Baggage for the journey? Or just...baggage?

As a lifelong aquarium hobbyist and fish geek, I like to think that I've seen and experienced just about everything- which is absolutely a stupid, and even arrogant assumption. However, after decades in the game, I can say that I've experienced quite a bit- and that comes with its own set of "burdens", as most of you who are experienced know.

Like- knowing what comes next...Good, bad, and otherwise.

You know that feeling when you're looking at setting up a new aquarium? The stuff that goes through your head that perhaps even keeps you up at night?

Perhaps, you're at that phase now. You have this empty tank, all of the equipment you'll be using, and a whole lot of ideas bouncing in your head.

Some are new thoughts on how you want to approach familiar problems, like like, "If I go with these pieces of wood, how will I have to position them to take advanatage of the tank's footprint, water flow, and lighting?" Others are far more esoteric, like thinking through positioning of pump returns within the display, or thinking through maintenance strategies.

Still others are...well- weird.

Case in point.

I was up late a few weeks back...Just unable to sleep for some reason. Like any good fish geek, rather than just meditating or something, I spent some time pouring over fish-geek forums/blogs, freshwater and reef- and was drawn to some "build threads" on a few forums, you know- the ones where people talk about their new projects and share their progress- to kind of get a "read" as to how other aquarists are approaching certain things.

Which is funny, actually, because one of the things I always have held dear in my personal aquarium practice is that I won't allow any of my decisions to be influenced by others...Kind of a f---ing ridiculous position, actually- because we can't help but be influenced by the work of others in this hobby, right?  And besides, as an aquatics industry business owner, it's important to get a pulse on what my fellow hobbyists are up to...

There's nothing wrong with that.

So anyways, as I pursued a few threads, I'd see the usual iterations of wood, rock, the fancy equipment shots, the ridiculously "Windex-blue" lights-on shots on reef tanks (I mean, it's  2019- we've had LED's for like two decades, and we're still into making our tanks look like Studio 54? WTF. Ever heard of "full spectrum" or "daylight?").

Oh, shit-I'm going off-topic...must.stop.myself!

And since I was contemplating employing high light in a particular future tank, I was fascinated by others' experiences in high light setups. Apart from stuff I'd laugh and comiserate about, I saw talks about IT. You know. The big "hurdle." The rights of passage in any aquarium.


Yikes, I forgot about that.

Yeah. Seems like I've had tanks just kind of "set up" for so long, particularly in our tinted-water-and-decomposing-leaf world, that I've kind of forgotten about the stuff that happens in brightly-lit tanks for it a bit. That part when all of your good work looks like...well, you get it- as it's covered with that familiar "patina" of algae while the tank goes through its nutrient cycling phase.

The part where every hobbyist, experienced or otherwise, has those lingering doubts; asks questions- goes through the "mental gymnastics" to try to cope: "Do I have enough flow?" "Was my source water quality any good?" "Is it my light?" "When does this shit go away?" "It DOES go away. I know it's just a phase." Right? "Yeah, it goes away?" "When?" "It WILL go away. Right?"

I mean, it's common with every new tank, really. 

The waiting. The "not being able to visualize a fully-stocked tank "thing"...Patience-testing stuff. Stuff which I- "Mr. Tinted-water-biofilms-and-decomposing-leaves-and-botanicals-guy"- am pretty much hardened to by now. Accepting a totally different look. Not worrying about "phases" or the ephemeral nature of some things in my aquarium. 

Yet, like anyone who sets up an aquarium, I still get those little doubts in the dim (tinted?) recesses of my mind now and then- the product of decades of doing fish stuff, yet wondering if THIS is the one time when things WON'T work out as expected...

I mean, it's one of those rights of passage that we all go through when we set up aquariums  right? The early doubts. The questioning of ourselves. The reviewing of fundamental procedure and practice. Maybe, the need to reach out to the community to gain reassurance.

It's normal. It's often inevitable. We're social creatures.

The point of this piece is not about algae or nitrites, or biofilms on botanicals, per se. It's about the mind set that we bring to the table when we experience such things. The "algae bloom" or the "biofilm" phases brings out familiar feelings...Feelings that perhaps make us uncomfortable because we realize that, despite all of our planning and knowledge and forethought- we are not entirely in control.

Nature is. She calls the shots. These 'phases" in new tanks are hers to execute. We just have to accept, understand, and wait them out patiently- perhaps even learning to appreciate and understand them to the point where they simply become "rungs on a ladder"- trail markers, if you will- on the journey to our aquarium's ultimate destination.

