Review: Terrarium Craft by Amy Bryant Aiello and Kate Bryant

(A bit of context. This blog will feature regular reviews of books, horticultural products, and interesting related items, under this proviso. All items reviewed will be purchased by the reviewer in advance, at full retail price, in order to prevent any conflict of interest. Information about upcoming releases is greatly appreciated, but receipt of advance copies or samples will be announced well in advance and will not influence the final review. The world has enough Jeff Craigs and Maria Salases as it is.)

Terrarium Craft: Create 50 Magical, Miniature Worlds by Amy Bryant Aiello and Kate Bryant, photographs by Kate Baldwin.
ISBN-10: 1604692340
ISBN-13: 9781604692341
Published: Timber Press (OR), 05/01/2011
Pages: 195
Language: English

You’d think that after years of working as a book, music, and film critic, I’d learn not to freak out over first impressions. Don’t read advance reviews. Don’t listen to samples before you hear the whole album. Most importantly, in Nyarlathotep’s name, don’t flip through a book and expect to get a good impression of the content from that view. When I received my copy of Terrarium Craft, I made that mistake.

As an aside, after the last seven years of serious horticultural research, I’ve come to one absolute. Namely, any book with the Timber Press conifer on its spine is worth buying. The serious reference volumes are worth every last penny, and I spend an inordinate amount of time searching for and purchasing the out-of-print volumes, especially those on orchids and conifers. Even the more ethereal volumes are must-haves, and I suspect that at least a quarter of my horticultural library now consists of Timber Press releases. As I like to point out to the folks working there, I see at least one volume every six months that invokes my horticultural theme song.

For about five minutes, I forgot all about this as I flipped through Terrarium Craft on my way to work. I swear to you that my first response was “What the hell is this put-a-bird-on-it gibberish? Deer antlers? Fluorite crystals with bladderworts? Venus flytraps in votive glasses? What happened?” I suddenly wished I had good hard research on whether hallucinogens could pass via the placenta from mother to child, and wondered exactly what my mom was up to 45 years ago.

Thankfully for all involved, I didn’t take this as a sign that someone spiked my Albuterol with ketamine. I did the sane thing and actually read the whole book. Cover to cover. In the process, I had a bit of a revelation.

The problem, of course, lay with the fact that while the rest of living sculpture and design, for lack of a better term, kept advancing into the 21st century, terrarium design still remains trapped in 1975. When I first started out, I picked up a lot of terrarium construction guides, and most of them were published in what G.B. “Doonesbury” Trudeau called “a kidney stone of a decade.” Those who do not remember the Seventies and its terrifying insistence upon homemade junque are condemned to repeat it. Those who do also remember such a proliferation of mediocre crafts that by 1981, “handmade” was almost a profanity. The backlash against depressingly banal handmade clothes, toys, and gifts was so extreme that by the time I left high school, that jacket or that backpack had BEST come from a store that had lots and lots of the exact same thing. (You think I’m kidding. Maybe it had to do with life in North Texas during the oil boom, but wearing a handmade sweater or scarf to school after Christmas was taken as meaning “Oh, your parents were too poor to buy you real presents.”)

For a very long time, “terrariums” were just as much a term laden with sneers as “macrame”. Nearly 150 years of laudable tradition in Wardian cases and fern enclosures, wiped out by maybe five years of mayonnaise jars and little purple elf figures. Vivaria for reptiles and amphibians took off and expanded well beyond their origins. Penjing came into its own in the West, to be met by saikei from Japan and Hòn Non Bô from Vietnam. The popular view of terraria, though? Lucite domes on shag carpet with funky guitar riffs coming out of the quadrophonic stereo, like the set design for an episode of Space: 1999.

That’s why I had my initial freakout, and then I read the whole book. As a guide for beginners, it’s remarkably complete. About the only thing it suffers from is a distressing tendency seen in many contemporary books, exacerbated by Martha Stewart, not to offer general guides on particular effects and designs, but exact step-by-step instructions for exact copies of the displayed arrangements. Many of the arrangements themselves are a bit too twee for my own tastes, and many of the open-glass containers stretch the very limit of the term “terrarium”. For someone who never saw the original terrarium boom of the Seventies, though, it offers a lot of possibilities.

I have to admit that this one will never supplant my favorite terrarium book, Successful Terrariums: A Step-By-Step Guide, by Ken Kayatta and Steven Schmidt. I’ll also admit that Successful Terrariums is now over 36 years old, and the days of getting away with black-and-white photos and sepia illustrations in a hardcover book died along with disco. I’ll even note that with the last four decades of improvements in construction materials and lighting systems, additional knowledge of suitable plants and their needs, and techniques learned from improved botanical garden and zoo displays, now is a perfect time for a book that expands upon this base. It’s definitely high time for a volume that offers additional possibilities for more advanced terrarium and vivarium builders. With a bit of luck, Timber Press will be the publisher of that book, too.

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