A leap of faith...

It seems only fitting that, in the middle of this Holiday season, today's piece is about having a certain degree of faith...

Now, it's not exactly the kind of faith that we think of during the Holiday season- but it's a type of faith, nonetheless...

Among the many things that I absolutely love about botanical-style, blackwater aquariums is that they most definitely "evolve" over time, to an extent that your tank in say, 3 months looks virtually nothing like it did at 2 weeks.

And it's different than the "evolution" of a planted aquarium. I mean, sure, plants fill in, and they cover more area and grow thickly. However, they're more-or-less predictable and to a certain extent, controllable. You can plant things in a given area and know they're going to fill it in, and you can trim and manicure to keep it that way.

A botanical-style aquarium differs somewhat, in that much of the evolutionary work is done by Nature, with little intervention from you, the hobbyist. Decomposition, fungal growth, water movement, and chemistry play big roles in how your tank will change over time. Sure, you can place a seed pod or twig or whatever in a specific location, but as biofilms colonize it, and the pod begins to slowly break down, it's very "structure" changes.

These are known, predictable occurrences; however, we just don't know exactly when they will happen or how much it will impact the appearance of what we've done with our tanks. It requires a bit of acceptance...or at the very least, faith that Nature will "push through" and do what is required to keep the ecosystem functioning.

And, yeah-  you don't quite have as much control over many parts of the process...Something that many aquarists are unfamiliar- even uncomfortable with. And this makes perfect sense, because we've spent the better part of the past 100 years in the hobby sort of trying to "get a handle" on natural processes which govern the function of our tanks. 

We're taught from day one of our hobby "career" to take charge of our aquariums. We're told that we need to scrape algae, change water, service filters, remove detritus, etc., etc.

Now, this is great "basic training" for the hobby, as it not only teaches you to look at what's happening in your tank, but to get involved with its daily operations. That's really good experience.

On the other hand, it also "conditions" us to become concerned any time a deviation from a prescribed, predictable occurrence is noticed. And this can be a bit problematic sometimes, because many hobbyists aren't "trained" to understand exactly what it is that's causing the "deviation", and whether or not it's actually a bad thing. We're just told, "If X, then Y..."

So one of the the first, perhaps most "counterintuitive" things we're told when starting a botanical-style aquarium is that, yes certain things happen, but you need not worry or take action. Rather than launch active countermeasures, you're instructed to observe, study, and...enjoy the changes.

And most of the changes in a botanical-style aquarium over time are actually almost as predictable as any other, once you learn how the "operating system" of a botanical-style aquarium works. You know from reading all of our posts, seeing pics, and from the numerous community discussions what some of the expectations are.

And a good part of the game is understanding that things aren't pristine or perfect in Nature, as we've railed on before! They need not be in our tanks, either.

I mean, an aquarium is not a "sterile" habitat.

The natural aquatic habits, although comprised of many millions times the volumes of water that we have in our tanks- are typically not "pristine"- right? I mean, soils from terrestrial geologic activity carry with them decomposing matter, leaves, etc, all of which impact the chemistry, oxygen-carrying capacity, biological activity, and of course, the visual appearance of the water.

And that's kind of what our whole botanical-style aquarium adventure is all about- utilizing the "imperfect" characteristics of the materials at our disposal, and fostering and appreciating the natural interactions which take place in aquatic habitats. Understanding that descriptors such as "crystal clear" and "pristine" only apply to some aquatic habitats, and that there is real beauty in all forms.

Indeed, the real "magic", in many instances, occurs in the more murky, turbid, not-so-crystal-clear waters of the world. And if we understand and accept this, and have some faith in the process, we're likely to start our aquariums with a bit less concern over absolute "sterile perfection."

We can embrace the mindset that every leaf, every piece of wood, every bit of substrate in our aquariums is actually a sort of "catalyst" for sparking biodiversity and yes- a new view of aesthetics in our aquariums. Not necessarily a perfectly manicured, "clean-as-a-whistle" game.

The pristine seed pods and leaves start "softening" a bit. And what's that stringy stuff accumulating on the edges? Why, it's our old friend/nemesis/resource (depending upon your POV), biofilm.

Yup, the first mental shift that we have to make as lovers of truly natural style aquariums is an understanding that these tanks will not maintain the crisp, pristine look without significant intervention on our part.

And, by "intervention", I mean scrubbing, rinsing, and replacing the leaves and botanicals as needed. I mean, sure- you can do that. I know a bunch of people who do. They absolutely love super prisitne-looking tanks. 

I do, too...

However, I must admit, I feel a bit sorry for people who can't make the mental shift to accept the fact that Nature does here own thing, and will lay down a "patina" on our botanicals, gradually transforming them into something a bit different than when we started.

When we don't accept this process, we sadly get to miss out on Nature guiding our tank towards its ultimate beauty- perhaps better than we even envisioned.

For some, it's really hard to accept this process. To let go of everything they've known before in the hobby. To wait while Nature goes through her growing pains, decomposing, transforming and yeah- evolving our aquascapes from carefully-planned art installations to living, breathing, functioning microcosms.

But, what about all of that decay? That "patina" of biofilm?

It's okay.

It's normal.

It's natural.

It's part of this type of approach. It's present in all natural aquatic systems. We just work with it instead of against it. In stead of trying to sanitize, edit, or otherwise "redirect" Nature, we understand that it will follow its own path, sometimes going through phases that we may not appreciate.


And guess what? It never stops.

And one more thing? The biofilms and that you might loathe so much tend to subside almost completely over time...If you are patient, and don't tear your tank apart in a frantic effort to eradicate one of Nature's finest creations.

The ebb and flow of life in a natural, botanical-style aquarium is much like a garden. You can and should perform regular maintenance, conducting water exchanges, filter media replacement, etc.- like you do in any other tank. However, you need to conduct these maintenance sessions not with the idea of "THIS will take care of those biofilms", but an attitude of. "This will continue to facilitate change over time..."

Yeah, it requires a certain attitude.

And a willingness to look at Nature as she actually is- and to appreciate the beauty in the details of her processes.

A willingness to accept.

An acceptance that Nature will plot the right course for your tank if allowed to do so.

And, sure-you need a certain degree of patience and yeah-faith- that things will unfold in ways you may not even have begun to appreciate. Like any other aquatic endeavor, you can make it easier and more enjoyable by being aware of what is going on, and accepting the way Nature works her magic.

You can do this. 

If you take a leap of faith.

Have a wonderful Holiday season. Enjoy your family, and your time with your aquariums.

Stay fascinated. Stay excited. Stay intrigued. Stay creative. Stay faithful...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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