The beauty of small things: a voyage into a garden’s microcosm

“The more we travel, the bigger the world gets”. Over the last couple of years we have taken advantage of our somewhat vague motto to talk about many different things. Christened during our round-the-world trip, it originally stemmed from our observation that no time in the world would be enough to visit all places worth visiting. After we came back, we realised this to be true even for our own country. Abandoning all hopes of closure, we expanded our definition of travelling to encompass other things we love: time-travelling to long-past history, mind-travelling on the comforts of solitude, soul-travelling with the wonders of friendship. All those wanderings however involved some degree of physical travelling. Not today. Today we won’t go beyond Jules’ parents backyard, in Ponte de Sor.

Over the course of countless weekends, I made a habit of sneaking into Jules’ parents garden to take pictures. Hunching over flowers and chasing out bugs, I discovered a whole new world. As I got closer and closer to my subjects, I uncovered layer after layer of that fascinating microcosm, like a never ending matryoshka doll. There is, quite literally, beauty in the small things.

To see a larger version of any one of these images, click on them and select the ‘View full size’ option at the bottom.

Dragonflies were the first to catch my eye. Colourful and exuberant, they’re nature’s equivalent to an Italian sports car. They are also quite lenient to clumsy photographers, posing completely still for enough time for me to get close, fumble with camera settings and finally take the shot.

Their confidence probably stems  from the fact they’re extraordinary flyers. The compound eyes – the largest of all insects – wrap around the head, allowing them to see in all directions. They are also able to fly in all six directions with the agility of a nimble helicopter. Once set after a prey, there’s little it can do to escape. Unlike a lion, that will mimic the zigzagging of a desperate gazelle, a dragonfly can predict the flight path of an escaping butterfly. Nineteen out of twenty times, the poor insect doesn’t even know what hit it.

Still amidst the swarms of dragonflies, I shifted my attention to the wasps and bees buzzing around flowers. They were jittery and harder to photograph, but would leave me be as long as I didn’t get in the way of their nectar and pollen collection frenzy. Bees seemed particularly determined in hoarding as much pollen as possible, and would hover tirelessly from flower to flower until their hind legs couldn’t carry any more pollen.

Even the tiniest of flowers would hide a profusion of life. The daisies were not much larger than a fly but, hidden within a scale that’s barely visible to the naked eye, they fed a profusion of minuscule insects. The daisies themselves are far more complex than they seem: what we perceive as a single daisy – a bright yellow yolk surrounded by thin white petals – is actually a collective of hundreds of minute individual flowers.

On its own, macro photography is already a peculiarly nerdy subject, as it involves lenses mounted the wrong way round and flashes made out of cans of Pringles. However, attempting to classify the photographed subjects added a whole new layer of geekiness to it.

When my fingers got too cold to operate the shutter, I would take refuge next to the fireplace. With a hot chocolate on one hand and a mouse on the other, I would plunge into the internet looking for answers. Fortunately, these days one can easily find the work of those far more knowledgeable.

After some sugar fueled research, I concluded with a hesitant level of certainty that I had encountered a long tongue tachinid fly, a few thrips and a pollen beetle sitting on oxeye daisies; an unknown tiny insect hiding inside a field marigold; and a cape daisy apparently free from any sort of bug.

If it was still cold outside, I wouldn’t venture past the porch’s potted plants. Fortunately, succulent plants only seem coarse and stocky at a first glance. A closer look will reveal a multitude of delicate symmetries and infinitesimal detail.

The garden looked vastly different throughout the year. During the summer months, the big weeping willow provided shade during the day and then framed stargazing once the sun set. In wintertime, devoid of any leafs, its thin naked branches patiently waited for the rain to go away and the sun to return.

Even within a single day, the garden would change dramatically. Early morning, still with my pajamas on, I would go out to see the dew that had settled during the night. Hunched over the ground and with the camera a few millimetres away from the plants, each tiny droplet of water seemed enormous, reflecting the wider world around it.

At this scale, colours are exuberant. Greens, pinks and purples have an almost garish intensity that we’re only used to seeing as a speckle against a more subdued backdrop.

At the smallest scale I could access, the backdrop would turn completely black, drowned by the flash light, but the plants would get even more exuberant.

One night I went back to the garden. While waiting for the lunar eclipse, I looked around my feet, knowing how fascinating was the microcosm lurking beneath the penumbra.


259 thoughts on “The beauty of small things: a voyage into a garden’s microcosm

  1. Love your macro shots! Most people have no idea of what’s going on in their gardens? 🙂

    On my blog you may travel digitally throughout Norway. (And it’s all free!) More than 6000 pictures – all in ‘full screen’ – from cities, municipalities, from tourist destinations or just plain Norwegian nature at its best.
    You’ll also find quite a few macro shots in between!
    Everything is texted in English as well as Norwegian. Please enjoy!

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. I LOVE this essay! I too am entranced by the beauty of small things. I do photography also but get closer and more intimate by cropping and am ever surprised by the complex and beauty of close-up things we usually miss. I call it deep-seeing. Thanks for this lovely post!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this! I am a huge entomology enthusiast and I truly believe you will find an extreme fascination with a French Documentary titled “Microcosmos.” It came out in the 90’s but they use micro lenses to capture to smallest, most intricately beautiful interactions of insects etc. It has few words, but even Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 98%. 🙂 Just thought I’d lend the recommendation to a fellow enthusiast.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Stunning photo! I come from a decorating background and nature provides me endless inspiration. Thanks to you I’ll start looking more closely! Thank you for sharing your talents.


    1. Thank you Kim! They are indeed. After writing this article I went on a tour of pretty much all the gardens in Lisbon and found out they all have their own little wonderworlds 🙂 -Verne


  6. Oh, Wow what a voyage. You said you need not travel far to discover a whole new world. Well, I travel far to discover a whole new world. But bringing the flora and fauna in microns is awesome.


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