BugsTo do it the way I'm doing it, as a true vivarium and not just "a tank", you need bugs. You need a good drainage layer, a healthy soil layer on top of that, plants growing in the soil, and the lizard just cruising around above, in the plants and on the branches. But what keeps the whole thing going is bugs, turning the lizard's waste into plant food, out-competing other pests that might be harmful, and just bumbling around happily in the undergrowth. People on the forums refer to bugs as "the clean-up crew", which is so so so so so cute. The most popular clean up crew for a gargoyle gecko (that's what I have) is isopods and springtails. The springtails are pretty nondescript- they're super tiny and jump around like popping popcorn, but mostly stay underground and unseen, munching on mold and bacteria and things of that nature. The isopods, which I always called pill bugs or roly polys (though not all species pill or roll up) are cuter, they're like tiny little vans that drive around to wherever the poop is, and munch on that, plus dried leaves, and if you really want them to go nuts, a little bit of sweet potato now and then, or a fine dusting of nutritional yeast. I'm also going to add some earthworms to the scene, with the understanding that they help aerate the soil, giving the rest of the clean up crew better access to the underlayer.
I ordered the springtails and isopods from a supplier in Connecticut-- getting a live animal in the mail is crazy but I think these guys will be ok, it's not far and they're going express. There's a million kinds of isopods and yes, I know that there are a ton just outside my house right now under any given rotting log, but I think those guys are big enough and with a thick enough New England shell that they could hurt my lizard if it tries to munch one. The ones I ordered are small and soft-- munching on the occasional stray is gonna be no problemo.
Of course there's a healthy scene for people to keep just the isopods as pets, and since they're an extremely successful animal (I mean globally) there are tons of different kinds, some of which are quite striking! Look at these guys, who I found on an isopod breeder's site:
I know some of you are like, "bugs, gross" but come on, look at these little Miyazakis, they're great. If you can't see yourself watching these guys closely as they bumble around in the underbrush, that tells me just one thing: most likely you have never been super duper high.
Great StuffOK this seems crazy but the common way you build a realistic vivarium backdrop is to use Great Stuff, or any expanding foam product. Do you ever use this shit? I love it. You get it in a spray can and it squirts out as an extremely sticky butter-colored goo. In an hour or so it plumps up to double its initial volume, or more, and it cures to a rigid consistency completely overnight, strong enough that you can't put your finger through it but not so much to resist a sharpened pencil. In cured form it's glossy and bulbous, and looks like some kind of fungus. Tapping on it produces a sound like a very stale loaf of artisinal bread, which makes sense since both are made of open-celled foam constrained by a rigid air-cured skin.
For the vivarium, you spray some lumps right on to the walls, and while you're at it, use the Great Stuff to glue in other landscape features, like cork bark or branches or Hot Wheels cars or whatever. Let it dry, then cover it in 100% silicone, and before that dries, firmly press a dry soil mixture (coco fiber, dried sphagnum moss) into it. In the end you should have some blobby and climbable structures that creeping plants can cling to, with the look and feel of "part of a tree".
I'm not at the silicone part yet-- I did the lumps yesterday and had to let it sit overnight. Currently it's just blobs of great stuff squeaking out from between wooden pieces, and it looks a lot like when I used to live in the mills. The main, big room at the mill was cold uninsulated brick and our bedrooms were little cabins we built out of scrap lumber, protected from needle-sharp drafts with hardened globs of Great Stuff. Later I caught the same look (though applied to a surface, not a crack, and with gusto, not finesse) in the background of Annihilation (2018) :
When I lived at the mill I didn't think to paint the blobs in pastels like this, I just kept them butter colored. But next time I plug up a draft I'm probably going to go pastel, it's a cool look. :)
I think I love Great Stuff because it's like a very utilitarian use of a 1970s hippie space architecture idea-- an extruded polymer that puffs out in pseudo-organic forms, that you can coil up and make larger forms with, or spray on the inside of a box to make it look like a cool freaky cave. I guess the actualized human-sized version of this idea is to use spray concrete, but you need a whole truck for that-- Great Stuff is like, the dollhouse version.
I bet if I was able to read Thousand Plateaus I'd have like, a really good riff about this Stuff, but to be honest I simply don't find it enjoyable. So I'll just say "Wow, I love it!". Blob fans check it out.
SticksThe gargoyle gecko is arboreal so you're gonna want to add lots of climbing shit for it to fuck around on. I used sticks. Everyone in the videos I watched uses special branches from the pet store but I just used some regular sticks from the Weird Area next to my house and baked them in the oven for an hour to kill off any bad stuff that might be in there, hopefully that's ok. Generally I'm trying to just do whatever the vivarium viveo people say, just to try and limit the variables in this experiment, but I'm not paying $40 for a stick, come on. I really think it's fine, and the only reason the video people don't do it is like, they're mostly catering to people that want to spend money as a demonstration of care. Which, like, I understand. But I think it's fine. If not I'll just take the stick out. That's life baby.
PlantsThe plants in the vivarium are real plants, not fake plants-- the root of the word vivarium is "viva" which means like "hey, alright!", or "bursting with flavor!" or just "life!". Hopefully the plants do alright when I put them in, that part is still two steps away right now. But I got the plants already, they're right here, I'm looking at them.
