I see trends in the hobby.
I mean, we all do, right?
We all contemplate those amazing glass boxes we play with, and consider the art, science, and passion contained within them.
I just probably see them and look more critically- or, lately, incredulously- than most. I had a friend ask me the other day why I look so critically at some stuff that many don't see as a "problem." What I get all worked up about the stuff that we do in the hobby. Here's the thing: No matter how hard I try, I can't seem to get my mind out of the mindset that calls for me to look to Nature for inspiration. I must mention this 6 times a day to people lately.
I'm glad that I do.
Why? Because the trends in the aquascaping side of our hobby, where I play- (amazing though many of them are, BTW) tend to focus on the aesthetics of things in a sort of "reality bubble" of our own making. There is a tremendous interest in creating beautiful, over-the-top scenes in our tanks.
For example, lately, there is a trend towards big, complex, rock-only scapes, ultimately layered with low-growing plants. And the rock scapes are incredible...but they're modeled not after some scene from a river in Asia, but after a mountain range in North America, Western Europe...or worst yet, "Middle Freaking Earth!"
And repeatedly, the mantra is that these are somehow "natural" aquatic scenes.
Is this mimicking "Nature?"
Well, in short, sure, I suppose one could say that. I mean, mountain ranges are found in Nature. And you're using rock and plants found in Nature...I can't dispute that. However, I think we're reaching a bit here. When I see someone scaling down the damn Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon, adorning them with Glostostigma or whatever the "moss of the month" is this month, and calling it "inspired by Nature" or "a natural aquascape", my head spins.
Yeah, you were thinking of replicating a mountain range or hills or whatever...found in Nature. Sure. I get that. But that's not what I think we should be calling a "Natural Aquarium", IMHO. That's art. A distillation- an interpretation of a greater, larger component of the natural world, utilizing natural elements, mind you, to create art.
A diorama, if you will.
Just call it art.
And there is nothing wrong with it. Not one damn thing. These 'scapes are awesome, created by immensely talented aquarist/artists. But they don't replicate a natural aquatic habitat, so I think the nomenclature causes some confusion. Really. Why am I so damn caught up in this? Anger? Jealousy? Cluelessness?
All of the above? Like, perhaps.
I think this is important, though. Really.
I'm concerned about this trend of calling many of these scapes "Natural" or "inspired by Nature" when the reality is that they are almost absurdly contrived interpretations of terrestrial scenes that have as much to do with the extant aquatic habitats of the world as a city park has to do with a mountain meadow. The danger here is that some novice aquarist will think that this kind of stuff is the pinnacle of natural replication, stare at mountain ranges for inspiration for an aquascape, and somehow fail to look at the real beautiful of an actual underwater aquatic habitat.
Think I'm overreacting? I don't. I see a lot of posts on Instagram from aspiring aquascapers, who take breathless photos of a rocky, branch-strewn stream or some other aquatic feature. Yet, they highlight/crop edit it in such a way as to suggest that it forms an inspiring basis for an amazing-looking miniature mountain range.
Yikes! Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees...
I mean, just look at the damn stream and replicate that! You already think it's beautiful- and it's far, far more relevant to what we do, right? Surely, there is enough interesting stuff in the stream to inspire a hobbyist for years! I mean, I'm fascinated by the mindset that one has when one looks at a rocky river, and then comes to the conclusion that there is inspiration to create an "Iwagumi" scape in his/her tank. I mean, really? "Back-asswards..."
I worry that our popular warped view of "Nature" as put forth by the aquarium world is a very specific set of characteristics and elements, and seems to give the impression that "natural" is a tank with crystal clear water, neatly arranged wood covered in moss, and highly stylized/groomed plant growth. This tends to create a sense of great value for these things-in this case- the aforementioned perfectly "edited" view of Nature- which tends to dictate the "style" of what we create in our aquariums.
Things which don't look like our idealized interpretation of Nature are essentially dismissed as such, because they don't fit the popular perception of what we think it should be like.
That is a problem, IMHO.
It's a "problem", because the real, unfiltered natural habitats are incredibly diverse, decidedly "undisciplined", and absolutely not crystal clear, geometrically precise, spotlessly clean scenes. And the farther we actually "stray" from Nature as it really is, the more likely we are to devalue these real characteristics as somehow not worth observing or considering for replication in our aquariums. And the less interested we become in studying them and contemplating their fragility and the challenges they face at the hand of man and his/her activities.
Perhaps not as much of a "problem" as it is a missed opportunity, really. An opportunity to show non-aquarium people the beauty of Nature as it is. And I know that my viewpoint will not win me a lot of friends in some corners...but it's how I feel. And notice that I'm not degrading or "dissing" anyone who plays with stuff like this. I'm simply pointing out that we need to be a bit more honest with ourselves; more careful with the terms and labels that we toss about- and to pay more consideration to the aquatic habitats as found in Nature as they are.
Again, you should enjoy your hobby the way you like. You should create beautiful, highly artistic interpretations of Nature or natural scenes, miniature mountain ranges, beach scenes, or whatever makes your heart sing...Absolutely nothing wrong with that.
However, I think that you, me- all of us- should at least take a "time out" once in a while and consider, study, glance at images- or even pay a visit to the natural habitats from which our fishes come. Not only will this give you greater appreciation for the world as it is- how it really looks- it will give you greater insights into how natural aquatic habitats actually function.
Yes, understanding the function of natural habitats and environmental niches- and why they look and evolve the way they do- gives us the tools we need to recreate as many of their characteristics as possible in the aquarium- not just the aesthetics. And that is where discoveries, innovations, evolutions and breakthroughs in the aquarium hobby actually happen.
To our hobby's credit- there IS a lot of great work being done by many hobbyists- biotope enthusiasts, breeders, planted tank fans, vivarium creators, etc. We just need to be a little louder. We need to make a little more of a big deal about aquarium which highlight natural beauty- unfiltered, unedited, and raw.
We need to double down on Nature.
For the benefit of the hobby, the fishes, and the wild habitats themselves.
That's why I'm so obsessed by this stuff.
Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay resourceful. Stay independent...
And Stay Wet.
I think you hit the nail on the head…The prevailing “trend” in aquascaping tend to actually eschew the original philosophies of Amano, who really DID intend for his world to replicate aspects of Nature, primarily habitats with plants. He had great respect, appreciation, and understanding for all sorts of aquatic habitats, as evidenced in his early writings, photo essays, etc. However, many of these thoughts and ideas have quite literally been lost in the mists of time…Somehow, some way, IMHO, his ideas have been “edited” or “appropriated” and the use of the term “Nature” (as in “’aquarium..”) has been so distilled as to render the term near meaningless, when you view it in light of the “competition” aquascaping world- which, like it or not- serves as inspiration for the bulk of the hobby’s aquascaping ideas and “trends.”
I may be a bit arrogant or opinionated in saying it- but I think that Amano would love our ideas and style in the “natural aquarium community.” Although less about strictly planted aquariums and more about accessing and interpreting the form and function of real wild aquatic habitats, I think we’re quite “on point” with the philosophy that he originally presented to the aquarium hobby.
Great post. I feel as though I agree with you on many of the points made, especially this trend in aquascaping, which I believe you accurately called the “diorama” style. Of course it has its place in the form, but I feel as though that style is defining (at least in many contests) what aquascaping is to the world, and that trend goes against the Nature Aquarium philosophy which birthed this hobby. I’d much rather see someone’s take on an underwater scene than a miniature landscape placed underwater.
Thanks for the great reads, and if you need more oak leaves get in touch this Fall and I’ll hook you up—I’m in Texas.