Every so often, I return to a more philosophical take on things.
What makes us set up a botanical-style, natural aquarium? What is it about the look, feel, and function about these aquariums that somehow compels us to set them up?
I ask these questions because I've had the opportunity of late to speak with a number of hobbyists who have not previously considered the kinds of aquariums which we as a community love so much. The sheer number of "ahas!" and "Ohhh- that's what you mean!"-type responses really made me step back for a second, and think about this stuff more on a philosophical level.
Yeah, here we go again...
What is it about them that calls to us?
I think that the fact that they are NOT as "contrived" or trying to conform to some defined "style" as many of the aquascapes splashed all over the internet and on social media makes them oddly "aspirational" and compelling to us.
It makes me think of some of the concepts that the aquarium community has seemed to embrace for so long, and why there might actually be a bit of a "disconnect" between our work in the hobby writ large, and what we seem to proffer that they represent.
It starts by simply looking at some of the processes by which we create our aquariums and the mindset we apply to our work.
I think the fact that the "details" which some hobbyists try so hard to create in their "high-concept" scapes are so effortlessly and spontaneously assembled by Nature is both awe-inspiring and perhaps unsettling for some.
That whole thing about "ceding some of the work to Nature" is not something that every aquarist/scaper is comfortable with! We've always felt like we have to take the "controlling interest" in the aquarium, and perhaps it makes us feel a bit unsettled that Nature will do some of the "heavy lifting" without us- especially if we don't "interfere!"
Yeah, and just the realization that our artificial machinations in shaping are really a sort of "interference"- or at least, a form of "intervention"- against Nature's processes is hard for some to swallow!
It's humbling, if nothing else...
And the work of "unpolished Nature" in our aquariums?
It forces us to look at things a bit differently, right? It makes us look at the wild habitats as the true inspiration for our aquariums. A far cry from "last month's Tank of The Month" for sure!
Don't get me wrong. It's just fine to be inspired by the many gorgeous aquariums out there which are the result of amazing work by enormously talented hobbyists. We need to accept them for what they are. Beautiful works of art. And that's okay. However, it's the unchallenged, unquestioned, heavy-handed "appropriation" of the terms "Nature" and "natural" that the hobby heaps upon these works to describe what are actually highly stylized, artistic, "sanitized", "edited" interpretations of Nature is what I find fascinating and a bit disconcerting.
Words have meaning.
And, when applied too liberally or generally, they tend to gloss over the realities that are at the root of what we're trying to recreate in our aquariums. Overlooking these realities- in this case, Nature as it is- denies us the opportunity to educate ourselves and learn more about how it really works and the true beauty that it brings. It tends to encourage us to look more at these art pieces as what Nature really is, and to base our "natural" aquariums upon them- instead of looking at- well, Nature!
We have to understand- as we constantly say here- that Nature is not exactly the pristine, orderly place we tend to present it as in our aquariums. It encompasses things which might be far different than what we have thought of as "beautiful" for so long.
Stuff like the biofilms- that we as a hobby have made such a big deal out of removing from wood and other decorative items in our tanks arise for a very specific set of reasons, and perform a role in the closed aquarium ecosystem. I believe that the fact that they may look a bit unsettling to us based on our rather close-minded view of "proper" aquarium aesthetics and (ouch!) a general lack of understanding about their role in aquatic habitats is what has caused this.
A true mental shift is required. One which, once we grasp- will "free" us to create aquariums in a far more realistic and natural manner than previously believed possible.
Please, PLEASE do look at some pics and videos of wild tropical aquatic habitats and see that the stuff we freak out about in our tanks is practically the "basis" for these structural and functional aquatic ecosystems.
The botanical-style aquarium that we play with is perhaps the first of it's kind in the hobby to really say, "Hey, this is just like Nature! It's not that bad!" And to make us think, "Perhaps there is a benefit to all of this."
It looks like- and in many respects, functions- more like a natural habitat.
We are learning-together- that there is definitely "something" to these things which our fishes can benefit from.
Our willingness to make that "mental shift" and move beyond the simple look of them is what I believe will lead to a new sort of renaissance in the hobby. Perhaps, finally accepting these life forms and their collateral products will spur new developments and encourage us to embrace the many benefits to our fishes that have made them a vital part of the wild aquatic ecosystems of the world.
A less rigidly aesthetically-controlled, perhaps less "high-concept" approach in the eyes of some- setting the stage for...Nature- to do what she's done for eons without us having to do 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 to 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.
And yes- they do affect our fishes in a positive manner, don't they?
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 physical environment.
The ephemeral nature of botanicals. The tinted water. The appearance of biofilms. Decay. Leaves. Wood. Water. Life.
Words, sure...But very compelling ones. Important components of a successful ecosystem...and beautiful, if we make the attempt to embrace them.
Really looking at each aquarium as a microcosm of life- not simply an "art piece" or social media prop- is a huge breakthrough in the hobby.
I realize that we repeat this "mantra" so often here that it almost seems like "white noise" at times; however, it's such a foundational, fundamental shift in our approach and thinking in the aquarium world that I simply can't help but bring it up again and again.
If we immerse ourselves in the many aspects of botanical-style aquariums, and just work with this stuff, there are so many possibilities for successful aquariums and outcomes. We can apply this approach, this dynamic, this mental shift- to so many different things that we do in our aquarium work, ranging from aquascaping to breeding, to rearing fishes- that the opportunity to accomplish more in the hobby is virtually limitless.
Immerse yourself. In Nature.
As it is.
Not the homogenized, sterilized, "edited" version of Nature which has been force-fed to us as "The Way" for so long.
I ask you to share this mindset with your friends who might be a bit disillusioned with the hobby of late. It might just awaken something for them. Something which invigorates, inspires, and excites them. Something which unleashes their true potential as a hobbyist. Something which provides previously unexpected benefits for our fishes and the wild habitats from which they come.
Let's keep putting our preconceptions and fears aside as we continue to create and enjoy more natural looking - and functioning- aquariums, and the breakthroughs that they present.
Stay inspired. Stay bold. Stay excited. Stay creative. Stay open-minded...
And Stay Wet.