Up to now most of the plants I take care of around the house have been succulents, because the shapes are fun, they thrive on neglect, and they regrow from very small pieces which you can find, for instance, on the floor at the greenhouse, and which you can, for argument's sake, just put in your pocket when, for all intents and purposes, no one is looking. Something about succulents is that most of them want to be right there in the sun, which makes it easy-- you know where to put them: the window. For this vivarium I needed plants that grow well (but not fast) in warm humid conditions without a lot of sunlight and with a small lizard walking over them. So I went to the greenhouse and keyed in on anything marked "indestructable", looking for big sturdy leaves I could imagine really wedging myself under or between for a day-long nap (if I was that big).
I wanted to get a philodendron, because I remembered that visionary architect Paul Laffoley was obsessed with philodendrons, but a gecko web page told me there's a toxicity problem with some kinds of philodendron, so I went with a similarly tuff and ubiquitous pothos. For the rest I got a snake plant, an aglaonema, and some little ground cover guys. Once the tank is set up and everything's planted, I have to let it settle in for a month or two, time for the plants to root well and for the clean-up crew to get comfortable and for the first wave of bacteria to bloom up and then get nibbled back. Also the lizard still has to chunk up a little before the move in.
Stupid stuffYes, I'm putting some stupid stuff in the vivarium. I don't want to overwhelm the place with tchochkies but I'll probably hot glue a few gems in there and also one (but not both) of these tiny buildings (each 1.5" tall) :
MeIt's not lost on me that I've been extremely inside all year and now I'm trying to make an optimal living room space pod for this small lizard to groove in. As I read through the care requirements for this guy, it's impossible not to see myself: we both need time to hide periodically and space to climb; we both enjoy a thick meal made of powdered fruit and some bugs. At first I was disappointed at what a narrow temperature window I have to give this guy, basically you have to keep temps pinned in the mid-70s all the time. I mean to me that's unreasonable-- at my house I just put on a sweater, that's how I was raised. But then I got to thinking that I'm not so tough, really, and everything I've ever known takes place in an extreme goldilocks zone-- not only in regard to temps but lots of stuff-- absence of space radiation, access to liquid water, having a huge planet nearby to attract stray comets, not too far from the sun, not too close... I mean when you compare me needing a regular conversation to remain sane and this guy needing near-constant temps in the mid 70s, the lizard comes out as far more robust.
Regarding the vivarium, obviously I wish my house was sick like this, and to be honest, working on this project has me eager to set up a better enclosure for myself. The downside is that I'm searching like "cute house under $3,000", which is both unrealistic and bad for morale. But the upside is that I'm working with what I have-- moving things around, making things flow a little better, setting up more helpful systems... I might hot glue some gems around here too. If anyone wants to hook me up with a cute lil house to trick out I would certainly consider it but for now I'm still giving it a go in an apartment-type setting.
Oh, and also in re: the vivarium, everything that applies to the lizard applies here too-- the vivarium has needs and requirements, and it's basically also "a pet", despite being also "an environment". Any way you want to look at it, I'm confident that I can get both these guys what they need. I can get them what they need, I can get me what I need, we can both hurtle through space together. The lizard, the tank, me, my house, The castle, the pond, the drug store, New Scotland Of The Mind, etc..
links / misc
- I linked out to this before but it's still pressing-- Jhamal Gonsalves of Providence was hit by a cop car and is dealing with pretty substantial injuries and mounting bills. If you can chip in or just want to read more about this, please do: [link]
- Providence / RI people interested in neighborly actions to support our community are advised to join Kate's email list, she sends out helpful lists of things every week. email firstname.lastname@example.org and say "please put me on the list" :)
- My favorite vivarium youtuber is SerpaDesign-- he has a nice vocal cadence that isn't Western Podcast Voice, the music is very low in the mix, and his videos are mostly shots of what he's talking about, not just a talking head. He has a lot of great info on building terrariums and vivariums of all sizes. Here's one where he builds a bioactive enclosure for a gargoyle gecko: [youtube]
- Paul Laffoley is great , strongly recommended if you like huge diagrams, esoterica, Coast To Coast (radio program), mind maps, mysticism, information design, and utopia. His paintings are very text-heavy and unfortunately, pictures on the internet rarely reproduce them at a legible size. That said there are some big pics available via his gallerist: [link] and his personal website is fairly deep: [link]. Paul passed away in 2015, I was lucky to meet him briefly, in like 2014-- I saw him at a coffee shop and ran up and told him I loved his paintings. He was pretty flabbergasted, I got the feeling that no one ever recognized him on the street before. I was happy to provide that experience for him. There's a few 30+min videos on youtube about him if that's your path, and it's great to hear him speak-- he has a heavy Boston accent you don't hear much nowadays, very nostalgic for me. Here's a somewhat dizzying documentary is about him, with a lot of interview footage: [youtube]. There's a strong overlap here with vivarium videos but I'm too late in the process (with this post) to elaborate further.
- for a really good blog (mostly images) about hippie space architecture, play environments, and dollhouses, please check out An Ambitious Project Collapsing: [link]. I really love this one!!!! I downloaded (with wget ("i wgot it"??)) this entire website because it's so good, and I return to it often, the way one returns to a wonderful and enourmous book. If it ever goes offline and anyone searching for it finds this, email me and I'll send you a zip file of the whole thing.
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