Celebrating the transience of Nature...

I recently had one of those hardcore fish discussions with an old friend who is as much a philosopher as he is an aquarist..Real "Obi-Wan Kenobi", "Aquascaping Jedi"-type. He had this amazing viewpoint on all things aquarium. It was a fun talk.

We all know a hobbyist or two like him, huh? Inspiring, interesting...intelligent.

And during our long-winded discussion, we talked about the ideas of aquariums reflecting nature, and how a good segment of the hobby has been chasing a sort of filtered interpretation of nature for the last 15-20 years or so, but somehow falling a bit short. Aesthetic-wise, our systems have never been more beautiful.

However, to my friend, he felt something was lacking in many scapes. We discussed how some aquascapes- even ones set up in an "artistic" manner, just have a certain "it" factor that evokes something... 

 Yet others fall short by miles.

 Couldn't quite place it. What could it be?

I think I know what it is. Really.

I told him...and he agreed.

It's "Wabi-Sabi" again. Something that's been on my mind a lot lately.

In its most simplistic and literal form, the Japanese philosophy of "Wabi Sabi" is an acceptance and contemplation of the imperfection, constant flux and impermanence of all things. 

This philosophy absolutely is applicable to the art and science of aquarium keeping.

 Indeed, I think it's foundational.

This is a very interesting philosophy, one which has been embraced in aquascaping circles by none other than the late, great, Takashi Amano, who proferred that a planted aquarium is in constant flux, and that one needs to contemplate, embrace, and enjoy the sweet sadness of the transience of life.

Many of Amano's greatest works embraced this philosophy, and evolved over time as various plants would alternately thrive, spread and decline, re-working and reconfiguring the aquascape with minimal human intervention. Each phase of the aquascape's existence brought new beauty and joy to those would observe them.

Did you get the part about "minimal human intervention?" I mean, that all oimplies that an aquarium has to be left set up long enough for plants to thrive, decline, etc. In other words, you set it up for the long run.

Yet, in today's contest-scape driven, break-down-the-tank-after the show world, this philosophy of appreciating change by nature over time seems to have been tossed aside as we move on to the next 'scape. It's all about "sketch it out, set it up, photograph it, edit it, share it...break it the f---- down and move on..."

And that is almost tragic, IMHO. In fact, I can't help but wonder if Mr. Amano would feel the same.

Many of the beautiful aquariums you see splashed all over the internet aren't typically left up long enough for Nature to really do her thing. It's not about a few weeks- or even a few months..It's about processes which take many months or even years. 

I suppose the time frame makes it hard for many to appreciate wabi-sabi in many ways...We're not used to looking at things in our aquariums over long periods of time, the way Nature organizes, evolves, and operates.

Now, when we talk about the use of natural materials in our aquatic hardscape, such as the use of leaves and softer aquatic botanicals, which begin to degrade after a few weeks submerged, one can really understand the practicalities of this philosophy. It could be argued, perhaps, that the use of botanicals in an aquarium is the very essence of what "Wabi Sabi" is about.

I think  we can learn to appreciate this transient nature, and I think in order to do that, a slightly different approach to aquascaping is warranted. A way that allows hobbyists to experience this in a slightly faster time frame...patience still is huge- but the lessons are learned more quickly, perhaps.

We do it with botanicals.

Sure, a carefully constructed hardscape, IMHO, should have some more or less "permanent" things, like rocks and driftwood. Yet, these should be complemented and enhanced by "degradable" items, such as Catappa, Guava, and other leaves, as well as the "softer" pods and such, which not only offer enhanced aesthetics- they offer enrichment of the aquatic habitat through their release of tannins, humic acids, vitamins, etc. as they decompose- just as they do in Nature.

Leaves and such are simply not permanent additions to our 'scapes, and if we wish to enjoy them in their more "intact" forms, we will need to replace them as they start to break down. 

This is not a bad thing.

