Cypress Swamp Diorama

Diorama of foggy cypress swamp at night by Paul Barker

In the past, when anyone gave me a gift of a potted Bonsai plant, I was deeply appreciative of being entrusted with this beautiful living miniature and then promptly let it die. A gardener friend referred to me as having a “black thumb.” So I started making fake miniature plants, in Bonsai pots, that I couldn’t kill. They evolved into miniature landscapes using model railroad scenery, artificial water and natural materials. I thought I’d invented a new art form until I learned that the Chinese have been doing essentially the same thing for 400 years.

I suppose it was inevitable that the miniature landscapes would outgrow their small pots, and that my experience with painting murals for natural history museum exhibits would be pressed into service to create more elaborate and convincing environments into which I and my guests could escape.

I did a few small dioramas when writing my novel for young adults, The Discovery of Lost Iluria, and I used them as models to create the paintings for the book. Then one day I was seized with the desire to create a small world from my childhood: a hauntingly beautiful but threatening cypress swamp.

When finished, I had a diorama about two feet wide, a foot deep and a foot tall. It features an illuminated orange setting sun and blinking fireflies surrounded by tiny halos of diffused light among the hanks of Spanish moss, lichen-splashed cypress trunks and knees that are all mirrored in duckweed-choked waters covered by actual mist. The desire to make it believable sort of got out of hand. Can you say “obsessive?”

The fireflies are the tips of slender fiber optic cables programmed to blink randomly, and even for my professional photographer friend Gerry Hoos they refused to appear in the night shots, so Gerry did me a favor and added tiny pinpricks of light with Photoshop.

Only in the day shot can you see that the backdrop is a mural of an orange sunset and that the mist flows over a mirrored surface. Still pictures can’t capture the way the mist flows from behind a fallen tree toward the front of the scene, moving silently through the cypress knees. This diorama wows a lot of people who see it in action as long as I’ve remembered to fill the mist machine with water.

In this rather clumsy video clip, you have to look closely to see the fireflies lighting up in the dark. Don’t forget to turn up your sound so you can hear the crickets and, unfortunately, the clunking noises that I’d like to be able to say are cajun beavers felling trees nearby at their habitually relaxed pace.