Travel and Terrariums: An unlikely combination

Travel affects how we think about and experience not just the places we visit, but the place to which we return.

Recently, after almost a half year of weekly travel, I’ve become more appreciative of my home. Not just the concept of it and connections to family, but the space itself. A form of nesting has enveloped me, a reaction, I believe, to stabilize or offset the inherent dynamics of waking up in a different city each week.

Part of that nesting instinct has led me to a sudden interest in a very untravel-like object: a terrarium.

Travel and terrariums - fish bowl

I started with the classic fish bowl terrarium – and promptly over-planted it. This is after taking out the plant that didn’t survive.

The wonder of terrariums

Terrariums? Yes. Those miniature greenhouses that now come in all shapes and sizes from a simple jar filled with a single tropical plant to vast Victorian-era Wardian cases containing unusual varieties of foliage.

Travel and terrariums - detail of fishbowl terrarium

Part of the fascination of terrariums lies in seeing all the details of the plants but presented as if in a museum case

When you become pregnant (or are married to someone who is), the world suddenly seems overrun with other pregnant women. Where’d they all come from? Similarly, I didn’t realize that terrariums are fast becoming a thing until I started dabbling with the notion. But now I’m understanding their popularity. Unlike floral arrangements that last maybe a week or potted plants that just sit there, terrariums beautify your abode and inspire your imagination. You get to build your own miniature world of green in a glass container of your choosing. And best of all, you get to experience nature up close, every day, without even stepping outside. All that in essentially a jar filled with dirt and plants.

Travel and terrariums - textures of leaves

Unlike with a single houseplant, you get to see a variety of textures and colors in a terrarium

Taking the first steps

I started my adventure in indoor gardens by grabbing some books at the local library on the subject. I then headed to a nearby big box store to get cheap glass containers and plants. I figured that, at about $3.00 for each plant and some glass containers all less than $5.00 each, the expense wouldn’t devastate my personal economy too badly if this whole idea turned out to be a black thumb failure.

Travel and terrariums - light fixture terrarium

Almost any glass container can be used as a terrarium. We had two old hallway light fixtures that I converted into this novel mini-greenhouse.

If you’re interested in creating a terrarium yourself, there are numerous helpful resources out there. I’ve found this book helpful for inspiration and this one useful for the step-by-step how-to of creating your first terrarium. If you’re not the book-loving type (gasp! say it ain’t so!) you can check out this site for the process of creating a terrarium and this one for a visual guide to plants that thrive in the moist enclosed environment of a terrarium.

Travel and terrariums - glass planter

Not a true terrarium, I just like how it looks.

Build your own world

The photos here show some of my experiments with terrariums. As you’ll see, I stretch the definition of terrarium to include some that are essentially plants in glass pots, meaning that they aren’t really terrariums that enclose the plants and retain the moisture. But so what? I liken these faux terrariums to drinking an ordinary beverage out of a crystal glass: Being able to see the stones and all makes the planter more aesthetically pleasing. At least to me. What do you think? Besides, I don’t think any Terrarium Police will show up to tell me my plants need to be more enclosed. That’s the beauty of terrariums: You’re free to create your own miniature worlds of plants and other objects any way you like.

Travel and terrariums - faux terrarium with stone and glass

This is one of my favorite faux terrariums. I like the stones as much as the plant.

The compelling nature of terrariums

The appeal to me of terrariums was initially aesthetic: I loved the look of carefully arranged plants in a confined space, my own private jungle. But add to it the low-maintenance nature of a self-contained environment that recycles its own moisture, and I was entranced. But I also think that being away from home so much triggered a form of nostalgia that factors in here.

Travel and terrariums - plant inset

It was my wife’s idea to create this planter with an inset so you can take the plant out and give it a good soaking.

Travel and terrarium - inserting the plant

Note how the stones hide the container’s sides and the moss covers the rim. Beautifully practical.

