Breakthroughs? Or mental shifts?

Much like life, the aquarium hobby is filled with excitement, gratification, frustration, joy, heartache, and everything in between. It's more than just a hobby for many- rather, lifestyle of sorts- and that brings all sorts of lessons and "takeaways" with it, doesn't it?

Seems like just about everything we do in aquarium keeping invloves some sort of "right of passage", or "barrier to entry" before you achieve exactly what you want to achieve, right?

You know, a challenge or "gauntlet" that you need to get through somehow before ultimately getting to where you want to be. Like, it starts out easy, but after a short period of time- there IT is..Waiting for you. That challenge. And there is only one way to go if you want to progress: Forward.

Time to throw down.

I see this with crystal clarity with the botanical- style aquariums we espouse so much here: 

A week or two after completing your 'scape and getting your prepared botanicals into your aquarium, there come the biofilms and fungal growths. Of course, these will grow at a rate which is a bit unpredictable, yet often peak and either pass in a relatively short time, or wane to a more "tolerable" level.

Knowing that it will always be present in your botanical-style aquarium is a real "right of passage" for everyone involved in this game- requiring an adjustment to our expectations- a mental shift.

You just have to understand what these growths are, and why they form. And celebrate them instead of simply fear them.

You begin to understand and appreciate the biofilms, fungal growths, and decomposition and what they mean to the ecology of a closed aquatic ecosystem. And then, you accept and indeed, celebrate- the progression and the many unique characteristics of botanical-style systems. Your viewpoint has changed.

In our world, it means understanding that the stuff you're seeing in your aquarium- the stuff which might freak you out a bit- is exactly what you see in Nature.

You've made a mental shift that will equip you well to advance in your journey with this type of aquarium.

You've "crossed the mental barrier" and came out on the other side.

It's an achievement worth celebrating, isn't it?

Breaking through barriers is part of the game in this hobby.

Yeah, the shit you have to go through before you get exactly what you want. Not always fun. Not always "pretty" to many of you. Often times, challenging and perhaps, annoying, to say the least. Only those aquarists who "prove their mettle" by not shirking from the challenges, or calling it quits, reap the ultimate rewards.

Our botanical-style aquarium world asks much from the hobbyist.

I totally get it.

It requires an understanding.

An understanding that what we celebrate as beautiful here is dramatically different than ANYTHING that the rest of the aquarium world even sees as remotely tolerable: Tinted, turbid water, stringy biofilm growths, sediment and detritus...stuff that makes most hobbyists cringe even at the thought of it in their tanks.

We're not afraid, because we look beyond the simple appearance...and we understand the function and benefits of such characteristics in our aquairums- and how they are so prevalent in Nature, too.

I hit on this theme over and over and OVER again because it's absolutely fundamental to the botanical-style aquarium movement. We're simply dealing with aesthetics and functions that have been shunned, vilified, and reviled by hobbyists for decades. 

And look, it's okay.

My goal isn't to convince the entire hobby that a tinted, turbid, biofilm-and-detritus filled tank is the ultimate in beauty. I get it...Most aquarists simply can't wrap their minds around that and accept it as gorgeous in any way. It makes sense. Of course, it's also possible to embrace many of the elements of our types of aquariums while still accepting a more traditional look. It's not all about the  earthy, over-the-top, in-your-face natural look you see me rant about so often here.

Beauty in the botanical-style aquarium encompasses many different things.

Of course, one thing that we all need to deploy in abundance is patience- and faith- and an understanding that an aquarium-any kind- is always a work in progress...

Overnight perfect results are uncommon. We need to make that apparent to everyone.

Even in this social-media fueled, finished product-heavy, "Insta-beautiful" world, the reality of the aquarium hobby is that you need to "go through some stuff" to get there. You simply can't expect to circumvent these things and have a "finished product" without putting in the work.

We know this. However, we don't really talk about it all that much. We don't discuss it or, for that matter- celebrate it nearly enough in the hobby.

And it's not limited simply to our world of "twigs and nuts", right?

Of course not.

There are a lot of "rights of passage" and "barriers" to confront in aquarium keeping, huh?

For example, before you can get a breeding pair of cichlids, you often have to go through a bunch of specimens, with their aggressive courting rituals and violent challenges to members of the same and the opposite sex, often requiring you to intervene to avoid injury. You need to be observant, patient, and diligent...Ultimately, after all the maneuvering, all of the challenges, and all of the time, you end up with a healthy, compatible pair for years.

Another gauntlet crossed.

Need another example? Okay, let's cross the "salinity line" for a second.

Reef aquariums are envied by many. They're beautiful and complex closed ecosystems, brimming with colorful life. I've played with them for decades, and, as much as I like to say I'm over them, I somehow keep migrating back to them again and again. They're addictive. Engrossing. Gorgeous.

