As you know, we receive a lot of questions around here about all sorts of aquarium-related topics. Usually, my answer is directly to the individual who asked, in the form of an email or DM. Sometimes, however, the answer is such that it is best addressed in the form of a blog post!
Recently, a hobbyist asked me what my opinion was of the botanical-style aquarium as a type of "aquascaping approach", and how it fits in the overall aquascaping "universe." Exactly what our "thing" is...
First, I start with my assertion that the botanical-style aquarium is NOT an aquascaping "style"- it's a methodology to create a more natural-functioning aquarium by utilizing botanical materials to "fuel" the process. The look is a "collateral benefit" of the methodology.
I admit, I've never really been much of an "aquascaper."
You know- those hobbyists who can take a few rocks and a piece or two of wood and turn them into some sort of amazing design. That takes amazing talent and vision. And I made peace with that decades ago! I greatly admire those true artists who can employ all sorts of technique, color-coordination, and ratio and such snd come up with some incredible stuff with seeming ease.
On the other hand, I look at a lot of aquascaping work, admire the effort and talent and such, and then get this feeling in my gut that I can't always explain. Well, I can, but it's not always...nice. Like, I look at many "modern scapes" and just kind of...yawn.
Ouch, I'm sounding like a proper asshole, I know.
But seriously, it's not that I think their work is shitty or something...I just find the "styles" of many of the beautiful tanks out there which the world goes crazy over to be just a bit..boring. Or, should I say- not my taste. Yeah, that's better.
It's weird, I do like certain planted tanks that just blow me away. Our friend, George Farmer, does amazing planted 'scapes which I would happily have in my own home if I had the talent. I love the work of our own Johnny Ciotti- a guy who was trained as a classic "Nature Aquarium Style" 'scaper, yet, a true artist who can take botanical elements and create stunning botanical-style aquariums with ease. Jeff Sense of Aquarium Design Group is another person who can work with just about any "media" you give him- rocks, wood, plants- and crank out something that is unmistakingly original, dynamic, and gorgeous.
I'll never be as talented as those guys. And I'm perfectly okay with that. I'm comfortable in my own skin. And it's largely because, a long time ago, I found what I truly love, and work with that. I think we should all have that degree of comfort with what we love. Sadly, many hobbyists don't- and feel that-in order to be considered "talented" or whatever- that they have to embrace a certain style or technique.
I often think about the so-called "diorama style" tanks that pop up in contests, and are all over Instagram or whatever. They require enormous talent to execute, but they're far more "art" than they are "natural aquariums", I suppose. And I guess that's what gets me- these weird fantasy scapes have live plants and glued-together rock and wood and stuff, but they are anything but "natural", IMHO.
I guess what gets me is that the aquascaping world lauds these scapes as "the shit"- and sure, they are fantastic- amazing work. When they're called "natural", that sends shivers down my spine...I mean, doesn't Nature offer scenes that are equally as complex, interesting, and challenging to pull off? And, with the added bonus that you can replicate the function of these habitats, I can't see why you don't see more representations of flooded forests, vernal pools, Pantanal meadows, etc. in the major aquascaping contests.
I imagine how amazing a tank one of those diorama-style 'scapers could pull off if he/she tried to replicate an actual aquatic habitat as found in Nature. With there talent and ability to bring a vision to life....wow! I mean, sure, such a tank won't have a beach scene, winding road into a forest, or a mountain range, or any of that other cliche stuff- but it will have all of the amazing vibrancy and intricate structure of natural aquatic habitats. The possibilities are endless.
I've postulated about why we don't see more of these things in contests..
However, the benefits of entering tanks like this would be many, including calling attention to the wonders of the natural world, and the precious wild habitats which are often threatened by human activities.
I think that a good part of the reason is that these natural habitats aren't "tight" from a design standpoint. They don't -on the surface, at least-seem to require any "discipline" in order to replicate. You have to cede a certain amount of your work to Nature. I think that freaks out a lot of artistic aquascapers.
