"Any old log..."

Some of the most compelling things in natural aquatic habitats- and in the aquariums which we create to represent them- are large branches, fallen trees, and logs. The result of a tree, branch, or root system which finds its way into the water is a physical, environmental, and water-flow-dynamic-changing feature in the habitat.

I love fallen trees and branches.

I love what they can do. What they can bring to an aquatic environment.

I love how they inspire us.

I love the idea of doing an aquarium in which the primary feature is a big old piece of wood, covered in biofilm, algae, and other life forms.

Notice I didn't say "aquatic moss?" Why? Well, besides the fact that it's sort of an aquascaping contest cliche by now, I don't think it looks all that "authentic." Although I like the look of these features, personally, I have yet to see a moss-covered log in the Amazon region, or in an Asian blackwater swamp, and we need to accept- not fight- some of what really happens in Nature, and readjust our aesthetic sensibilities to understand what is really natural beauty.

It's not all neat and orderly and crisp green on brown.

It's just not. 

As we've mentioned numerous times here, Nature is not exactly a neat and tidy, perfectly-ratioed place. Rather it's often a world of chaos, randomness, detritus, biofilms, and fungal growth.

I think we have to sort of "desensitize" ourselves from the stigma of "biocover" on our wood. Now, I know, this idea undermines a century of aquarium-keeping/aquascaping dogma, which suggests that wood in the aquarium must be pristine, and without anything going on it (outside of the aforementioned mosses, in the last decade or so). 

And of course, that's really sort of antithetical to what happens in Nature!

When terrestrial materials fall into the water, opportunistic life forms, ranging from algae to fungi to bacteria- even sponges-will colonize the available space, eking out a living as they compete for resources. In addition to helping to break down some of these terrestrial materials, the life forms that inhabit submerged tree branches and such reproduce rapidly, providing forage for insects and aquatic crustaceans, which, in turn are preyed upon by fishes. Yeah, a food chain...started by a piece of tree that fell in the forested was covered by water during periods of inundation.

If you look at the way the "biocover" (such a generic term, wouldn't you say?) grows on these materials, it's obvious that it does so in a manner which helps it absorb light, dissolved oxygen, and nutrients from the water column. The largest, broadest surfaces are covered.

These mats of what many hobbyists would characterize as "unsightly growth" are some of Nature's most beautiful and elegant systems, optimized to exploit the dynamic environment in which they are situated. An enormous abundance of life is present, if we just take a few minutes to look for it. 

Now, as a hobbyist, I do get it.

We like things orderly. We like to see things looking "pristine" and well-kept...and I understand that well. For decades I was the guy who you wouldn't see a speck of algae in his tanks...Like, none. My reef tanks were so clean looking that one of my friends jokingly suggested that "you could give birth in there..."

But guess what? "sterile" is not natural.

At least, not in most aquatic habitats.

I see how planted tank people take great care to optimize the environment for the plants, eliminating any algae they can find, in favor of lush plant growth. And that makes sense in that context. However, when I see systems comprised of perfectly "ratio-obeying" rocks, covered in mosses, with neat "lawns" of low-cut, perfectly manicured grass on the substrate, the word "natural" doesn't immediately come to mind.

Rather, I find them stunningly beautiful, much in the same manner as a finely-kept garden or planter box. A piece of art. Respect the enormous effort and talent that went in to planning, executing, and maintaining the tank. I take exception with the moniker of "natural-looking" ascribed to many such tanks. Natural, perhaps in the sense that plants and aquatic life forms are growing there...but that's about it, IMHO.

Nature is simply not neat and orderly. Not in the "design" sense. Nature does not correspond to our need to index and arrange color, growth forms, leaf shapes in their proper place, according to some artificial ratios and rules.


Nature is based on a sort of chaos. Or, being able to take advantage of chaos, anyways.

It's based on living things fighting to survive in a world which is not forgiving of life forms that cannot adapt to their environment. And as such, it has a compelling, almost relaxing beauty all of its own.

This viewpoint and willingness to embrace this more functionally-aesthetic interpretation  of Nature does not make me popular with some people, especially some in the aquascaping community, who feel that we are pushing the idea of "lax maintenance", "low concept" design, and "shoddy execution" (all actual words used by self-appointed "critics" to describe blackwater, botanical-style aquariums at one time or another over the years!).

I hate conflict, and have nothing but respect for most of these talented people, yet it seems we always receive some serious "rancor" from a few parties regarding our aesthetic. And frankly, I would rather spend more time on "The Tint" executing and creating content on some cool new ideas, but there is a valuable- and timely lesson to be learned here.

It's about acceptance, tolerance, and understanding.

I would imagine that the initial appearance of a botanical-style, blackwater aquarium makes it an easy target for those who are dogmatic, narrow minded and haven't got a clue on how these systems operate.

And let's be honest, I've never worked with a customer who created a botanical-style blackwater tank aquascape by just "tossing stuff in at random" (although that would be cool!).  There IS a LOT of thought an planning involved I the execution of these systems. Remember, we're not strictly about aesthetics. We're about fostering natural function, and the aesthetics are just a part of the whole equation.

The aesthetics often become far more enhanced after the aquarium has operated a period of time, resulting in a look that is often a bit different than we might have originally expected!