For example, when I was a little kid, my aunt had a bonsai tree in a planter filled with mounds of brilliant green moss, unusual stones and a miniature pond. I could play for hours with small figures and toys in that tranquil miniature landscape. I think of terrariums now in a similar manner: microcosms of forests and jungles that sit on a shelf and evoke both memories and associations.

Travel and terrariums - another faux terrarium

Another faux terrarium

They also make me appreciate plants in a new way, particularly as living, growing objects. With family and friends, growth takes so long you’re only aware of it in hindsight or after a great absence. With my terrariums, a new shoot or bud can appear in days. I treat each appearance as a delightful celebration of beauty and life. Each new leaf is a tiny victory. I look at plants differently now because I realize how much more there is to see.

Travel and terrariums - Cactus

This one doesn’t even get the label of “faux terrarium.” It’s a cactus in a bowl. But the idea of using the stones as ground cover came from making the terrariums.

Will it last?

Finally, as we enter summer and my work travel slows down, I wonder if I’ll still be as enthralled by these indoor gardens as I am now. Are they a passing fad? A one-time reaction to being away from home too much? Maybe.

Travel and terrariums - new growth on cactus

When you see new growth on a plant, it just makes you happy.

But here’s why I suspect I will continue my new-found zeal for terrariums for some time. They are not just miniature landscapes. They are miniature worlds to explore without ever leaving home. There’s an ever-changing variety of color and pattern and of growth and decay (I learned too late that placing a terrarium near a window where it gets direct sun can roast its inhabitants like ants under a mischievous tween’s magnifying glass).

Most of all, they bring me joy when I behold them.

Try a small terrarium for yourself and see if you don’t feel the same.

 

Waiting for the cake

Chocolate CakeThe plane from Savannah to Atlanta, Georgia lands around 1:30 p.m.

“We have about two hours here,” says what I presume is the grandfather, in the seat across the aisle from me.

“I’m ready for lunch” says the 11-or-so-year-old boy kitty corner to me, who turns around and perches his hands and chin on the headrest “Kilroy was here” style to address his grandfather. The elder man seems not to notice. Instead, the grandfather carries on a discussion with what I guess to be his wife regarding the logistics of the stopover and the birthday of a relative in their final destination.

“I’m ready for lunch,” repeats the boy.

More adult conversation.

“I’m ready for lunch.” The now familiar refrain isn’t a demand or an example of tween entitlement. He makes his declaration in calm, measured tones.

Three more times.

The grandfather, in an adroit demonstration of multitasking, keeps his focus on his wife but mentions that they likely have enough time during their stopover in Atlanta to grab some lunch.

The grandson ceases his mantra, turns back to face the front of the plane. A long pause. Then, he turns a quarter of the way back so that he’s facing the aisle where no one is yet standing (we’re still taxiing across the runway in what feels as if we’re spending more time driving in this plane than flying in it). In the same level tone of voice but with a dreaminess that was lacking in his lunch remarks, he says to no one in particular, “I can’t wait to eat chocolate cake.”

*******

Personally, I can get pretty jaded flying almost every week for work. I find myself making comments — hopefully only in my head — about “amateur hour” at the airport, especially this time of year when Spring Break is underway. And it is always underway somewhere it seems, from the end of February (how is that “spring” anywhere?) to early May. People who clearly have either never been on a plane or at least not for some time shuffle around the airport dazed and distracted, like someone texting as they walk. Only these travelers walk eyes up, glancing around in a whiplash manner as they try to find their gate, wandering child or missing composure. They make for tricky obstacles to navigate around at the airport and challenges to on-time departures on board as they try to get a suitcase that exceeds the carry-on restriction by at least 50% into an overhead bin that was already full back during Zone 2 boarding.

Travel snob? Spoiled elite traveler? Not a very nice person at airports? I’ll own the first two but I still try to put people over efficiency. Unless I’m late for a flight. Then, it’s probably three for three, alas.

