It's interesting and gratifying that we receive so many questions from fellow hobbyists each day. And more and more, we're receiving questions about how our philosophy and approach to aquarium keeping has evolved. It does make me think about this stuff...
Sometimes, I have to re-examine my own thinking, and that of my fellow hobbyists. Other times, I have to actually appreciate the way things are going in the aquarium world, and how we arrived at the mindset we have.
Today's piece is about the latter...
WARNING: You may not like what I have to say. You may strongly disagree, think I'm a blowhard, or tell me I'm completely off. That's okay. This is my OPINION. And, because I've been asked about it so much, I'll share it with you here. If you disagree- or agree- I'd certainly love to hear your views.
One of the interesting things I've noticed in recent months is a slight mindset shift which appreciates things as they are in our aquariums. A sort of acceptance of natural processes and an appreciation for what they mean, what they are, and how/why they appear. A desire to understand, rather than fear, and a mindset which causes us to appreciate things, and question them-rather than loathe them outright.
And we're seeing more and more hobbyists sort of question why "x" is seen as so bad within the hobby culture, rather than appreciating Nature's functions and processes.
Case in point: I saw a social media post the other day from a hobbyist questioning in a very direct way why we collectively freak out about stuff like algae in our aquariums. It made me feel good to see this from someone else, because as our long-suffering readers and listeners to "The Tint" know, we've been pushing this philosophy and mindset shift towards accepting Nature as it is- not the way we want it to be- for over five years.
It was literally the first mention I've seen of this by anyone else, and it was nice to see. Even more gratifying was to see all of the follow up comments! The "Hell yeah!" and "Amen, brother!" types. This mindset is really starting to trickle into our hobby consciousness.
When you look it it objectively, a sort of cottage industry within the aquarium hobby has been erected over the years to address our fears and to cater to our desire to eliminate the things which insult our ingrained aesthetics. Hobbyists spend a small fortune on algicides, water clarifiers, and all matter of stuff to edit out the "undesirable" parts of Nature.
Algae. Biofilms. Sediment. Detritus.
The big problem, is that we as a hobby have for generations, set "rules" and "standards" that tend to force a lot of aquarists to conform to them, without question. To question or ruminate on contrary ideas or viewpoints has, for a long time, opened up those who dared to a lot of criticism, or even ridicule.
When we cam on the scene in 2015, there was a realization that this was not only counterproductive- but it was stifling any innovation that went against the grain, and deterring hobbyists from acting upon their curiosity. And that was a large part of the reason why we came on with such a heady "manifesto"; a sort of contrarian view about embracing Nature in our aquariums.
We spoke- and continue to speak-our truth, in the hope that it will inspire our fellow hobbyists to speak their own. We wanted to provide a literal "safe space" for unusual approaches, contrarian ideas, and bold experiments. It's not about rebellion for the sake of being "in your face"- it's about literally "walking the walk" and putting ideas out there.
I hope it doesn't come across as arrogant. It probably sounds that way, I guess. Yet, the point here is that we are just a tiny, tiny part of the change in thinking that's taking place. Hobbyists are arriving at this conclusion on their own in greta numbers.
I believe that aquarists are wildly curious about the natural world, but that they tend to "overcomplicate" what is unknown, not well understood, or outside of the lines of "conventional aquarium aesthetics and practices"-and literally "polish out" the true beauty of Nature in the process-often ascribing "rules" and "standards" for how our interpretations of Nature must look.
This is readily apparent in the competition aquascaping world, and other places where specific, human-imposed aesthetic standards are valued above all else. A world in which any deviation from these standards is seen as "reckless", "sloppy", "undisciplined", or just plain "shitty" ( actual words from hobbyists we've heard over the years...) Comparisons are made of many of these aquairums to Nature, yet, other than the fact that they contain live organisms, most of the tanks that are celebrated by a whole lot of hobbyists fall way short of "Nature", even by their own critical standards!
It's kind of funny to me.
What about celebrating function? What about celebrating sustainability, function over the long term? Those are important things, yet in our "visual-centric" hobby, these are seldom touched on as often as just the superficial appearance of stuff. I mean, we should- but that's only part of the equation.
What caused this mindset to saturate everything?
In my opinion, the misappropriation of the word "Nature" within the hobby has led us to this point. Specific aesthetics of Nature are met with high praise. The stuff which goes agains the "rules" is dismissed out of hand, categorized as "dangerous", undisciplined, etc.
And personally, I feel that's why large parts (not ALL, of course) of the freshwater aquarium hobby have been in a sort of "stagnation" for a couple of decades, a position that definitely opens up me and some of my colleagues to a lot of criticisms. However, they're totally worth enduring, because they leave no doubt about where we stand. And quite frankly, I think I'm correct in this thinking.
Many hobbyists simply don't want to let go of "traditional" ways of thinking about and approaching aquarium work. Now, sure, you have unbreakable natural rules, like those which govern processes like the nitrogen cycle. You can't get around those. However, the way we interpret and approach many of the things which happen in our aquariums is all up for review, IMHO. And a lot of hobbyists are ready to do this.
At the risk of being a bit weird for quoting myself, I think I expressed a good part of our philosophy here at Tannin in this passage from a piece I wrote a couple of years back:
"Suffice it to say, there are NO rules in rediscovering the unfiltered art beneath the surface. Our "movement" believes in representing Nature as it exists in both form and function, without removing the very attributes of randomness and resulting function that make it so amazing.
