From idea to microcosm

noun- a community, place, or situation regarded as encapsulating in miniature the characteristic qualities or features of something much larger.


That pretty much comes up the idea of a botanical-style aquarium, doesn't it? I think that it does. I've been obsessed with the idea of an aquarium as a microcosm for almost as long as I can remember. Fresh, salt, whatever- it's guided almost every tank of built for decades.

Even my earliest iterations of leaf-litter dominated aquariums adhered to the "aquarium as a microcosm" philosophy.

Now, when you ask me about the pic which really steeled my obsession with the idea of deep leaf litter beds and flooded forests, it would have to be this one from Mike Tuccinardi from the Amazon region.

This one image is literally why I took a "sabbatical" from the reef keeping world, sold my interest in my coral business, and went on to launch Tannin Aquatics. A classic igapo habitat- a flooded forest, replete with leaves, branches, seed pods, and terrestrial plants growing underwater. And the tinted, slightly turbid water...Perhaps the absolute perfect essence of what we're all about here.

I find endless inspiration in this one shot!

It pretty much sealed my fate as a lover of the igapo habitat and to learn all I could about replicating it in form and function in the aquarium.

And, every time I look at this pic (which I do a lot, let me tell you!), I'm reminded that there is a point in every botanical-style aquarium when you can sort of tell which way it's going. A point when you can see it transforming from an idea to a microcosm.

A "jumping-off" stage, where our initial work is done, and Nature takes over for a while, breaking down the botanicals, allowing a "patina" of biocover and biofilm to cover some of the surfaces, removing the crisp, harsh, "new" feeling.  This is where Amano's concept of embracing the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi takes over. Accepting the transient nature of things and enjoying the beauty of the changes that occur over time.

And of course, once stuff starts "softening" or breaking down, it doesn't mean that your job is done, or that you're just an observer from that point on. Nope. It means that you're now in a cool phase of "actively managing" (and by "managing", I am emphasizing observation more than "intervening!") the aquarium.

Sure, when you embrace this mindset, you're making minor "tweaks" as necessary to keep the aquarium healthy and moving in the direction-aesthetically, functionally, and otherwise- that you want it to. Yet, at some point early in the process- you find yourself just letting go and allowing the tank to do what Nature intends it to do on it's evolutionary path...

A lot of people may disagree, but I personally feel that THIS phase is the most exciting and rewarding part of the whole process!  And perhaps- one of the most natural...if we allow it to be.

A phase when you interact with your aquarium on a very different level; a place where you get to play a role in the direction your 'scape is going, without constantly interrupting the natural progression taking place within the little microcosm you created!

And of course, the natural "analog" of this phase is when those initial rains arrive and inundate formerly dry habitats, flooding forests and grasslands, transforming them into aquatic habitats once again. Life begins to make a transition- an adaptation to a different environment. Microorganisms flourish and multiply, aquatic insects emerge. Fishes return to forage and reproduce.

When the rains subside somewhat after the initial inundation, the sort of "pause" between storms gives life a chance to make those adjustments necessary during the transformation.

It's a wonderful time in the life cycle of these habitats.

And it happens in an almost identical manner in the aquarium.

As botanical materials break down, more and more compounds (tannins, humic substances, lignin, bound-up organic matter) begin leaching into the water column in your aquarium, influencing the water chemistry and overall environment. Some botanicals, like leaves, break down within weeks, needing replacement if you wish to maintain the "consistency" of the habitat you've started to achieve in your aquarium.

Others, like bark, branches, and more robust seed pods last a much longer time. They not only serve to enrich the aquatic environment- they become "attachment points" for fungal growth, biofilms, and algal mats- just like in Nature.

Many hobbyists tend to want to rush through this phase, where all of the biofilms and decomposition begins and accelerates- as if it is some sort of "obstacle" we need to overcome to get to some ultimate destination with our aquarium. Understanding that it's NOT- and that, in fact, it's the whole game- changes your perspective entirely.  

Yet, a lot of people want to see the aquarium move on from this point rather quickly.

I feel sad for them. They need to enjoy it. Savor it. Why do we as aquarists not embrace this part of our aquariums' evolutions a little more wholeheartedly? Why do we dedicate some much energy to resisting Nature's work than we do enjoying it?

I was wondering if it has to do with some inherent impatience that we have as aquarists- or perhaps as humans in general-a desire to see the "finished product" as soon as possible; something like that. And there is nothing at all wrong with that, I suppose. I just kind of wonder what the big rush is?

I guess, when we view an aquarium in the same context as a home improvement project, meal preparation, or algebra test, I can see how reaching some semblance of "finished" would take on a greater significance! Those earlier, in-between-sort of moments are not nearly as exciting as some perceived destination or outcome we have in mind for our tank.

We have an idea in our head of HOW it's" supposed" to look, and to many, anything that falls short of that is just a "phase", I suppose.

On the other hand, if you look at an aquarium as you would a garden- an organic, living, evolving, growing entity- then the need to see the thing "finished" becomes much less important. Suddenly, much like a "road trip", the destination becomes less important than the journey. It's about the experiences gleaned along the way. Enjoyment of the developments, the process.

In the botanical-style aquarium, it's truly about a dynamic and ever-changing system. An evolution. A process. Started by us, assisted by Nature.

Every stage holds fascination. 

Just like it does in the wild habitats that we covet so deeply.

To not allow an aquarium to evolve- to not trust Nature to help take it from an idea to a microcosm- is to not allow oneself the opportunity to witness firsthand the wonders of the natural world, and the incredible promise, tenacity, and beauty of life underwater.

Be kind to yourself and your aquarium. Be patient and enjoy the journey.

All of it.

Stay calm. Stay engrossed. Stay observant. Stay persistent. Stay brave...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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