But then, on that endless taxiing across the tarmac, I overhear this conversation. And suddenly, all the hassles and judgments of travel and travelers melt away. Because in that boy’s single sentence, I remember what it’s like. The long journey. The pinched cheek by an aunt with too much rouge on hers. All the adult chitchat and maybe, hanging out with cousins you rarely see. And then, the cake and all it represents.

I hope those folks — especially the boy — had a great lunch at the airport. I hope the birthday was a wonderful event for all. And I hope the chocolate cake tasted as good in reality as it did in that boy’s mind on the plane.

It all makes me think I’ve been on too many planes myself lately. There’s more to life than flights or travel or even work. There’s family and home. Arrival and lunch. And somewhere, after a long journey, maybe a piece of chocolate cake waiting just for me.

 

Taking shortcuts: Guess who gets cheated most?

Taking shortcuts: sketching in Lijiang

My son sketching a busy night scene in Lijiang, China.

I’m a big fan of shortcuts. They save you time and energy. They demonstrate your ingenuity. (You, after all, found a faster way to get something done. Clever you.) They free you up for more important or interesting activities.

I love shortcuts.

When they work.

Which, I’m finding out, isn’t as often as I thought. I had a recent reminder of this when I was in China a few months ago.

Shortcuts and speeding up the process

There, I took up sketching. I was traveling with my son, an artist, and I wanted to be able to do what he was doing, you know, that father-son bonding-type thing. What started as a relationship-building tool soon became an enjoyable experience on its own. But emperors of old could have built entire sections of the Great Wall in less time than it took me to sketch a small section of a city wall.

Thus, a little over halfway through our trip, I had a brilliant idea. Always – always – beware when you judge any of your own ideas as brilliant. But c’mon, tell me this doesn’t sound like genius: Instead of sketching say, a statue, I’d speed up the process with some shortcuts. I’d snap a photo of it on my phone then hold the phone beneath a page of my sketchbook (whose pages, lo and behold, were the exact same dimensions as my phone, surely a sign), and trace just the outside edge of the statue’s image through the paper to get the proportions right. That’s all. No copying over all the lines (which, of course, would be unfair). But just that outside edge? Brilliant. Then I’d finish off the rest of the sketch just as I normally would with no outside aids.

Such a time saver. Clearly, an innovative approach to shortcuts and drawing. I started to consider my acceptance speech for the inevitable MacArthur Genius Award.

Shortcuts: When saving time doesn’t

In my great enthusiasm, I explained the idea to my son. He just looked at me, his expression lying somewhere on the spectrum from amused to aghast. OK, it was pretty much on the aghast end, a look as if either he’d just stepped into something offensive or he was questioning his lineage. His eventual reply left no doubt: “That’s cheating, Dad.” I could detect disappointment exuding from his pores.

Heck, it was just a few shortcuts, not as if I’d worn the same pair of underwear for a week or evidenced some major moral failure. Or so I thought. But from his perspective, it was more than a quicker way to draw. In fact, the notion of wanting to speed up the sketching process itself lay at the heart of his response. To him, drawing was a prayerful and meditative activity. So taking the short cut of tracing only robbed me of the fuller experience. Behind his objection lay an expression of concern: why would I want to miss out on something so powerful and gratifying? Following that line of thinking, my phone tracing would be the equivalent of taking an exquisite seven-course dinner, dumping each dish into a blender, switching on the frappe mode, then downing the whole in a single breathless chug.

“So I guess I shouldn’t do it, huh?” I asked in a small voice. The parental expression I received from my firstborn said it all. And guess what? He was right. Smart boy, my son. Takes after his mom.