It is simply how to use them to create a specific aesthetic in a permanent aquarium display. Much like flowers in a garden, leaves will have a period of time where they are in all their glory, crisp and fresh-looking, followed by the gradual, inevitable encroachment of biological decay. At this phase, you may opt to leave them in the aquarium to enrich the environment further and offer a new aesthetic, or you can remove and replace them with fresh leaves and botanicals.

This very much replicates the process which occur in Nature, doesn't it? Decomposition, addition, renewal, change....

This is absolutely the crux of wabi-sabi.

With the publishing of photos and videos of leave-influenced 'scapes in the past few years, there has been much interest and more questions by hobbyists who have not really considered these items in an aquascape before. This is really cool, because new people with new ideas and approaches are experimenting.  

And we're looking at nature as never before. We're celebrating the real diversity and appearance of natural habitats as they really are...Diverse, rich, often turbid and decidedly "messy"- and there is real beauty in them that is both compelling and obvious. 

Some hobbyists have commented that, as their leaves and botanicals break down and the scape as initially presented changes significantly over time. Regardless of if they know it or not, they are grasping wabi-sabi...sort of. One must appreciate the beauty at various phases to really grasp the concept and appreciate it. To find little vignettes- little moments- of fleeting beauty that need not be permanent to enjoy.

Some people just "don't get it", and proffer that this is simply sloppy, not thought-out, and seemingly random. I recall vividly one "critic" on a Facebook forum, who, observing a recent botanical-inspired aquascape created by another hobbyist, commented that the 'scape looked like "...someone just threw in some pods and leaves in a random fashion.." 

Yeah, this guy actually described the aesthetic to a certain (although unsophisticated) degree...but he couldn't get past the superficial "classification" of the look, and therefore concluded it was, "...haphazard, sloppy, and not thought out."

A shame. I think if he glanced at a natural habitat and then looked at the tank again, he'd gain a new appreciation.

But on the other hand, that was the charm and beauty of such a conceptual work. The seemingly random, transient nature of such an aquascape, with leaves deposited as in Nature by currents, material flows, etc., settling in unlikely areas within the hardscape.

Real, unedited, unfiltered, "uninterpreted" Nature.

It's not the way we've defined it in the aquarium world. 

Not everyone likes this nor appreciates it this way. Not everyone thinks that a botanical-style aquarium is even remotely attractive. And that's perfectly fine. It's not the "best" way to run a tank.

Just "a way."

Yet, when you look at Nature...the inspiration for this is everywhere.

Wabi-sabi in its most pure, unadulterated form.

Regardless of how you choose to manage an aquarium with leaves and non-permanent botanicals, you can enjoy the beauty of their "Wabi Sabi" existence. The fact is, you're embracing it simply by including such materials in your work.

The "Urban Igapo" approach that we talk about so much lately; the approach that proffers running a tank in multiple "phases", from fully terrestrial to "inundated"- encompasses all of these things. Perhaps the idea will speak to you. Perhaps it will awaken some idea you've had...or a longing to experience aquariums in a different way.

The real beauty is that there are no real "rules" when conceiving botanical-style 'scapes, which seek to replicate- on some levels, the wild habitats we love. Well, no "rules" other than those imposed by Nature herself, which govern decomposition and water chemistry- the real factors that dictate just how the aquascape will ultimately evolve.

Accepting this inevitable change and the aesthetic imperfection is the very essence- and beauty- of the "Wabi-Sabi" principle, IMHO.

We've been discussing the idea of an aquascaping contest, and I think that the transience of Nature- wabi-sabi- will figure prominently in the evaluation of entries. It's a long game- one that requires patience, observation, and time. One that requires mental shifts, changes in perception...and a re-evaluation of what is truly "natural" and beautiful.

Please stay open to new ideas, experiences, and interpretations.

Look to Nature as a key influence in your designs..."Unedited" Nature. Share your revelations with other hobbyists.

Enjoy the benefits of such experiments...

Stay creative. Stay enthralled. Stay patient. Stay open-minded. Stay observant...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


1 Response


August 12, 2019

I, for one, love the look of leaves broken down to “skeletons.” The way they wave about in the current with a shrimp riding on one or two. Then the next day, gone!

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