The beauty of imperfection and the sadness of transience...

Monday is a bit early in the week to get into one of those deep philosophical discussions, but I couldn't help myself today. I recently had one of those hardcore fish discussions with an old friend who is as much a philosopher as he is an aquarist..Real "Obi-Wan Kenobi"-type.

We all know a hobbyists like him, huh? 

And during our long-winded discussion, we talked about the ideas of aquariums reflecting nature, and how a good segment of the hobby has been chasing a sort of interpretation of nature for the last 15-20 years or so, but somehow falling a bit short. Aesthetic-wise, our systems have never been more beautiful. However, to my friend, he felt something was lacking.

Couldn't quite place it.

I think I know what it is. Really.

It's "Wabi-Sabi" again. Something that's been on my mind a lot lately.

In it's most simplistic and literal form,the Japanese philosophy of "Wabi Sabi" is an acceptance and contemplation of the imperfection, constant flux and impermanence of all things.

This is a very interesting philosophy, one which has been embraced in aquascaping circles by none other than the late, great, Takashi Amano, who proferred that a planted aquarium is in constant flux, and that one needs to contemplate, embrace, and enjoy the sweet sadness of the transience of life.

Many of Amano's greatest works embraced this philosophy, and evolved over time as various plants would alternately thrive, spread and decline, re-working and reconfiguring the aquascape with minimal human intervention. Each phase of the aquascape's existence brought new beauty and joy to those would observe them.

Yet, in today's contest-scape driven, break-down-the-tank-after the show world, this philosophy of appreciating change by nature over time seems to have been tossed aside as we move on to the next 'scape.

Now, when we talk about the use of natural materials in our aquatic hardscape, such as the use of leaves and softer aquatic botanicals, which begin to degrade after a few weeks submerged, one can really understand the practicalities of this philosophy. It could be argued, perhaps, that the use of botanicals in an aquarium are the very essence of what "Wabi Sabi" is about.


I think a slightly different approach is warranted. 

A carefully constructed hardscape, IMHO, should have some more or less "permanent" things, like rocks and driftwood, complemented and enhanced by "degradable" items, such as Catappa, Guava, and other leaves, as well as the "softer" pods and such, which not only offer enhanced aesthetics- they offer enrichment of the aquatic habitat through their release of tannins, humic acids, vitamins, etc. as they decompose- just as they do in nature.

Leaves and such are simply not permanent additions to our 'scapes, and if we wish to enjoy them in their more "intact" forms, we will need to replace them as they start to break down. 

This is not a bad thing.

It is simply how to use them to create a specific aesthetic in a permanent aquarium display. Much like flowers in a garden, leaves will have a period of time where they are in all their glory, followed by the gradual, inevitable encroachment of biological decay. At this phase, you may opt to leave them in the aquarium to enrich the environment further and offer a new aesthetic, or you can remove and replace them with fresh leaves and botanicals. This very much replicates the process which occur in nature, doesn't it?

With the publishing of photos and videos of leave-influenced 'scapes in the past few years, there has been much interest and more questions by hobbyists who have not really considered these items in an aquascape before. This is really cool, because new people with new ideas and approaches are experimenting.  And we're looking at nature as never before. We're celebrating the real diversity and appearance of natural habitats as they really are...

Some hobbyists have commented that, as their leaves and botanicals break down and the scape as initially presented changes significantly over time. They know it or not, they are grasping "Wabi-Sab"i...sort of. One must appreciate the beauty at various phases to really grasp the concept and appreciate it. To find little vignettes- little moments- of fleeting beauty that need not be permanent to enjoy.

Some people just "don't get it", and proffer that this is simply sloppy, not thought-out, and seemingly random. I recall vividly one critic on a Facebook forum, who, observing a recent botanical-inspired aquascape created by another hobbyist, commented that the 'scape looked like "...someone just threw in some pods and leaves in a random fashion.." 

Yeah, this guy actually described the aesthetic to a certain (although unsophisticated) degree...but he couldn't get past the look, and therefore concluded it was, "...haphazard, sloppy, and not thought out."

A shame. I think if he glanced at a natural habitat and then looked at the tank again, he'd gain a new appreciation.

But on the other hand, that was the charm and beauty of such a conceptual work. The seemingly random, transient nature of such an aquascape, with leaves deposited as in nature by currents, tidal flows, etc., settling in unlikely areas within the hardscape.

Not everyone likes this nor appreciates it. And that's perfectly fine. It's not the "best" way to run a tank. Just "a way."

Regardless of how you choose to manage a system with leaves and non-permanent aquatic botanicals, you can enjoy the beauty of their "Wabi Sabi" existence.

The real beauty is that there are no real "rules" when conceiving such a 'scape, other than the biological aspects of decomposition and water chemistry, which are the real factors that dictate just how the aquascape will ultimately evolve. Accepting this inevitable change and imperfection is the very essence- and beauty- of the "Wabi-Sabi" principle, IMHO.

Stay open to new ideas, experiences, and interpretations. Look to nature as a key influence in your designs...Share your revelations with other hobbyists. Enjoy the benefits of such experiments...

Stay enthralled. Stay creative. Stay open-minded. Stay intrigued...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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