With shortcuts, consider more than just the outcomes

Now that we’re back, I do love having a sketchbook filled with drawings from our trip to China. But more importantly, I love what it took to make that, the flow and the joy of creating. I think back to my favorite moments of the trip such as when my son and I sat side by side on a lonely mountain, lost in the scene before us and the slow, laborious, beautiful process of rendering that scene on paper. Or when I was sketching on my own and a young Chinese woman came up and asked if I’d pose for a photo with her dad who was too shy to ask himself. And yet he wanted a photo with me not just because I was a foreigner (I had several requests almost every day for that reason alone), but because I’d been sketching a particular pond. He cared that I cared enough to draw this one tiny corner of his country. I would have missed that interaction had I taken some shortcuts, snapped the scene on my phone and traced it later.

Since I’ve been back, I’ve found another way, a better way, to get my drawings completed faster. It doesn’t leverage any new technology. It allows me to enjoy the process as well as the outcomes. And it doesn’t involve shortcuts or cheating.

It’s called practice.

 

Li Huayi: a new take on an old artform

Li Hauyi painting

I recently returned from a trip with my elder son, 23, to China. The theme of our trip was design. We intended to sketch and photograph our way through three different regions of China, getting a better sense of both classical and contemporary forms of design. To refine the concept of design, I focused mostly on understanding the design element of line. From architecture to fashion, room interiors to tea ceremonies, line plays a big role in defining the Chinese experience. But nowhere is the sense of line clearer than in Chinese calligraphy (which is nothing but line) and painting. And no where on our trip did I find paintings that moved me as much as the work of artist Li Huayi.

Li Huayi, born in 1948, learned painting in the traditional style in Shanghai. During the Cultural Revolution, he survived by painting works of propaganda. In 1982, he departed China for San Francisco, working there and delving into the world of Abstract Expressionism. In the late 1990’s, however, he returned back both to China and to a focus on traditional Chinese landscape subjects and techniques. Today, he splits his time between studios in San Francisco and Beijing.

To say that Li Huayi’s work is merely a modern rendering of traditional subjects would be to miss what makes them so special. His paintings are currently part of a solo exhibition at the I.M. Pei-designed Suzhou Museum in Suzhou, China. These works, on paper and silk, some shimmering with gold foil, reflect both Eastern and Western influences. But it is less a fusion of cultures and more one of eras that add depth to Li’s paintings. In them, some several meters in width or length, he blends themes going back to the Song dynasty with contemporary sensibilities and even subjects: some of his windswept trees seem more likely to be found in Carmel, California than Huangshan, China. The influence of Abstract Expressionism emerges in the atmospheric perspective of his backgrounds: you’re not quite sure on some what you’re seeing. This rendering of old and new also shows up in the presentation of some of the works with vertical scrolls hanging over longer horizontal pieces but the scenes blending perfectly.

This is contemporary art that surprises because you don’t expect it to be that.

Learn more about Li Huayi and the exhibition at the Suzhou Museum.

Li Huayi paintingLi Huayi painting detail

Li Huayi painting Li Huayi paintingLi Huayi painting Li Huayi painting Li Huayi painting Li Huayi painting detailLi Huayi painting on gold foil

Li Huayi painting

The benefits of noticing

Noticing cloudsAs my flight to Santa Fe, New Mexico awaited take off, I flicked on my Kindle. Work had to wait until the magic 10,000 foot elevation that signaled that I could pull out my laptop. Until then, I glanced through the myriad titles on my Kindle. One caught my attention. Wired to Create. I vaguely recalled the book and was surprised to see I’d previously read almost half of it. Perhaps I’d remember more if I picked up where I left off.

Within minutes, the authors were reminding me of the value of paying attention (rather ironic since I couldn’t remember anything I’d previously read in this book). They explained how essential truly seeing things is to the creative process. As I read the words, I realized something both profound and rather sad.

It hit me that not only had I stopped noticing. I’d stopped noticing that I’d stopped noticing. In the busyness of daily business, I’d ceased to value the pause. The look. The curiosity of seeing something for the first time or as if for the first time.

And so, although on a trip for business, I decided to be intentional. I would strive to see, to appreciate. Here are just a few of the things that I beheld in new ways.

