Ceding some of the work to Nature...

The other day, someone asked me about "the state of the aquarium hobby" and where I thought things were headed; where Tannin's "world view" falls in this... Now, it's not like I'm some prophet or something. I'm just a hobbyist...perhaps with a slightly different view, but a hobbyists nonetheless. That being said, I think I am a bit lucky in that I'm in a position to see some of the cool changes taking place on a daily basis.

Like it or not, the world of aquariums is changing at a more rapid pace than ever before...New ideas and old ideas are merging being developed- being rediscovered...working their way into our hobby's "collective consciousness." And some ideas and mindsets seem to stick around, regardless of the rapid changes taking place.

I have this thing where I love to "classify" ideas in the hobby...not sure why.  One of my fave hobbyist/writers/photographers, Sumer Tiwari ( who's pics have graced these pages many times) brought up one of my fave points on this topic in a recent discussion:

"...In the modern aquarium keeping, we are constantly applauding nature aquarium tanks which are very carefully built to be aesthetic masterpieces. Any newcomer in the hobby is constantly reminded how important “crystal clear” water is. I’m not saying it’s always wrong. There are times when fishes do come from very clear water or maybe you want to go for that look. My concern is that this other side of the hobby’s is often not exposed to the newer generation of the hobbyists. 
Hobbyists who are lucky to have visited natural habitats of the fishes they like know and understand this concept very well."

Boom. 💥


Sumer went on to bring up some other very important points in his response, but I want to focus on the topic above for today.

I think that we as a "movement" in the hobby (What I have long called the "New Botanical"-style of aquarium) not only present a different sort of aesthetic, but a different mental approach, too. We understand that the materials we place in our aquariums not only affect its appearance, but its function. 

And they change over time.

For decades, I found the truly "ephemeral" nature of the botanical-style aquarium as compelling as any. Not everyone found this "look" to be attractive- or even slightly interesting. It's a look that is- or has been- utterly "contrary" to what the mainstream hobby finds "attractive", and seems to go against the grain of both aesthetics and function.

The near-dominant prevalence of aquatic plants and the rigid interpretation of the "Nature Aquarium Style" movement seemed to leave little room in the hobby's collective psyche for a tinted, darker tank full of randomly-placed decomposing leaves and seed pods.

Or did it?

I mean, Amano's whole idea in a nutshell was to replicate Nature to a certain extent by accepting it and laying a conceptual groundwork for it to unfold. (Just look at all of the pics of grassy fields and moss-covered fenceposts in Amano's books. He got it. He felt something.) Now, granted, his general aesthetic involved plants and what seems to be a natural-looking aquascape, although executed in an intentionally artistic way. There is nothing wrong with this. Some of the world's most beautiful aquariums were/are created this way. 

However, what I noticed over time in the freshwater world was an almost obsessive, rigid adherence to certain parts of Amano's formula and aesthetic; specifically, ratios, placement of hardscape and plants, and a certain type of aesthetic formula that one had to replicate in order to gain legitimacy or "acceptance" from the community. 

I really don't think it was Amano's intent.

"Wabi-sabi", the Japanese philosophy which embraces the ephemeral nature of the existence of things, was/is a key concept in Amano's approach, and it still is. I think it's fallen into a bit of "disuse", though, in the "Nature Aquarium" movement, as aquarists aspired to replicate the style proffered in his works, perhaps trying to by-pass what seemed to be a less exciting -or less immediately rewarding- part of his approach.

I think that this is why we have some many  "diorama-style" tanks in competitions, with "details" like twigs and roots glued to wood...and I also think it's why we see more and more serious aquascapers taking another look at a more realistic type of aquarium utilizing botanicals. Aquariums which embrace decay, detritus, biofilms, and a less "ratio-centric", more "random" natural look.

I think many aquascapers are simply tired of overly-stylized and are leaning back into a truly more natural look. And maybe...perhaps- they're starting to come around to the idea of "functional aesthetics', too!

Is there not also beauty in "randomness", despite our near-obsessive pursuit of rules, such as "golden ratio", color aggregating, etc? Just because last year's big 'scaping contest winner had the "perfect" orientation, ratios, and alignment of the (insert this year's trendiest wood variety here) branch within the tank, doesn't mean it's a real representation of the natural functionality of "randomness." 