However, to get to the desired "drool-worthy" phase, you typically have to go through a succession of awful algae blooms, a protracted nitrogen cycle establishment phase, slow stocking periods, and a sort of "settling in" period for your corals and inverts. And that's all before they even start to grow. And there is always the challenge of incompatibility, allelopathy, competition for space and resources, water chemistry fluctuations, etc.

Monitoring, observing, testing, patience- and the passage of time- are the keys.  Not just dropping mad coin on the fancy and expensive hardware that seems to consume so many reefers. And if you persevere, and if you make the right moves- THEN, you get to enjoy a thriving, colorful reef aquarium.

Those who tire early, look for "shortcuts", think they can "gear their way" out of problems, or who fold and and quit- don't get the privilege of enjoying these systems. They get their asses handed to them. Simple as that...Well, "simple" if you understand the concept, that is.

A "gauntlet" to run. Barriers to cross. Knowledge to acquire.

And of course, it's not just the high-octane reef tanks which require this type of effort and commitment to process...

"High tech" planted aquariums require very careful setup, management, a set of ugly-ass algae blooms, adjustments to dosing, CO2, etc. before they begin to look like the green scenes of our dreams. You can't rush this stuff. To do so is to violate the laws of the natural world. And, as we know, Nature imposes rigid "penalties" for those who attempt to circumvent her challenges. You need to stay focused, observant, diligent, and calm.

Yeah, you need to push through the challenges set by Nature to get the reward you seek.

Okay, enough already. You're no doubt sensing a theme here?

Even when you're setting up your first community aquarium, there are basic principles of tank management to learn, a nitrogen cycle to establish, algae blooms to deal with...

And sure, you can take a sort of negative mindset and state that all of these challenges can be seen as a sort of a "gauntlet" to pass through.

They're not, really. They're simply experiences that you need to go through."Rights of passage" that we need to understand, work through, and learn from.

They should be seen as wonderful opportunities to observe, study, learn, experience, and acquire precious knowledge.

Yeah, they need NOT be viewed as barriers or gauntlets.

And the point of these examples is not to say that the aquarium hobby is incredibly difficult or ridiculously challenging. It's not all "make or break" moments. And challenges, rights of passage, "gauntlets", or whatever we want to label them as are not bad things at all. Not "negatives" or reasons to abort on our goals.

They are simply things that we need to discuss, understand- and perhaps make some mental or other adjustments in our thinking, changes in practices, or tweaks to our physical setups in order to advance in the hobby. And sometimes, we simply have to be patient. Many times, we have to do nothing more than observe, inquire, study, accept, and learn.

Challenging stuff sometimes, but very important if we're trying to achieve success in the hobby.

The point is to show you that just about everything that we want to accomplish in aquarium keeping requires passing through some sort of "barrier to entry"- some set of challenges that test our patience, require us to adjust, make changes, slow down, make "mental shifts" and adapt a patient attitude- before we can move on to the next steps in our journey.

And it's the mindset that we take with us that determines how successful we are. It's not all doom and gloom. It's fun.

It's the whole game.

These rights of passage continue to follow us throughout our aquarium careers...the more advanced the things are that we try, the greater the barriers to entry- and the more important a high degree of patience is required in order to overcome them. They never really "go away"...the challenges, that is. Nor the desire to do different things in the hobby. These are what advance our hobby- push the state of the art, and inspire others to do more.

Nope. That kind of stuff never changes.

What does change-should change- is our point of view; our attitude.

Mental shifts.

It seems that, after a period of time facing the regular challenges in aquaristics, we come to understand, even expect- sometimes even welcome them- as signs that we are progressing. Rather than something to dread, these things we previously called  "barriers" simply become familiar "signposts"- landmarks, if you will- that tell us that we're progressing on the right path. Much like life, the aquarium hobby demands our best, and will reward us in kind- if we stay at it and somehow "prove our worthiness" to Nature.

The key ingredient is to be patient.

To never fear the challenges. To never be discouraged by the setbacks. All they represent are simply opportunities to educate ourselves on the long path towards accomplishing our goals. 

Expect that doing great things requires a lot of work, and accepting that Nature throws us some stuff that we are often not expecting. And trying to understand them, rather than being forced out of the hobby by them- is the key.

Learn from these challenges. Appreciate the process. The nuances. The appearance of stuff you may have previously feared or dreaded. Think independently. Allow yourself to sit back and take it all in, without fear, judgement, or despair.

Regardless of what the hobby throws at you, stay encouraged.

Stay confident. Stay diligent. Stay steadfast. Stay observant. Stay optimistic. Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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