Clouds

When you look at a cloud, what do you really see there? I don’t mean just the child’s ability to discern circus animals, a car driving through a donut or other fanciful imaginings. What exactly are you seeing in a cloud? Shape? Texture? Color? Proximity? Size? Variation? Familiarity? Why is it shaped the way it is? Is it a cirrus, cumulus or stratus cloud? Do you even know the difference (I had to look them up)? How can what makes up that cloud be the same thing we drink in a glass or that sinks ocean liners? Clouds are wonders, truly. But too often for me they don’t even register.

Weather

Notice weatherI sat through my meetings in Santa Fe looking out on a wet day. I seem to endure weather rather than notice it. But in a town that gets 350 sunny days a year, beholding downpours throughout the day got my attention. Then, as we wrapped up our meetings, the sun came out. So my colleagues and I headed out for a stroll around town before dinner. Near Santa Fe’s cathedral, I noticed something that rarely registers: moisture on the road. In any other place, this might be commonplace. But here in Santa Fe, that wet street was a thing of beauty, particularly in the late afternoon light. I even paid attention to the manhole cover, as well as the more obvious colonnade and the uneven lines of its roof. An ordinary scene made profoundly beautiful not just by the weather, but by my seeing the weather in the scene.

Noticing peopleThe human element

I wanted to take a photo of the Loretto Chapel just because…well, I think because I was in tourist mode and felt it was something I should photograph. I’d been there before and had seen the famed spiral staircase built by an itinerant carpenter in a manner that defies logic as to how it can stand without support. All that initially occupied my thinking. But then I noticed the human element. A wedding. And in the doorway, the newlyweds having wedding photos shot. A whole story right before me that so easily could have been lost in the focus on the architecture itself.

Geometry

Noticing geometryI rarely pay attention to or name the shapes of things. Yet, in learning to draw, that’s exactly what I must do. If I were to draw this building, a gallery in Santa Fe, I wouldn’t think, “Door. Gateway. Fence. Window.” Those labels evoke stereotypes of what a door, fence, window, etc. should be. Thus, I’m more likely to draw the stereotype than the actual scene before me. But if I put aside the labels and see what is there, I behold mostly squares and rectangles, with a trapazoid or two thrown in their due to the slope of the street. I see what is there, not what I think is there.

The unusual

Noticing the unusualI looked down an alley. This row of cow skulls being sold alongside other Southwestern decor items grabbed my attention. When did you last see a row of dead cow heads hanging on the wall (at pretty prices as well)? But what I really noticed was the size of the eye socket. Cows have big eyes.

Seasons

Noticing seasonsYes, I’ve noticed that fall is here. Yes, I’ve even commented to my wife at home that the leaves are changing. But no, I haven’t bothered to appreciate the beauty of this season until a few bright trees framed Santa Fe’s cathedral nicely. It wasn’t just the leaves I noticed. The overall light of this evening in this place at this time of year. All that registered in a way I rarely allow in part, I believe, because I was not at home. Travel helps us perceive exactly what we see at home but in new ways.

Window displays

Noticing windowsThe entire intent of a window display is to get us to notice. But as an avid non-shopper, a store’s arrangement of goods barely gets a glance from me. But here in Santa Fe, now in the evening, the stores were closed. And when I ceased to think about them as stores and more as repositories of items that warranted my attention, I discovered a world of curiosities. Including a very well-to-do angel.

Final thoughts

It’s so easy for me to think that I don’t have the time to notice everything around me. But let me reframe that. Maybe I don’t have the time NOT to notice. Life is too short not to appreciate the fullness of it all around me. Autopilot works really well for getting us through each day. Habits help. Routines make us efficient. But just getting through the day isn’t enough, is it?

Try this. Don’t worry about suddenly having to pay attention to everything around you. Just tell yourself that you will notice one new thing each day. One thing you’ve never really seen before or that maybe you’ve beheld, but never truly seen. One thing. That’s it. Then try it again tomorrow and the next day.

