If you've been in the hobby long enough, you start noticing how things truly evolve over the years, and how easily we get comfortable doing stuff that, less than a decade before was considered "risky", "non-sustainable", or downright dangerous. I think so much of it starts with making mental shifts and appreciating the challenges associated with doing stuff slightly different than we have in the past. In other words- simply trying. It seems like there is a certain audacity to doing stuff fundamentally differently than we have in the past; call it what you will- but it's that simple.
I was chatting with a fellow hobbyist the other day and we were sort of looking where we are as a hobby, and how our little speciality niche has started to catch the eye of more and more "manstream" adherents in the aquarium hobby. And more important- more and more hobbyists are letting go of thinking which has helped maintain a certain "status quo" for far too long, in my opinion.
Consider the fact that, for years, playing with blackwater, lower pH, and decomposing botanical materials was considered an extremely risky, irresponsible, and non-viable approach to keeping aquariums by many. It still is, in many corners...yet more and more hobbyists are playing with this concept, and enjoying and sharing long-term, replicable successes. The reality is that many hobbyists were playing with this stuff for years, it's just that we were quietly experimenting with this stuff in the dark corners of our fish rooms. Now, we're getting just a bit louder...
Blackwater aquariums have moved out of the "side show" category and are now simply another way to maintain an aquarium. Thanks to the work, experimentation, and sharing of this community, what was once feared is now compelling to many. We still have a long way to go. And quite honestly, a lot of people simply don't like the look. I understand that. And I am convinced that this "genre" of aquarium-keeping will always be as much of an "art" as it is a "science"- and that's okay, too. We're literally developing the framework for creating, operating, and managing lower pH, botanical-style blackwater systems as we speak.
Call it "open-source", "ground-floor," "bleeding edge"- whatever you label it, the opportunity for a wide variety of interested hobbyists at all levels to contribute to a body of work has never been better! I think we'll see more and more commercial developments in this area as time goes by, too. Doors have been opened, as they say.
And, we've actually started to have some of our work "trickle down" into another unique aquarium niche...brackish water.
It's truly cool seeing more and more hobbyists embracing and experimenting with our vision of a botanical-style brackish aquarium. I'd like to think that the "body of work" that we as a community have developed with the blackwater, botanical-style tanks has given us the understanding and confidence that we nee to move forward into this different arena.
After addressing century-old concerns about the idea of adding materials that break down into our aquariums, and showing not only good short-term success, but solid long-term results, including fish health, spawnings, and environmental stability in blackwater, it looks like the validity of a more realistic interpretation of a brackish water environment can be tested with far less trepidation.
The backbone- literally- of our brackish-water vision is the use of mangrove materials, namely, mangrove branches and leaf litter. These materials will function just like the many types of aquascaping woods and leaves which we have now become accustomed to in our blackwater "practice." And of course, rich substrates, featuring a mix of clays, muds, soils, and sands. It's that idea of "functional aesthetics" again. For some reason, we haven't played with them much before. These materials look appropriate for the habitat we're trying to replicate because they come from the habitat we're trying to replicate.
We are finally starting to eschew the sterile-looking, white-sand-and-mineral-rock" aesthetic interpretation of brackish water habitats that's been the "standard" for years, and looking at the actual natural habitats themselves for inspiration. Sort of "meeting them where they are" and understanding that the pristine-looking vision we've had for decades simply is not how these habitats typically look...and the function of them is directly influenced by the way they look when we cast aside our preconceived notions and embrace how they do look and operate. (Oh, and our "traditional" interpretation of brackish habitats looked kind of...boring, if you ask me...)
One interesting advantage of playing with brackish tanks is that we have access to a tremendous amount of valuable "crossover" information about keeping and managing marine animals, thanks to several decades of reef keeping work. Much of this translates quite well into brackish water aquarium keeping. Materials as basic as salt mixes areas rigidly formulated nowadays that we scarcely have to consider which brand to use. And technology like lighting and filtration are now so good that we can almost take them for granted. Almost.
As a hobby, we are becoming more and more progressive, I think. Sure, there are lots of little pockets of resistance to change, holding on to set ways, interpretations, and styles, but you're seeing more and more individual hobbyists breaking away from the "groupthink" and simply doing stuff. Looking at things fro ma fresh perspective, experimenting...and generally not giving a damn about what "everyone" thinks. Scary, daring- yet empowering. It's how breakthroughs arise in the hobby.
Now, I'm not trying to say that we are awesome and everyone else is some kind of throwback loser...Absolutely not. We're not the only arena in the hobby that's pushing things in different directions. What I AM saying is that we are a good example of a small community of people who have demonstrated how far you can come quickly when you simply...do. This can work-has worked- in a number of aquarium hobby specialties, from cichlid breeding to Rainbowfish keeping, to aquatic plants and aquascaping.
Mindset shifts are beautiful things, because they get us out of our comfort zones and compel us to look at where we were, where we are, how we got there, and where we are going next.
It's neat to look back- but far more interesting to look forward.
Stay daring. Stay diligent. Stay open-minded. Stay communicative. Stay creative...
And Stay Wet.