We are utterly inspired by this.
We are about the preservation of biofilms, decomposition, and that "patina" of biocover that exists when terrestrial materials contact water. Understanding that these materials break down and influence the environment...and that this process doesn't always conform to our hobby interpretation of what is "beautiful." An appreciation of the ephemeral, the transitional."
This is quite contrary to the mindset of perfectly manicured aquariums, which remain "static" in appearance- beautiful though they are- because they're enslaved by some human-imposed constructs and rules, which dictate what's "good" and what's not.
I say, enough off this bullshit.
It's time to study, understand, and embrace the "natural" part of Nature. IMHO, some of the only "rules" worth following and understanding are those imposed by Nature herself. Rules which have dictated the formation, evolution, and operation of aquatic environments for eons before humans came along to classify, identify, modify, and standardize.
We're not alone in our thinking on this.
And the cool thing that we've noticed within our community is that every aquarium pic that is shared by our community, which incorporates botanical materials and other elements of Nature in "a more natural way" is studied, elevated..often celebrated- as a humble, but beautiful homage to of the genius of Nature in all of Her random glory. A contrast to what has been accepted for so many years in the aquarium world as the "correct" way. The only way.
We as a hobby seem to be finally loosening the shackles of this thinking and pushing beyond. You're not seeing nearly as many comments of the, "That's a dangerous approach" kind these days.
It makes sense.
I think that many hobbyists are simply "over-saturated" with this stuff. Overexposed to the constant imposition of this tired mindset. It's inescapable everywhere on social media, and it's served to "set the rules" which many hobbyist have for years felt they must embrace.
Not so much, these days. The cracks are opening up. It's becoming increasingly obvious that many hobbyists are simply tired of this stuff.
Tired of it.
In my own rebellious way, I can't help but think that part of this enthusiasm which our community has shown for this stuff is that many aquarium hobbyists in general have a bit of a "rebellious streak", too, and that maybe, just maybe- we're all a bit well, "over" the idea of the "rule-centric", mono-stylistic, overly dogmatic thinking that has dominated the aquascaping world for the better part of a decade.
Maybe it's time to look at Nature as an inspiration again- but to look at Nature as it exists- not trying to sanitize it; clean it up to meet our expectations of what an aquarium is "supposed to look like."
And by the same token, understanding that not every hobbyist wants to-or can-go to the other extreme-trying to validate every twig, rock, and plant in a given habitat, as if we're being "scored" by some higher power- a universal "quality assurance team"- which must certify that each and every rock and branch is, indeed from "The Rio Manacapuru in October", for example, or your work is just some sort of travesty.
Not that there is anything wrong with this pursuit, or that I take any issue with talented hobbyists who enjoy that route. I identify with them more than the "high concept" aquascape crowd for sure! I simply believe that there is a "middle ground" of sorts, where nature is the primary influence, and accepting it and attempting to replicate it "as it is" -becomes the goal.
That's where we operate. Inspired by Nature. It's appearance AND its function.
It's entirely possible to accept the appearance of biofilms, "murky" water, algae, decomposing botanical materials, and how systems embracing them can be managed to take advantage of their benefits. You know, accepting them as supplemental food sources, "nurseries" for fry, and as interesting little ways to impart beneficial humic substances and dissolved organics into the water.
It starts by looking at Nature as an overall inspiration.
Wondering why the aquatic habitats we're looking at appear the way they do, and what processes create them. And rather than editing out the "undesirable" (by mainstream aquarium hobby standards) elements, we embrace as many of the elements as possible, try to figure out what benefits they bring, and how we can recreate them functionally in our closed aquarium systems.
The "different aesthetics" simply come along as "part of the package"- both in Nature and in the aquarium.
Please don't misunderstand me here.
I'm not attacking "the establishment" and saying that every perfectly manicured competition aquascape sucks. I'm not saying that if a tank doesn't have blackwater, biofilms, and brown leaves that it's "uninspired" or "fake" somehow. I'm not saying that we need to burn down the house and rebel against every aquarium "best practice" that we've created and utilized for generations.
I'm merely questioning the insanely high level of esteem which the broader aquascaping and general aquarium hobby world seems to attach to conforming to some rigid style, constantly replicating the work of others, and being rather close-minded to the work of Nature, and that of hobbyists who try truly different things in their tanks.
Doesn't it get a bit boring after a while? This metaphorical circle jerk?
I think it does.
And things are changing.
Some of the most amazing comments we receive after sharing underwater pics of the wild habitats of Amazonia and elsewhere are from hobbyists who, at first, thought that some of these pics were from someones' aquarium! In a few instances, some of the close ups of botanical-themed aquaria are virtually indistinguishable from wild scenes!
That says a lot. It shows how far we've come.
And we have farther to go still.
And we'll keep going there. Together.
I know some of this stuff was not pleasant to hear. I realize that many of you may strongly disagree with my viewpoint. Some of you may think I'm an arrogant a-hole. And that's okay. We sometimes need to get this stuff out there!
Stay true to yourself. Stay curious. Stay enthralled. Stay brave. Stay rebellious- when required...
And Stay Wet.