Every once in a while, someone will ask me what my "style" of aquarium is. And it's a tough one to answer, because the aquariums I create are based less on aesthetics than the are on approach to interpreting natural aquatic habitats in different ways. So, not really a "style" in the conventional sense.
I see myself as a "function first" kind of guy, who's tanks happen look the way they do because they embrace aspects of Nature which create unique environmental conditions that are so compelling. And. to be honest, most aquarists historically haven't found them to be particularly attractive as subjects for aquariums!
This is always a bit sad to me, because some of these "unusual" aspects can create some of the most fascinating and ecologically successful aquariums imaginable, if we can overcome our programmed concerns about their "unconventional" (by hobby standards, anyways) appearance. And with so many super talented aquarists out there, the possibilities for "interpreting Nature more naturally" are endless, if they can get their heads out of the "aesthetics first" mindset!
Now I freely admit that not every aquatic habitat is perfect for replication in the aquarium, or even easy to recreate. Some create operational challenges and require modifications to the way we filter or otherwise manage aquariums. Soem require entirely rethinking how to recreate them in the aquarium. Like, trying to create a (stagnant) puddle seems like it would be pretty easy- and in theory, it is- just add water and mud...
However, in execution, what you often end up with is a stagnant container of water and mud...not particularly exciting or long-term sustainable...or, is it? Personally, I think it is possible. Perhaps you might be advised to "make a better mud hole" and add a few riparian plants to make it a longer-term manageable tank... Or not. That's the beauty...figure out how and you're golden!
I believe that we can do literal interpretations of natural habitats, based on how they form, and what makes them function. Now, maybe we could put a bit of artistic liberty into them, but that's it.
And I freely admit, it's not always easy figuring out how to take these ideas from the "idea phase" to the "set the dsmn thing up phase!" And, for every cool idea I've executed, I must have 5 that never made it out of the initial experimentation phase. And even more which never "made it out of the notebook" of ideas I keep on these things!
And that's okay, because each sort of "aborted" idea gets you closer to the execution of stuff you've really been trying to accomplish. The important takeaway here is to keep experimenting. Figuring out how to create viable aquarium versions of natural aquatic features is both rewarding and- yeah- beautiful!
I admit, it can be somewhat discouraging at times to be playing with all of these seemingly wacky ideas that you have in your head at times, especially when the world's adoring attention on social media are on these incredible, pristine-looking, high-concept planted tanks or whatever. I mean, you want to scream to everyone that this is not that difficult; that it's not "dangerous" or really that "weird"- and that they should give this approach a shot!
It's hard not to sometimes...
Yet, as a lover of truly natural aquariums and ways to interpret Nature in a little glass box of water, you put your head down and soldier on. You don't expect the adorations of others to motivate you.
I remember feeling this exact kind of "loneliness" earlier on in the existence of Tannin. I felt like I existed in this or of almost invisible, "parallel universe", where strange-looking tanks played out in my space, while artistic dreamscapes adorned my Instagram feed.
Yet, in my mind, I always saw the incredible beauty in these truly natural aquariums, supported by organisms and functions that many found extremely distasteful. It was certainly contrary to what all of the "cool kids" were doing! And the sort of jealousy I had for lack of attention dissipated while I kept my head down and simply enjoyed what I was playing with.
The biotope aquairum crowd were my closest comrades; yet even many of them were taking an "aesthetics over function" angle at the time, and it definitely felt a bit more "out there" to be me! All cool.
Again, If you have made the mental shifts to find stuff like decomposing leaves, brown water, detritus, and biofilms attractive and alluring, then it really doesn't matter to you. And it didn't to me. I just kept my head in my game and did my thing.
My work is not intended to be primarily "artistic" or aesthetically-focused, really. Rather, it's an interpretation of the function of the natural world. The form follows the function. I want to inspire others to look at the way natural aquatic habitats evolve and function, and try to replicate as many of the functional aspects of them as possible. If the tank just happens to look interesting- well, that's a sort of collateral benefit, right?
And, when we approach recreating some of these habitats from a "function forward" approach, as opposed to just trying to recreate the look, not only do you create interesting "operational parameters", you get many unusual benefits as well- some of which are analogous to those which the natural environment offers to the organisms which reside there.
And of course, the aesthetics often look substantially different than what you get when you just go "diorama mode." Nature goes to work and brings in Her own "finishing touches" that make it truly unique.