In other words, just because it looks good, it doesn't mean it's what Nature looks like. Or functions like, for that matter.

Yes, I know an aquarium is not "Nature"- but it does function in accordance with Nature's laws, regardless of what we want, right? And it is an ecosystem to the organisms which inhabit it.

One of the things that we've seen be more accepted in the hobby over the past few years is a trend towards more "realistic" aquariums. Not just systems which look like natural environments; rather, systems which are modeled as much after the function of them as the aesthetics.

"Functional aesthetics."

I think this is where Tannin Aquatics falls, if you had to nail us down into one specific "stylistic/philosphical approach" to aquariums.

The "space between", so to speak. Sort of straddling multiple approaches, with Nature as the ultimate "critic."

A less rigidly aesthetically-controlled, less "high-concept" approach to setting the stage for...Nature- to do what she's done for eons without doing as much to "help it along." Rather, the mindset here is to allow nature to take it's course, and to embrace the breakdown of materials, the biofilms, the decay...and rejoice in the ever-changing aesthetic and functional aspects of a natural aquatic system- "warts and all" -and how they can positively affect our fishes.

Wabi-Sabi? Yeah, I think so. I think we embody the concept beautifully.

The initial skepticism and resistance to the idea of an aquarium filled with biofilms, decomposition, and tinted water has given way to enormous creativity and discovery. Our community has (rather easily, I might add!) accepted the idea that Nature will follow a certain "path"- parts of which are aesthetically different than anything we've allowed to occur in our tanks before- and rather than attempting to mitigate, edit, or thwart it, we're celebrating it!

It's less about perfect placement of materials for artistic purposes, and more about placing materials to facilitate more natural function and interactions between fishes and their environment.

We are looking more and more at the natural habitats for inspiration, rather than "last month's Tank of The Month"- which is a huge leap towards unlocking a greater understanding and appreciation for Nature. And towards preserving it. It's amazing how much you respect and treasure a natural habitat when you have a miniature replica of it in your living room, isn't it?

We are in a really cool place, where we can inspire, assist, and learn from everyone from the most hardcore biotope aquarist to the curious "Nature Aquarium Style" addict, to the serious fish breeder, and show them a way to really incorporate a different side of Nature into their aquariums. 

The natural side of Nature...

And you can embrace both "style" and Nature, of course. You can start with a higher concept and cede some of the evolution to Nature and see what comes of it...

We're seeing that not only do botanicals, leaves, and alternative substrate materials look interesting- they provide a physiological basis for creating unique environmental conditions for our fishes and plants. We're seeing fish graze on the life forms which live in and among the decomposing botanicals, as well as the botanicals themselves- just like in Nature...

And we are seeing the influence- aesthetically and chemically- that these materials assert on the aquarium's environmental parameters.

Especially when we think about the way these systems evolve, and the need for patience on our part.

Yeah, patience. We talk about it a lot, huh?

When it comes to botanical-style aquariums, the most valuable "asset" you can have is most definitely patience. The patience to understand that developing one of these systems is a process, and realizing that, like any aquarium, there are sort of "stages" or "iterations" that, if you take time to enjoy along the way, create a very satisfying and even engrossing aspect!

It's so important to look at things a bit differently than you would if you were a bit more pragmatic about the process...Just hell-bent on "getting it done" as quickly as possible...Rather than purposely arriving at some "point", we look at the whole process, and all of its stages, as "the result"...


And for sure, one of my favorite stages in the evolution of an aquarium is when the "stage is set" for the tank to mature. You know: The essential "anchor" hardscape is done. The wood and botanicals that will be the largest pieces are set. The tank is emerging from that that "sterile-looking", stark appearance (You know, that look at the very beginning which leaves no doubt about this being "artificial"). 

It would be tempting, at this point- to just rush through and get more stuff I there; get the fishes in; plants, etc...

Nope, you need to have patience to let it unfold gradually, steadily.

Isn't this a cool time in the evolution of your tank? A time for the potential of Nature to unleash itself...It's about contemplation, reflection, patience.

It's setting the stage for the long term.

It's about looking at your hardscape, for example, and asking yourself if this aggregation is representative of the way a tangle of branches might slowly assemble itself, given a unidirectional flow of water...like an inundation caused by an overflowing stream? Or, perhaps the way a root ball of a tree would present itself when the tree falls over into the water?


