Building Blocks To "The Big Idea"


One of the great artifacts of our “modern” social media culture is the way we share our work. These media have given us a tremendous vehicle to distribute our ideas and experiences to large numbers of fellow hobbyists with an ease that the hobbyists who came before us could scarcely imagine. 

It’s cool. It’s amazing. It’s transformational.

However, it’s also created a sort of urgency to only share what we feel is our ultimate work- our best. 

And that's a real shame. Because the work that it took to get to the tank that you think might be your best may have been just as awesome, in ways you might not have even appreciated at the time. The precursors to your brilliant tank could serve as an inspiration, a lesson for other hobbyists as they take their journeys with their own aquariums. 

For every amazing aquarium that you create, it’s likely that there were a few which came before it. Perhaps they weren’t quite as amazing. Maybe they weren’t all that impressive. They might have even been what we- our own worst critics- would call “shitty!”

Yet, each one provides us valuable experience, and serves as a “building block” for the aquariums which follow. The lessons learned, the mistakes made, the problems overcome, all serve as valuable lessons and inspiration for others. And these tanks should be shared just as prominently as those which we feel are so amazing.

Because they also teach a valuable lesson for hobbyists:

Everything we do helps advance the state of the art in the aquarium hobby. Each new tank- no matter how awesome we or the world think it is-gives us experience, ideas, and inspiration to do other tanks that perhaps bring us closer to the idea that we had in mind. And it can influence other hobbyists to do the same.

I can't tell you how many times I've done a "thing" or "things" which were based on some idea, some inspiration, or some thought that I had about how to execute an aquarium, which may not have gotten me "there" right from the start, but taught me all sorts of things along the way too ultimately arriving where I wanted to be.

It often starts with a idea.

The idea can lead to a more "fleshed-out" execution, bringing in other elements and influences...

...Until it gradually emerges into a more "polished" configuration.


...And ultimately leading to the execution of the idea that we had in mind when the journey began!

Now, often an idea will start based on something we see in Nature. Perhaps an element of a habitat that we like. Perhaps, it will dovetail with some sort of hypothesis we have, and lead to other executions to prove out the concept. Case in point was the evolution of my idea of replicating leaf litter beds in a "leaf-only" aquarium. 

It all started with seeing how least litter functions in the wild habitats we love so much.


I started out with a tank filled with a little wood, some twigs, pieces of bark, and a layer of leaves.

As I become more comfortable with the idea of a significant number of leaves, removing the "extraneous" materials became a lot easier!

Ultimately, I arrived at my "leaf only" concept. It just took a few iterations and steps.

And of course, the idea of "substrate-centric" tanks didn't' stop with leaves only.

And that led to further developments in this arena- more realistic executions of substrates, to further the idea of biodiversity and function.

The reality is that, to get to the "destination" we have in mind, the journey can be long, filled with tests, turns, triumphs, and dead ends, and failures...but it's just that- a journey. One which is often as satisfying as the destination.

Yet, a lot of people want to see the aquarium get to the "ultimate destination" immediately- and don't make the effort to share any of the iterations along the way...Heaven forbid we should show something that's not "Insta-ready!" I mean, why wouldn't you share these things? Why do we fee that we should only share our "ultimate tanks"- especially in a progressive, always-changing area like the botanical-style aquairum. 

Why do people worry about this? We seem to think that we can't share the not-so-awesome stuff. People are afraid of what it will do to their "image."


I feel sad for them. They need to enjoy it. Savor it. Why do we as aquarists not embrace  and share this part of our aquariums' evolutions a little more wholeheartedly?

And further, why do we dedicate so much energy to resisting Nature's work than we do enjoying it?

I was wondering if it has to do with some inherent impatience that we have as aquarists- or perhaps as humans in general-a desire to see the "finished product" as soon as possible; something like that. And there is nothing at all wrong with that, I suppose. I just kind of wonder what the big rush is?

I guess, when we view an aquarium in the same context as a home improvement project, meal preparation, or algebra test, I can see how reaching some semblance of "finished" would take on a greater significance! Those earlier, in-between-sort of moments are not nearly as exciting as some perceived destination or outcome we have in mind for our tank.

We have an idea in our head of HOW it's" supposed" to look, and to many, anything that falls short of that is just a "phase", I suppose.

Yet, those phases- the steps along the way- often yield interesting lessons for us snd ideas for others. We have to share them! 

And we need to, once and for all, ditch the idea that we need to be "finished."

If you look at an aquarium as you would a garden- an organic, living, evolving, growing entity- then the need to see the thing "finished" becomes much less important. Suddenly, much like a "road trip", the destination becomes less important than the journey. It's about the experiences gleaned along the way.

Enjoyment of the developments, the process.

In the botanical-style aquarium, it's truly about a dynamic and ever-changing system. An evolution. A process. Started by us, assisted by Nature.

Every stage holds fascination. 

Just like it does in the wild habitats that we covet so deeply.

To not allow an aquarium to evolve- to not trust Nature to help take it from an idea to a microcosm- is to not allow oneself the opportunity to witness firsthand the wonders of the natural world, and the incredible promise, tenacity, and beauty of life underwater.

Be kind to yourself and your aquarium. Be patient and enjoy the journey.

All of it.

Share the "building blocks" along the way with the world. You never know how your "incremental step"- the one that seems like a sort of "boring little change"- might just be the "unlock"- the inspiration- that some other hobbyist needed to get to their ultimate goal!

Stay brave. Stay diligent. Stay persistent. Stay curious. Stay devoted...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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