Multiple times in the course of a year, you'll hear me calling to you- our community (someone called it "Tint Nation" once, and I had to laugh) to really push it. I mean, to try stuff that's extremely unconventional; perhaps boundary-pushing...
Aesthetically uncomfortable...even unconvincing for some. But different. Functional. and yeah, I suppose, weird.
Stuff that pushes into "That's some strange shit!" territory. Stuff that, in previous years, would result in a lot of hobbyists telling you stuff like, "It can't work!" "You'll crash your tank!", "It can't be maintained long term!", etc., etc., etc. Stuff that, as a "disciple" of the natural, botanical-method aquarium, will leave (hopefully) asking these naysayers, "Why are you saying that? Because no one has done it before? Or, does the idea just not make sense to YOU?"
Yup. Pushing back on "conventionality" is often a good thing.
There is so much interesting stuff out there to study and replicate in our aquariums. Not just to "diorama it up" to win a biotope aquarium contest; no- but to replicate the form and function of these unique habitats. I say this over and over and over again, because it's a completely different mindset.
I think we need to spend much more time really trying to get our hands around why these natural habitats are the way they are. To understand why they formed, how they "operate", and what set of unique characteristics they possess which makes them home to our beloved fishes.
I feel like I have a "duty" to expose the aquarium world to these unusual aspects of Nature, because they just might lead to some "unlocks" about aspects of the aquatic world that will create beneficial outcomes for our captive fishes, too.
Not just because they're weird.
Not just because replicating them runs contrary to what we've been told is appropriate subject matter for an aquarium. In fact, not all of these things are "weird."Not all of them are impossible or "dangerous" to replicate in the aquarium. Some are simply ideas that have not been "played out" in the confines of an aquarium, for whatever reason.
These ideas-these habitats- are often simply overlooked.
Attempting to replicate the functional aspects of these habitats is simply a "due diligence" thing to me. It will force us to push our skills out a bit; learn something. These ideas are fascinating...
These ideas are cool.
I find it fascinating to consider that many natural habitats are things that not have considered replicating in the past simply because they seemed "dangerous" or "difficult to manage" in an aquarium. I suggest this: They were seen as "dangerous" or "difficult to manage' in an aquarium because we are evaluating them in the lens of conventional aquarium design and management.
When we evaluate unconventional ideas using a conventional mindset, of course they seem unachievable and unmanageable! We talk a lot about stuff like sedimented substrates, detritus, decomposition, turbid water, and it's important to remember that these things are common in many aquatic habitats around the world...things that we have typically not incorporated into aquariums before.
THAT to me is the next great challenge in the aquairum hobby: To create aquariums which are literal, functional interpretations of wild aquatic habitats. The neat thing is that, once we get a "handle" on keeping aquariums run with the botanical method, replete with decomposing leaves, fungal-covered branches, sediments, etc. successfully, the world literally opens up with possibilities.
Suddenly, that strange-looking flooded meadow with the epiphyte covered riparian plants and tons of Moenkhausia and other characins isn't so unachievable. It just takes a little study of the habitat, and some experience handling the "operation" of a botanical-method aquarium!
What kinds of unusual habitats or ecological niches would I like to see us play with? What about playing with more representations of unusual "niche" habitats, like vernal pools, flooded rice paddies, blackwater mangrove thickets, muddy streams, etc. I'll be doing my best to create more tangles of roots, detritus-filled tree stumps, sediment-encrusted branches, and all sorts of stuff that we see in various natural habitats.
The concept of creating aquariums to represent natural habitats in form is not a new thing in the hobby. However, what IS new is creating these aquariums to mimic the function of the habitats. To allow Nature to work Her magic on the "aquascaping materials" (ie; wood, roots, botanicals, plants, etc.) that we use, and to not try to "sanitize" everything along the way.
I personally am a little bored of seeing those "clinical" or "artistic" interpretations of "blackwater habitats" that are showing up on social media lately. There's more to it than simply "translating" a crystal-clear "Nature Aquarium"-style tank to one having some tinted water! The skill set most of those creators employ with those "Amano-esque" tanks would absolutely translate to this little niche. They just need to relax a bit on overly-stylizing things, that's all.
I think many are starting to see that it's entirely possible to have a more natural-functioning "Nature Aquairum Style" system, once which doesn't attempt to over-stylize and over-sanitize everything. It just takes a little time and experience with the botanical-method approach to get your head around it. I get it.