Think about the beauty that Nature creates with her utter "randomness"; or more precisely- through the action of water, wind, current...and the passage of time.

The pic below by David Sobry always gives me some interesting ideas...and context to this idea.

I've found that some of the most compelling aquascapes that I've ever seen or done- botanical-style, hardscape, planted, reef, etc.- seem to have a special "something" about them. Of course, a large part of it is the overall "look"; however, one of the things which, in my opinion, separates good tanks from great ones is the little details...stuff that completes the underwater scene.

Not necessarily "structural" details, like anchor hardscape pieces, mind you. Definitely NOT the details like little glued twigs and roots onto rock like we see in those diorama scapes...No, we're talking about little, subtle details which make a system more natural-looking and "shade in the corners" where needed.

I think that's where our obsession with little twigs comes from.

Details. Random details.

Those little things which make a big difference over time.

In our botanical-style world, it's little things, like bits and pieces of broken up botanical materials, like bark, the occasional larger seed pod or what not, which make your scene look much more complete and "organic."

If you take your cues from natural underwater habitats, like I do, you'll notice that they are filled with all sorts of materials- not just the more obvious leaves and branches. If you think contextually, particularly when we're talking about habitats like igapo inundated forests and igarapes ("canoe ways" in the Amazonian forests), take into account that they literally are flooded forest floors.

As such, they have seemingly random aggregations of botanical materials scattered about everywhere, punctuated- or, rather defined- by larger features like fallen logs, branches, a few random rocks. And soil...sediment...turbidity at times.

The look of sort of awkwardly-placed hardscape pieces in an aquarium might certainly not be seen as being "artistic", in the way fabulous work by my friends like Johnny Ciotti are- but, in my opinion, it's nonetheless compelling- once the details arrive to soften and fill in the scene.

Oh, I said the "D" word again.


I believe that an aquarium that attempts to replicate a sort of chaotic scene like the ones we're talking about starts with what looks like really artificial placement of wood, anchored by numerous details which soften, define, and fill in the scape. A sort of analog to the theater/motion picture concept  of "mise en scene", where pieces literally set the stage and help tell a story by providing context.

Yes, unlike a scape which depends upon growth of plants to fill it in and "evolve" it, the botanical-style blackwater/brackish aquarium is largely hardscape materials, which requires the adept placement of said materials to help fill in the scene. And of course, part of the "evolution" is the softening, redistribution, and break down of botanical materials over time...just like what happens in Nature.

(One of Mike Tucc's underwater igarape pics to the rescue..again!)

I suppose this little rant could be viewed as a "defense" our "style", which on occasion has been criticized as "sloppy", "lazy", "undisciplined", etc...😆

Perhaps it is to some. However, I think it serves to re-examine what I feel is one of the foundational philosophies of the botanical-style aquarium aesthetic.

And that is part of the attraction of the botanical-style aquarium for me. Rather than conform thoroughly to some sort of "rules" based on design, layout, and technique, this type of aquarium tends to ask for very basic initial design, and lets Mother Nature handle a lot of the emerging details over time.

This is a slightly different approach to aquascaping than we usually think about. It requires some vision. It requires belief in one's ideas. It requires understanding...And it requires patience above all else.

And, oh- again- the passage of time.

Nature has been working with terrestrial materials in aquatic habitats for eons.

And Nature works with just about everything you throw at her. She'll take that seemingly "unsexy" piece of wood or rock or bunch of dried leaves, and, given the passage of time, the action of gravity and water movement, and the work of bacteria, fungi, and algae- will mold, shape, evolve them into unique and compelling pieces, as amazing as anything we could ever hope to do...

If we give her the chance. 

If we allow ourselves to look at her work in context.

Always let Nature add the details... She pretty much never messes them up! Don't be afraid to cede some of the work to Her.

It's not just a look. Not just an aesthetic. Not just a mindset...

It's a way to incorporate natural materials to achieve new and progressive results with the fishes and plants we've come to love so much.

And, It's still early days.

A ground floor opportunity for every aquarist who gives this stuff a shot to make a meaningful- and beautiful contribution to the evolving state of the art of the botanical-style aquarium., and to share what Nature really looks like with people all over the world.

That's some of the most compelling work that we can do.

Stay innovative. Stay bold. Stay excited. Stay curious. Stay awed...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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