Botanical-style systems are different. They allow Nature to do a fair amount of the work, unobstructed by our regular intervention. This frightens some people. Yet, it's the ultimate expression of the concept of wabi-sabi, which Takashi Amano admired so much and urged us to embrace for so long. IMHO, it's the most critical- and most disregarded lesson he ever taught. Please Google it.

Yeah, these systems force us to look at Nature as it is...not simply as we want it to look.

These systems are so contrary to the hyper-dogmatic, homogenized, rule-driven lane that many of these "critics" operate in, that they simply cannot comprehend why people create such aquariums! If it weren't indicative of a problem, it would be funny.

Plenty of thought, skill, and effort goes into creating one of blackwater, botanical-style aquariums. You people are damn good!

There is a reason why the idea of creating these types of aquariums is literally exploding worldwide. They offer huge opportunities to express creativity, and to learn and contribute to an important body of knowledge within this speciality. They aren't that much different than what are touted as "high concept" aquariums by some, requiring plenty of planning, understanding, and talent to create and manage.

The opportunity to look at a feature one sees in a natural habitat and recreate the look and function of it is more enticing than ever before, given this mental shift. We just need to look at these natural features, consider how and why they formed, and what advantages they offer the aquatic life forms which resides in the. A more "wholistic" approach, indeed.

And then, we simply need to execute, unencumbered by artificial "rules" imposed by hobby dogma. A huge mental shift.

It's what comes after the tank is set up that really starts to differ from more "conventional" aquascaping and aquarium management.

The acceptance of natural processes, regardless of their appearance is key.  Making the effort to understand what is happening in our tanks, why it happens, and how these processes, if left "unedited", are exactly what happen in the wild aquatic habitats of the world.

A common "criticism" I hear from some people is that botanical tanks, with their brown water, biofilms, and decaying leaves, are a "cover" for "lack of technique" or "poor maintenance." To which I often respond, "Leave your 'scape alone for three weeks without touching anything on it, and I'll do the same with mine...lets see how much our tanks change."

Of course, there are never any takers among these critics, because they know that their tanks will "devolve" into what they would call "chaos" if they're not tending to it constantly. Some plants will overgrow others. Some will die back. The perfectly organized planting groups will fall by the wayside as the more dominant plants exploit the available resources. The botanical-style aquarium, which functions in a very natural manner, simply...continues to evolve. Leaves and pods decompose, fungal or biofilm growths wax and wane. Occasional strands of algae might pop up on a branch somewhere. Plants grow in the direction of light and nutrients. Just like in Nature, perhaps?

Fighting back nature does not make a tank "natural", IMHO.

Accepting it does.

And that requires talent, knowledge, and understanding on the part of the hobbyist.

And, just like accepting Nature, the hobby also needs to accept the fact that not everyone buys into everyone else's concept of what looks good, what's "cool", and what constitutes "natural" or whatever. Ironically, the highly talented people who unfairly criticize this style of aquarium are possibly ones who could contribute the most towards evolving them!  

Why some people love to bash the efforts and interests of others is beyond me. No one "owns" the idea of aquascaping. There is no "right or wrong" here; criticisms of things we haven't even tried before are not helpful.

They frighten off some individuals from even trying new things; questioning new ideas. How is that helpful?  To what end is this necessary? Now, in all fairness, it's a very small percentage of people who level such criticisms, but they are so vocal and venomous in their assertions that to not consider what they're saying and respond to them would be irresponsible on my part. We have received so much positive input, enthusiasm, and encouragement (not to mention, some awesome aquascapes!) from some of the world's most highly regarded aquascapers, that it's almost funny to hear such negativity...but, "people are people", right?

Guess the eternal optimist in me keeps thinking I can reach some of these people...not trying to convince them to create a blackwater/botanical aquarium; rather, to get them to simply understand that there is more than one methodology that can be used to create an amazing aquarium. To look to Nature not as just a "muse"- but as a teacher.

It's not that difficult a concept.

Enough divisiveness already! We're all aquarium hobbyists.

And we as hobbyists all need to really understand that the precious natural habitats that we ALL love so much offer a beauty, "order", and resilience all of their own, and that they evolved over time as the forces which act upon them except greater influence upon them.

Some of these forces are artificial and detrimental, like deforestations, siltation, runoff, and pollution. By making the effort to really understand how these habitats function in their un-adulterated state, we are gaining insights and appreciation that may help us do a better job at protecting them for future generations to enjoy.

Let's do a better job in the hobby of understanding each other. Let's do a better job of looking at Nature and appreciating the job it does, despite our predilection for wanting to  do things OUR way. Let's do a better job of being more open-minded, more creative within the context of what Nature does. Let's do a better job in the hobby of understanding each other. We're all better off together, working with each other to push the boundaries of this wonderful hobby.

And it all starts by looking at what happens to an aquatic habitat when any old log, branch, or root falls into it. To see, study, and understand that the aquatic environment is influenced by so many unique factors- many of which we can interpret and foster in our own aquariums, is the key. To give Nature the space to "breathe" within our tanks will take us to entirely new places in the hobby.

It's not only interesting...It's transformational! 

We just need to accept it. 

Stay creative. Stay honest. Stay open-minded. Stay studious. Stay together. Stay inspired...

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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