She's done it for eons in the wild, creating beautiful, functional habitats that inspire us beyond anything we could ever hope to achieve. We need to relax and have a little faith that she'll do similar deeds in our little glass boxes- if we allow her to.

We need to enjoy the journey. TO NOT be freaked out. Sure, we can get a bit frustrated that they are not going at the speed, or in the direction which we want.

But they are phases. I know this..and you do, too.

Yet this stuff  bothers many of us, huh?

And it's that way at every phase of the hobby. I mean, if we let stuff get to us...I have a lot of fishy friends who freak out over everything that seems slightly askew with their tanks. I feel for them...can this really be "enjoyable?" Maybe. Yet, despite my more accepting and almost laissez faire attitude, I understand them. We have the benefit-or burdens- of having been down this road before, and we're on guard...

We reach back into our minds- our experiences- every time our canister filter releases micro bubbles into our tank, or whenever our pumps make that funny noise...Whenever the temperature seems to be harder to dial in than we expect. Whatever it is that's going on in our tanks. We KNOW what stuff should be like, we know that we set ourselves up for success...yet we look, and ponder- and we worry.


But we DO know better.

We know that all of these wonderful things are just a phase. Our own experience- and the experience of our "tribe"- tell us this. Yet it's simply part of the game, I believe. The worry. The reflection. The doubts. The...learning- which comes about as a result of our doing something that, in reality, is among the most enjoyable of pursuits in the hobby- starting a new tank.

We know what to expect. 

And perhaps- just maybe- we know too much.

We understand all of this stuff. We experienced it many times over the years, and have watched- and even reassured- others that "all of this is normal" and to "just be patient and it will pass..."

You know- aquarium stuff.

Outright beginners actually have it much easier in this regard, I think. I mean, when just having a glass or acrylic box of water in your home is a novelty- a cause for rejoicing- you tend to live in a bubble of gentle "ignorance" (okay, maybe that's kind of harsh)- okay, let's call it "blissful lack of awareness" that some of this stuff sort of-well- sucks...

And that's a beautiful thing- because a beginner is taken by the sheer wonder- and joy of it all.

They don't stress out about stuff like micro bubbles and hair algae on their hardscape. They're not worried about that annoying stuff like WE are, because they don't KNOW that it can linger a long, long time if you don't manage the tank correctly at this phase. They're not "handcuffed" by their past experiences and the knowledge of having set up dozens of tanks over the years. Rather, they're just stoked as hell about the thought of Zebra Danios, Pineapple Platies, blue gravel, and Anacharis taking up residence in the new little utopian microhabitat they just set up in their New York City apartment.

Even with algae. Even with the cycling. All of that stuff.

Perhaps the beginner knows something we don't.

I sometimes think that perhaps, I- we- know too much. 

And I don't mean that from an arrogant perspective, mind you.

I think I, like so many aquarists at my level of hobby experience, tend to overthink every aspect of the aquarium hobby, particularly the new tank startup phase, rather than just letting ourselves enjoy the moment- the wonder, and the awe that comes from doing something special, beautiful, and, let's face it- incredibly cool! Especially those of us who play with natural-style systems-something that nine- tenths of the world will never get to experience or even comprehend.

I think it's entirely possible to release ourselves from the "burden" of our own experience, and to allow ourselves to enjoy every aspect of this great hobby, free from preconception or prejudices. To just make decisions based on what our research- gut, or yeah- I suppose experience- tells us is the right thing to do, then letting stuff happen. In other words, taking control of the influence our own experience provides, rather than allowing it to taint our whole journey with doubt, dogma, second-guessing, and over-analysis of every single aspect.

Perhaps, maybe- adopting that "beginner's mindset" is a good thing!

I'm looking forward to the next journeys with all of the new setups I'll be doing this year and next. Looking forward to solving problems, creating solutions, trying new things, experiencing the familiar ones- and just taking each step as it comes. Not over-thinking, and not being completely ignorant, either.

Because I certainly don't want to carry the burden of my own experiences if I don't have to.

Nor should you.

Stay inspired. Stay enthralled. Stay dedicated. Stay creative. Stay undaunted. Stay...calm...

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

July 19, 2019

LOL, I can SOOO relate to that.. I’ve head dryscapes set up for months as I contemplate my next moves…and I’d state at them for HOURS and enjoy it just as if they were chock full of fishes and, of course, water!

I’m a geek🤓 for sure!



July 18, 2019

“I mean, when just having a glass or acrylic box of water in your home is a novelty”

Haha, that’s not even an exaggeration. Just an empty tank, filled with water and illuminated looks fascinating to me.

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