Form. Function. Aesthetics. And the stuff in between.

One of the things that we've noticed lately in the hobby is a trend towards more realistic aquariums. Not just systems which look like natural environments; rather, systems which are modeled as much after the function of them as the aesthetics.  

This is a very interesting change. 

I mean, sure, almost by default, a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium tends to look much like the natural habitat which it represents, but more important, it functions much like it, too. Perhaps that's the biggest key to success with this approach. Yet both are unique and important.

Aquarium keeping, thankfully, isn't a "zero sum" game.

You don't either "win" or "lose."

Nope, success in the aquarium game -winning, if you will- is based on many factors. For some of us, just having an aquarium is a victory of sorts. For others, acquiring that much sought-after Pleco is it. For others, it's creating that perfect Aquascaper. Still for others, it's about keeping a group of fishes alive for an indefinite period of time.

I think that we as aquarists tend to define "success" in the aquarium game on our own terms, which is awesome.

We've talked an awful lot about the psychological game of creating a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium system. Early on, when discussing the concept, I dwelled extensively on the idea that stuff is going to start decomposing and breaking down in our aquariums, which will influence the carefully conceived aquascape that you've developed. So, the concept that the tank will literally evolve itself daily as botanicals break down, and accepting the aesthetic transformation is one of the core concepts of this approach.

Yeah, for a good part of the first couple of years of Tannin's existence,  I spent a great deal of time worrying about how the idea of a carefully conceived hardscape slowly transforming by the actions of fungi, bacteria, and decomposition would "play" to my fellow hobbyists.  I was worried about potential mistakes and disasters that would befall fellow hobbyists if they pushed too hard, freelanced a bit. Ignored the processes behind the aesthetics.

There was more than just a different look. There was a need embrace a mindset that embraced form and function.

It was a big "ask."

For decades, I found the truly "ephemeral" nature of the botanical-style aquarium as compelling as any. Not everyone found this "look" to be attractive- or even slightly interesting. The near-dominant prevalence of aquatic plants and the rigid interpretation of the "Nature Aquarium Style" movement seemed to leave little room in the hobby's collective psyche for a tinted tank full of randomly-placed decomposing leaves and seed pods.

Or did it?

I mean, 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.) 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.

I think that he simply wanted to give aquarists a way to incorporate art into aquascaping, and to allow the aquarium to evolve and grow based on nature's whims, once the framework was set.

Yet, it kind of settled in a bit differently in popular aquarium culture.

"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 fell into a bit of "disuse", though, in the "Nature Aquarium" movement, as aquarists aspired to replicate his works, perhaps trying to by-pass what seemed to be a less exciting -or immediately rewarding- part of his approach. The emphasis seemed to be on achieving a certain style quickly and manipulating nature- "helping it along", if you will- to achieve an ultimate look.

You know- the 6-month competition aquarium thing. Aquariums as a form of  kinetic art.

So..against this backdrop, I was preferring a less-controlled, less high-concept approach to setting the stage for nature to do what it's done for eons without doing as much to "help it along." Rather, the mindset here was 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."

Leaves. Wood. Water. Life.

A "mental shift."

Some three years in, it looks like it's actually playing pretty well. 

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 or thwart it, we're celebrating it! There's been almost no drama, dogma, or judgement.

Rather, there's been excitement, support, collaboration, and sharing.

No rigid "rules" have emerged- only guideline "best practices", intended to help aquarists avoid disasters. Most involve fundamental aspects of aquarium husbandry that we've played with for the past century: Observation, consistency, and above all- patience.

All of the stuff we see happening in our tanks now? It was there before in nature.

For eons.

It's just that now, instead of freaking out about stuff like brown water, biofilms, and detritus, and worrying about the "damage" they might inflict on our aquariums,  we're studying them. We've made a tangible mental shift. Appreciating their role in a functional closed ecosystem. Embracing their form and function. Rather than siphoning out some of this stuff in horror, we're admiring it and appreciating why it's there, and the functional role it plays in our little aquatic worlds.

A "mental shift", indeed.

With the knowledge that we can manage systems with biofilms, decomposition, detritus, etc., and achieve remarkable success with spawning fishes, propagating plants, and long-term stability, aquarists are now thinking of new applications for the blackwater, botanical-style approach. It's always been there. for eons. It's just that perhaps we've been bypassing it for a while, on the way to somewhere else.

There is so much to learn when we slow down and stare for a bit.

And that's the real exciting part. 

Thanks for appreciating this stuff, and contributing to an ever-evolving segment of the aquarium hobby. We're proud that Tannin Aquatics may have played a tiny role in helping to "mainstream" this stuff.

Keep pushing. Keep learning. Don't become dogmatic or rigid. Ask questions. Pose answers. Fail sometimes. Realize that trying something a bit different- a bit "unconventional"- won't necessarily change the "rules."

But it might just change the world.

Stay bold. Stay proud. Stay diligent. Stay original. Stay devoted...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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