Now stop looking at this screen and go take a look at a world that is just waiting to be seen.

 

Finding passion in unlikely places

Passion doesn’t always arrive in the ways you expect.

After a day touring through quaint villages and lonely byways of England’s Cotswolds region, we were ready for a relaxing evening at our inn, The Village Pub in Barnsley. Yet as we turned into the inn’s parking lot, we had to negotiate our way around an unfamiliar object.Finding passion - steam engine

There, in splendid redness on the side of the road, amidst the low rumble of its engine and the vapor spewing from multiple vents and seams sat a steam engine. The image above will explain far better than I can. Apart from museums or books, I’d never beheld such a machine before, at least on this scale.

Finding passion - Steam engine and trailerWhen I was a kid, I dreamed of making a model steam engine, but even though the versions I saw were far less ambitious than this one (the models were stationary and about six inches long), the cost and complexity exceeded my paper route income and tween metalworking skills. I was fascinated then by the very elements that made this behemoth so wondrous: intricate metal parts and fittings combined with the heft of huge iron and steel components. Each rear wheel likely weighed more than my car.

Finding passion - Chris LarsonI approached the man clamoring over the vehicle and, unable to articulate any coherent specific question, said simply, “Tell me the story here.” He came over, arms and hands blackened with grease.

His name was Chris Larson. He and his wife, who was busy talking to an inquisitive server from the inn, were on their way to a steam festival down the road. They’d stopped at the inn for dinner since at four miles per hour, theirs had been a long journey from central Dorset county. It was a drive I would make in 90 minutes the next day but one that had taken them most of two days to accomplish.

When he mentioned a steam festival, my naive response was, “You mean there are more of these machines out there?” Indeed, there are. Over a hundred steam engines would be at this festival and there were dozens of these festivals across the country. An entire sub-culture of steam engine enthusiasts existed.

Finding passion - view from driver's seatChris invited me up into the driver’s area. We had to use a ladder propped against the rear wheel to do this. He showed me how he fed coal into the furnace and explained how he’d made this giant beast of a vehicle practically from scratch. He whipped out his phone (a rather anachronistic moment standing in a century-old vehicle using a 21st century mobile device) and showed me photos of the initial pieces he’d bought: part of the engine block, elements of a wheel and a few other odds and ends. My guess is that all of those original components amounted to at best 20-30% of this final vehicle. That meant he’d machined, forged, manufactured, scavenged and assembled all the rest on his own. Amazing.

Eventually, I had to let him go dine with his wife. I wondered how he was going to clean up those greasy arms for the rather upscale pub dining room. But the two of them ate outside on the patio and I left them to enjoy their meal in private.

Finding passion - front of engineFinding passion - engine lampBesides the marvel of encountering something so unexpected, seeing Chris’s steam engine and all the associations, memories and nostalgic longings it evoked made me realize something.

Chris had found his passion. He’d dedicated untold hours and a good deal of expense, I’m sure, in building that steam engine. Now, as he tours the various steam festivals, he can show off his work to wonder-eyed kids of all ages – like me. He’s able to connect with others who share that passion or are awakened to one they never realized they had. He, in short, lives in a world consumed by what brings him joy.

Before we turned into the inn’s parking lot, I didn’t know that any such steam engines still existed, especially in such great working order. So it makes me wonder: What else might be out there that grabs my heart? My passion? I’m not planning on building my own steam engine any time soon. But it delights me to know there are others that are.

It brings me a deep sense of gladness to realize this world is filled with people who do follow their dreams. Who take their passion seriously. Who tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges to bring to life what others don’t even imagine as possible. Who then find similar dreamers and doers who support, encourage and help them to carry on.

Finding passion - engine detailsI’m inspired to build, to make, to create. I’m not sure what it will be yet. But like that moment when I first saw Chris’s steam engine, I expect it will come on almost like magic.