Terrariums Have a Hopeful Message For Life on Earth

I like small things.

I am an honorary member of the family corvidae. I hoard shiny stones, interesting sticks and dried plants. I am a part-time goblin. I keep small bones, stones and dead insects.

I was in the local newspaper once for making terrain for wargames.

Not a real cabin. Courtesy Woodland Scenics.

I don’t care about model trains at all, but boy do I love their accountrements. Flocking. Mosses. Lichens. Foam hills and clay rocks and and plastic trees along a lazy stream of clear resin. I’ve had an obsession with imitating natural landscapes at miniature scale for a long time.

It was a relaxing and satisfying hobby; if it had been a few years later, I might have even had a Youtube channel. Even though the pieces endured and were great for adding depth to tabletop wargames, there was still something missing. The landscapes were sterile. Dead.

There was something about these toxic landscapes of petroleum and foam and glue painstakingly crafted to reflect natural beauty that ended up mocking it more than uplifting it to me. I gradually began to incorporate more and more natural elements into my scenes. Real sticks and rocks replaced plastic and clay ones. My terrain wasn’t alive, but they began to take on a more organic tone.

We really have to think very, very small about life on earth if we want to preserve it at any scale.

I eventually drifted away from wargaming and terrain building, but would rediscover this enjoyment years later when our family started raising pet tarantulas. The more I learned about their enclosure needs, the more overlap I saw with my old hobby. I saw countless videos of “collectors” who keep their spiders in shoeboxes with a little substrate, and that would simply not do.

Part of caring for these creatures is giving them as natural and nourishing an environment as you can.

Floki (C. cyaneopubescens) and Goblin (T. stirmi)

Now I was working with mostly natural materials. Real stones and gravel, cocofiber and soil, cork wood and scavenged bark and branches. The plants were still fake due to lighting concerns, but this was starting to feel right. I had to think through enclosures carefully, and account for water and feeding.

I had to research species and learn their heat and humidity needs and think of ways to incoporate it into the habitats. I had to study the behavior of the tarantulas and their prey. I had to design an environment conducive to real non-human life – terrain that would be inhabited, interacted with and changed by a living thing with needs and whims.

The smaller my thinking had to go, the more complex and humbling it became.

My landscapes were alive and changing, now. At least in part.

It was through the world of vivariums (terrariums that are designed to be seminatural animal habitats) that I became interested in closed-system terrariums (sealed living systems in which plants and tiny organisms like springtails maintain a viable ongoing lifecycle with little to no human interference). This discovery happened to dovetail with study of soil biology.

And here it all was: bacteria, fungi, plants, animals. You could find all six kingdoms of life in a given terrarium, and they all had to be carefully considered and balanced.

Healthy terrariums are all about considering microbial life. Consumption, decay, gasses, moisture, nutrients, efficiency. Now you’re measuring life in tardigrades, and husbanding springtails that could crawl up Lincoln’s nose on a penny. Centipedes shorter than your pinky nail become apex predators.

All of this generational life transpires in an airtight setting for months or even years on end.

Of course terrariums, vivariums and other incarnations can be open and enjoy constant human maintenance as well, but the biggest lessons came to me from the closed systems. Specifically, that we really have to think very, very small about life on earth if we want to preserve it at any scale.

Life can be balanced, self-sustaining and exist even on a tiny, closed scale if the right things are present and in balance. And it doesn’t take much; most of what’s needed are found in any given clump of healthy soil. Life is absolutely everywhere, most of it invisible. It is simultaneously fragile and incredibly resilient. Life is easy to lose individually but almost impossible to destroy collectively.

Learn to see small things. Learn to love small things. It will absolutely change your perspective about the living world, your place in it, and capacity for big changes at microbial scale.

Life will happen if we let it. The same microorganisms in your sealed jar are out there in the big, wide world with the same needs, and that shift in thinking will save the natural world.