (much like in that BBC series Ashes to Ashes where the main character finds herself as a detective back in 1981 after being shot).

Anyway, where am I heading with this? That’s right: Terrariums! In my opinion, terrariums are probably the best thing to have re-emerged out of the 60s/70s! In fact, the terrarium has been around for much longer than that. It was an accidental discovery in 1827 by Dr. Nathaniel Ward, who developed the idea to stop poisoned fumes from factories destroying his backyard fern rockery.

Left: Better Homes & Gardens House Plants New How-To for the Indoor Gardner 1959 Right:

Left to right: Better Homes & Gardens House Plants New How-To for the Indoor Gardener 1959.

For me, the obsession with these miniature worlds crept up quite by accident. I live on the second level of a small block of flats, with hardly a balcony to speak of. Somehow this – as opposed to the times that I have lived in larger houses with extensive grounds worthy of a veggie patch and front yard lined with roses – has sparked my interest in gardening. It began with creating a terrarium as a gift for a friend and things have continually escalated from there. I now spend a lot of my time constructing miniature ecosystems for myself and others.


But what is the recent fascination with these micro-ecosystems and where has it come from? Perhaps it is an association with childhood play or scientific experiments? I have been known to get carried away with constructing playful scenes with miniature figurines beneath the foliage of my terrariums. Perhaps the appeal of constructing a terrarium is that it allows you to contain life within a constrained boundary and allows you a sense of observing and controlling life from a god-like perspective? I will not deny that the feeling of being able to contain (and then hold) life in your hands, is quite satisfying.

The Sims - Used via Creative Commons permission by spaceninja

Image used via Creative Commons permission by spaceninja

This feeling might be likened to strategic world-controlling online games such as The Sims where a player creates virtual people, constructs houses for them to live in and influences their mood through a range of activities. Though, what usually transpires is a series of fate-tempting acts that we wouldn’t normally attempt (in real life)… just to see what happens when there is no real consequence. With terrariums, there is something less sinister at play.

A terrarium is a self-sufficient ecosystem and it perfectly demonstrates just how temperamental life-maintaining processes are. The balancing act of physical conditions that influence the environment such as light, moisture and temperature, are largely controlled in a terrarium environment. Light gets in, but nothing else. Everything else (food, water and air), is recycled. In fact, the impact of human influence is largely removed from this miniature world… and without humans, nature really lives it up! There are examples of terrariums that thrive 40 or 50 years after they were initially constructed, with little or no human input.

Image used by Creative Commons permission via Earth Hour Global

Image used by Creative Commons permission via Earth Hour Global

As caretaker of a little world, you feel a kind of responsibility for its survival. You want to be able to nurture it, feed it and watch it grow. Upset the balance, and devastation sets in as you helplessly witness its demise.

Terrariums are beautiful microcosms and ultimately a miniature replica of our own world, yet somehow we don’t seem to care half as much for our own planetary biosphere, even though our very lives depend on it. I wonder why that is?