Viewing nature closely is a luxury for most of us. We live in a hurry, on pavement, in buildings. We thrill to the rare glimpse of Orion through hazy, overlit skies, or to a lone goose catching up with its flock on the long trip south. These fleeting glimpses punctuate our days—when we’re lucky—but there’s an easy way to improve our luck on a small scale. Find a covered glass container, at least a quart in volume, and bring a little bit of nature home. Put it on your breakfast table, your desk, wherever you’ll see it often. Then pay attention.
The terrarium here is nothing more than a kitchen storage jar from the hardware store. The contents are a shovel full of Rocky Mountain subalpine forest I dug up one afternoon in late summer. A few rocks in the bottom, then earth, moss, lichens, twigs, tiny ferns, and much more that didn’t meet the eye—at least not right away.
One morning in October, I found a wee white mushroom popping out of the soil. Its cap was no bigger than the head of a pin. It spread its cap, wilted, rotted, and sank back into the earth, all in the course of three days. The mycelium it sprang from was invisible, but rich with life; another mushroom sprang up a few days later.
About once a week I opened the jar to mist the contents with water. In November this little chore disturbed a newly hatched brown lacewing that might have arrived as a tiny egg attached to one of the plants or as an inconspicuous, slender silken cocoon in the leaf mold. The warmth of my windowsill teased it with a sense of early spring. As it fluttered its delicate, inept wings, I wondered if it could complete its life cycle. I would have the chance to watch and see. (And it did live, for as long as lacewings do—about four days.)
Soon after Christmas, the jar came alive with springtails, those tiny, ubiquitous acrobats of the soil. They were practically invisible in the litter until I disturbed them—then it was a brief circus of activity. I needed a magnifying glass to see the powerful little spring mechanism under their tails that allows such startling mobility. The springtails appeared about the time a dandelion germinated prematurely. Never mind that it was snowing outside, the dandelion flourished in the greedy, aggressive way that dandelions have, crowding out the elfin chickweed as it tried to flower.
By early spring, my earth jar had lost its visual charm, although it still provided a heady, earthy perfume every time I opened the lid. It was all leggy, weedy grass and that pushy dandelion. But the sowbug made up for it all with its bumbling persistence. It must have hatched and thrived under a stone, because I didn’t see it until it was well developed. I’ll bet the springtails provided it a rich diet (or more likely, the rotting twigs). And so it went.
I once knew of a man who kept hundreds of earth jars; his small home was lined with shelves of them, all in rows like a good housewife’s canning bounty. He collected bits of the land from mountain, prairie, desert, seashore, monitoring them through the seasons for life and growth and death. Keeping nature bottled up indoors like this isn’t natural, of course. But it’s an endlessly entertaining reminder of what we might see if we lived closer to the earth.