Nature, and Her many ecological niches and features, provides an endless array of habitats to recreate in the home aquarium. And my "POV" has always been to look at these niches, figure out how and why they formed, and why they look the way that they do. By researching the processes which helped create the habitat, I'm challenged to create an aquarium which attempts to replicate both the form and the function of it.
Some of these habitats are not what you'd expect to see in an aquairum. They look- and function- fundamentally different from what we've worked with before.
Some of the aesthetics of these wild habitats freaks people out. They look so...random...so...undisciplined, if we were to ascribe artistic terms to them. It's a world where we set up the system to allow Nature to do the "finishing" work. It require s a certain trust in natural processes, and the ability to let go. The ability to realize that what we see is a "finished product" is only the very beginning.
"The Delta at the intersection between science and art.”
That's where I play.
I like it here. A lot of you do, too.
This "not quite a biotope aquarium" and "not quite an artistic aquascape" thing is the perfect "sweet spot" for my interest, attention, and skills. And I think it's the place where I can be most useful to the hobby. Biotope-inspired, I suppose. A more forgiving, easygoing "style" which places function over aesthetics, yet somehow always leads to something that I find aesthetically pleasing.
It's a strange, yet wonderful place, where I've made the many "mental shifts" that allow me to enjoy the beauty and elegance of stuff like decomposing leaves, sediment, biofilms, fungal growths, random aggregations of leaves, etc. A place where much of the attraction is because the aquariums I create are intended to let Nature do some of the work.
If I were forced (and yeah, "forced" is the right word, because there are no defining "rules" here...no way) to offer some defining characteristics of the "botanical-style" aquarium, I'd say that a certain "randomness", actually, is it.
I mean, we're all about replicating what happens in Nature, NOT about perfectly proportioned placements and such. Now, I must admit, some of the world-class aquascapers that have worked with our botanicals have applied these concepts to these types of aquariums and have produced stunning results.
However, I think the "raw" botanical aquarium "essence" is about a certain degree of randomness.
I believe that an aquarium that attempts to replicate a 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.
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."
I must confess, it's an aesthetic which certainly doesn't appeal to everyone. In fact, many in the mainstream aquascaping world tended to levy all sorts of "constructive criticisms" and "Yeah, but..." comments about our practices and ideas for a while...Less these days, BTW!
And that is part of the attraction of this the of 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.
I think that there is a certain hunger for something different in the hobby right now. I feel that we've dedicated most of this century to figuring out ways to push back against Nature's processes. We've spent a tremendous amount of time looking for ways to remove things that we don't feel belong in our tanks: Algae, biofilms, decomposition, etc. Stuff that we, as a hobby, feel to be unwelcome, unattractive, and even "detrimental."
And quite honestly, I think we see these things as undesirable or "unsafe" because they are artifacts of outdated thinking...holdovers from a time when we felt that our technology gave us the edge to accomplish what Nature couldn't.
And of course, the reality is that the technology can accomplish some of these things, like nutrient export, heat control, circulation, etc.-but what really powers the miniature ecosystems which our aquariums actually are- is the microbiome: Fungal growths, bacterial biofilms, the process of decomposition, etc. Stuff which looks distasteful to many, yet stuff that is fundamental to the function-and yeah, the look- of our tanks.
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.
I'm fascinated by the "mental adjustments" that we need to make to accept the aesthetic and the processes of natural decay, fungal growth, the appearance of biofilms, and how these affect what's occurring in the aquarium. It's all a complex synergy of life and aesthetic.
And we have to accept Nature's input here.
Nature dictates the speed by which this decomposition process occurs. We set the stage for it- but Nature is in full control. As an aquarist with a botanical-style aquarium, it's our "job" to observe and know when- or if- to intervene by adding or removing botanicals as they break down.
The great Takashi 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!
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!
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."
This can take us to some really cool places.
Let's go there.
Stay creative. Stay excited. Stay bold. Stay thoughtful...
And Stay Wet.