I was reminiscing about my lifelong hobby journey the other day, and I recalled a conversation I had a number of years back which ultimately became a watershed moment in my hobby "career."
As I often do, I was chatting “fish” with a longtime hobby friend that day, and the conversation inevitably turned towards our upcoming aquarium projects. If you read my blog regularly, you'll recall that, a few years back, I rekindled my love affair with freshwater aquariums after a prolonged excursion (decades) into reef aquariums. Although I had dabbled with a few small FW tanks here and there throughout this period, at that time, it had been almost a decade since I last kept a freshwater tank of any significance. While I was waxing on about my ideas for some exotic freshwater display I was contemplating, My friend causally remarked, “Dude, you gotta walk before you can run. Why don’t you get back in the game with a basic planted tank with good fundamentals, instead of going off on some wacky concept tank?”
Man, those words hit home! Here I was- the guy who was and is always provoking the hobby to push the limits by trying new marine concept aquaria-and I was to jump back into the freshwater side and trying to go from 0-100 in 2 seconds flat…why? The modern freshwater world had evolved over the years until the state of the art was practically unknown to me at the time. and I was contemplating trying to do the same things that I did in saltwater. I mean, my friend was so right: It’s okay to push for the outside of the envelope after you’ve mastered the fundamentals, but the key word is AFTER. And the fundamentals had changed just a bit. Did my decades of marine experience render me…arrogant? Perhaps.
Or maybe just a bit jaded.
After the discussion, I was thinking about what really is wrong with slowing down, checking your ego at the door, and absorbing the knowledge and acquiring the skills that you need to be successful? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. This was/is a really good lesson for anyone in the hobby..and it was the turning point in my hobby career.
Why not do some research, experiment, or talk to someone who has more experience than you do? It’s never too late to learn something new, or open up your mind to the possibilities.
Perhaps, those of us who came from the marine side of the hobby are so caught up in the minutiae of our obsession, such as the debate over which coral is the “true” "Jedi Mind Trick" Montipora, or if that little Acropora colony in the back of the tank is a real “ORA Miami Orchid”, that we tend to forget to learn about the behavioral habits of our Pseudochromis fridmani, how to hatch brine shrimp, or how to set a up a quarantine protocol-all the myriad of things and skills that contribute to our hobby success. As much as we think that we are “masters of the universe”, we always have another thing to learn, or even to be humbled by. That’s the frustration-and/or pleasure (depending upon how you look at it) of our hobby.
I’ve learned over the years (along with a whole bunch of other fairly successful long-term hobbyists) that, in order to be a better hobbyist, you really need to be a better student of the art and science of aquatics, willing and open-minded enough to listen and learn from others more experienced than yourself. What that means is not just knowing the flow rate of the latest DC titanium needle wheel pump or configuration of the hottest LED lighting system- it means is that you should willingly embrace the fundamentals- the "hows and whys"-such as the relationship between our captive animals and the aquarium environment, and the art of a good water change. That's where the magic is.
By immersing yourself in the art and science of aquatics, you ‘re definitely going to evolve as a hobbyist, and become a more humble, more balanced, and ultimately- more successful- aquarist. An aquarist for life, who will be able to pass on the wisdom gained through trial and error-triumph and failure- to another generation of aquarists.
The simple conversation with my friend compelled me to re-examine my relationship with the world of aquatcs, and to reflect back on the journey I’d made up to that point in the hobby, and the fascinating road that lay ahead. It was instrumental in our launch of Unique Corals, and is the seminal moment in the idea of Tannin Aquatics some years later.
My philosophy was not simply a return to the basics of the hobby. Rather, it was an adjustment of my hobby mindset, and the embracing of a more open, refreshing outlook. I wanted- still want to push myself a little outside of my hobby “comfort zone”, and learn a few things that I’ve never done before. Damn, I had to actually shut up and listen for a change. This was gonna be harder than I thought.
But it really wasn't. It was awesome! And this mindset still pushes me to improve and learn to this very day.
For example, I have always had a little more than a causal interest in the art of marine aquascaping. I have been blessed to travel, speak, and be published in venues all over the world, sharing what I’ve learned on this topic. Just maybe, I’ve helped inspire others to try new things. It has been quite rewarding, yes, but what did I really know? What about my freshwater aesthetic? What more could I learn that would make me better at my craft? How could I push myself to improve?
It was time for me to embark on some new missions of aquatic self-discovery.
Well, that summer, I did just that. I visited my friend out of state and spent some time walking the local streams and observing the aquatic environment, collecting some rocks for my freshwater tanks. Listened to him talk about his philosophies on a well-balanced planted aquarium. Learned from nature-and from other hobbyists, about just what is involved in the art of aquatic rock selection and arrangement had direct impact on my work with Tannin. As my friend John Ciotti told me, if you sort of “listen” to rocks and wood, they tell you a story that will help you create the aquascape. He's not the first to mention this philosophy.
That was-is- very interesting stuff to me.
I’m planning on doing some more diving on tropical reefs and exploring streams to really observe the interactions between animals and their environment. Particularly of interest to me are the social behaviors of small fishes within their ecological niches. Hopefully, I will gain some more insight about them that will help me make better stocking decisions and aquascaping for specific needs. I'll be further observing the relationships between streams and their banks, and the interaction between plants, rocks, wood, and water in those locales.
I think I'm also going to spend a lot more time talking to my friends who are seriously involved in breeding fishes, to glean some insight into just what it is that they are doing to make their animals comfortable enough to reproduce in captivity. Learning a new set of rules and a new way of looking at husbandry from people truly in the know. This will certainly help me learn even more about aquatic husbandry, even if I don’t intend to breed fishes at the moment.
I can’t wait to start the next steps of my endless journey of aquatic self-discovery, and I urge you to do the same. It will be a fascinating journey- perhaps even a bit humbling- but the knowledge to be learned and experiences to be had will make the journey well worth it. And most importantly, the people you’ll meet along the way will make life that much richer.
Keep learning. Keep discovering. Keep pushing. But above all, keep sharing.
Now, about that empty tank in my garage. I’ve been thinking…
Until next time.