Re-thinking stuff like substrates, for example, is, in my opinion, another key to "unlocking" this new way of thinking. When we stop thinking about substrates as just "decoration", or even "A place to grow aquatic plants", we can approach things a bit differently. We need to examine wild aquatic habitats a bit more closely, and go beyond just thinking about how the "look" would translate into a cool aquascape.
Yeah, I think that we should look at substrates in our aquariums as more than just "the bottom" or "a place to put rocks and wood and plants"- but rather, as a dynamic, living, integral component of a balanced closed ecosystem. A place to culture supplemental food organisms, facilitate reproduction of fishes (I'm thinking soil-spawning killies here again), and impact the chemical composition of our water.
It would be great to apply as much emphasis to substrate in this vein as we do to other components of the aquarium. It's about more of those mental shifts; re-thinking the "how's" and "why's" of what we've done for so long.
A "substrate" can be- should be- way more than gravel or plain old sand.
And if we have our say in the matter, it will be!
And of course, if we dip back into Nature for some inspiration- as we should- there is an amazing amount of ideas to take away..
Consider so-called "vernal pools"- temporary (ephemeral) or seasonal aquatic habitats where killifish come from. They don't just have a certain "look" to them- they have a functional spect which affects the very life cycle of the organisms which reside there.
Vernal pools are generally found on plains or grasslands, and are typically small bodies of water- often just a few meters wide. The origin of the name, "vernal" refers to the Spring season. And, this makes a lot of sense, because most of these ephemeral habitats are at their maximum water depth during the Spring!
Vernal pools are typically found in areas comprised of various soil types that contain clays, sediments and silts. They can develop into what geologists call "hydric soils", which are defined as, “...a soil that formed under conditions of saturation, flooding, or ponding long enough during the growing season to develop anaerobic conditions in the upper part.”
A unique part of the vernal pools is what is an essentially impermeable layer of substrate called "clay pan." These substrates are hugely important to the formation of these habitats, as the clay soils bind so closely together that they become impermeable to water. Thus, when it rains, the water percolates until it reaches the "claypan" and just sits there, filling up with decaying plant material, loose soils, and water.
So, yeah- the substrate is of critical importance to the aquatic life forms which reside in these pools! Let's talk killies for a second! One study of the much-loved African genus Nothobranchius indicated that the soils are "the primary drivers of habitat suitability" for these fish, and that the eggs can only survive the embryonic period and develop in specific soil types containing alkaline clay minerals, known as "smectites", which create the proper soil conditions for this in desiccated pool substrates.
The resulting "mud-rich" substrate in these pools has a low degree of permeability, which enables water to remain in a given vernal pool even after the surrounding water table may have receded! And, of course, a lot of decaying materials, like plant parts and leaf litter is present in the water, which would impact the pH and other characteristics of the aquatic habitat.
Interestingly, it is known by ecologists that the water may stay alkaline despite all of this stuff, because of the buffering capacity of the alkaline clay present in the sediments!
And, to literally "cap it off"- if this impermeable layer were not present, the vernal pools would desiccate too rapidly to permit the critical early phases of embryonic development of the Nothobranchius eggs to occur. Yes, these fishes are tied intimately to their environment.
(Image by Andrew Bogott, used under CC BY-S.A. 4.0)
Now, that is likely a deeper dive than you might have wanted to take on the vernal pool habitat, but it's just one example of what's "out there" in Nature, waiting for us to study and replicate in functional detail in our aquariums! The embrace of the function of natural habitats and the aquariums which represent them is, IMHO, the current 'bleeding edge" of freshwater aquarium practice.
And of course, it's not just the deeply-tinted waters of the world that were talking about. For example, our friend, Thomas Minesi, has spent years exploring the widely varied habitats of his native Democratic Republic of Congo, studying clearwater habitats, such as the River Fwa- which are ripe for replication in aquariums in function and form. He's discussed these habitats on "The Tint" podcast a few times- well worth another listen.
So I suppose the "literal" interpretations of natural aquatic ecosystems are so exciting to me because of the sheer variety which exists! You could literally spend a lifetime just trying to replicate a fraction of them. There is literally something for everyone out there!
We just have to look, and dive a little deeper.
Get out there! (Literally and metaphorically)
Stay curious. Stay thoughtful. Stay adventurous. Stay creative...
And Stay Wet.