Small World

  Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

“But it is what is left from little lives, well enough lived, that we can carry with us most easily when the lives have passed, lovely miniatures that ride lightly in the corner of a pocket and fit in the cup of our hand.” (Tom Teepen, syndicated columnist)

I see by the paper that Guinness has given the palm to the world’s smallest cow, a bovine about the size of an ovine (sorry, couldn’t resist). That made me think of the recent announcement of the world’s smallest horse,* an equine about the size of a beagle. And that, in turn, got me to ruminating on the whole idea of miniatures. We have an abiding fascination for things that are scaled down. Not small per se, mind you. Hummingbirds are tiny but they are not miniatures, not shrunken specimens of a larger, standard variety. On the other hand, an eagle the size of a hummingbird would be…well, would be damned creepy, actually, so please forget that I mentioned it. But I hope you see my point: miniature does not mean just small; there has to be a “regular” sized version somewhere as contrast.

In my childhood, every kid longed for a Lionel train set for Christmas. The single track around the tree was a start, but when you and your dad made a plywood table in the basement for a real layout, with tiny buildings, tiny trestles, tiny trees, tiny switchmen, and so forth (remember the pellets that made the locomotive actually puff smoke?), that was really something. The old Lionel was pretty crude as such things go. Soon O and HO gauge came in and became a serious hobby for grown-ups, proving that there is still a child in each of us. I heard somewhere that the Victorians were the first model train enthusiasts and designed elaborate gardens to accommodate their train layouts, so that pufferbellies could chug through the tiger lilies and ‘round the rose bushes. Whether that is true or not, garden railways with G scale trains are a thriving hobby today, the trains and other accessories built to withstand the weather.

So many toys are miniatures (including dog varieties such as “toy” poodles). I am thinking not so much of intricate models for the hobbyist as of that plastic dump truck you bought your nephew for $2.99. Spring for a bulldozer and a power shovel to go with it (come on, don’t be so cheap for once), and little Mikey can while away whole days at his “construction site” in the back yard. I still remember—I wasn’t even in school yet—my mother’s garden with its big stand of mint. The mint stood in reasonable well for fir trees, and somewhere I had got one of those souvenir birch bark canoes, maybe four inches long. Voila! For hours I was a grizzled old voyageur in the far North Woods. When my brother got home from school it was a struggle to get back to being me again. Miniatures will do that.

Some miniatures are not made but discovered. I cemented a good-sized lava rock to a sort of sea mount that I created in my little goldfish pond years ago. It made a good focal point; I was proud of my handiwork. Then I saw the movie Cast Away and, ever since, that rock has been poor Tom Hanks’s lonely island. I even imagine him, a tiny figure, trying to leap off in despair, a rope around his neck, as he came close to doing in the movie. My fishpond will never be the same for me.

And then there are bonsai (not ‘banzai”!) trees, another serious and absorbing hobby. These are not dwarf trees but dwarfed trees, if you will. In other words, they spring from the same stock as standard varieties but, through careful and patient pruning and other cultivating techniques, they are deliberately stunted, and the more gnarled and twisted the better. A successful bonsai is a beautiful thing and invites serene contemplation. I particularly like the evergreen varieties, and the surroundings, the pebbles and sand raked just so. And there beside the tree is a little china figurine, an old monk, perhaps. And that of course makes you think of—well, makes me think of—Blue Willow china (and Blue Tower, and other imitators). Charles Lamb has a wonderful essay, “Old China,” in which he points out that the proportions in those scenes are ridiculously wrong (“a young and courtly Mandarin, handing tea to a lady from a salver—two miles off”), which only adds to their charm.

Miniatures. I think we are not done with them. More next week.

*There seems to be some contention about the title. Currently “Einstein” is smaller than “Thumbelina,” but he was foaled just this past April (at six pounds and fourteen inches high), so he hasn’t got his growth yet, whatever that will amount to.

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