Ideas that move us forward...

When I look back over the years in my aquarium hobby journey, it's obvious to me that there has been a sort of "evolution" of my aquarium philosophy. You can see it in each progressive tank: Little elements, slowly coming together create a big picture. Each tank provided little "test bed" for proving out new concepts and ideas. 

Some were spectacularly successful, and had the added bonus of being labeled as "iconic"by others in the hobby (an honor, but not necessary IMHO).

Others were just quick iterations of an idea, and never really evolved to anything notable. Still others validated-or, in some instances, disproved- concepts and ideas that we wanted to try.

They helped break new ground in moving our "thesis" of the natural, botanical-style aquarium as a functional ecosystem forward.

Others were just passing thoughts, which sort of vanished into obscurity.

Yet, looking back upon my "body of work" of the last 5-10 years, I can see a common "through-line" in everything that I did. Each tank, in its own way, advanced the state of the art of what we do here. Stuff seemingly as incongruous as sedimented substrates, in-situ wood curing, and starting a system fallow fishes for extended periods of time often yield important results which advance our work  significantly.

There is a certain comfort we as aquarists can take from our experience.

After a certain number of years in the aquarium keeping game, it seems as if you develop, in addition to an ever-growing collection of fishes, plants, tanks, equipment, and “stuff”, a certain “je ne sais quoi” - an intrinsic knowledge, a “sixth sense”, or even a swagger, sort of- about your aquariums.

Am I right here? I mean, after you’ve collected, kept, propagated, bred- and yeah, unfortunately- killed- your fair share of fishes, you kinda just “know” when things are going well, and when something is terribly amiss with your collection. It’s a skill- or perhaps- a blessing- or even a “curse” that we afflicted hobbyists acquire during our tenure in the aquarium-keeping hobby..

You know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you? Yeah…You’ve developed that crazy ability to look beyond the obvious when observing your tank, and being able to quickly ascertain what’s join on in there. You can tell at a glance that your favorite stand of aquatic plants is just not looking "right", or that your prized Tropheus is about to go south.

Perhaps it’s a result of that new supplement you just switched to, or that change you made to your lighting program. Maybe, it’s a result of postponing your regular water change. Regardless of what it is, you have the ability to sense something is not right.

And of course, you know when things are going really well, too!

After dealing with- no- obsessing with- aquariums for a few years, you certainly develop a personal “baseline” for your animals, and when something is “not right”, it’s immediately apparent to you. And the interesting thing is that this ability comes to EVERYONE who keeps tanks…It’s not a skill reserved for the privileged few or the occasional “gifted” aquarist…No- it’s a skill that we ALL develop over time based on observing and adjusting…and "enduring” the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of an aquarium. 

The intriguing thing about this hobby is just how addicting or engaging it can be. How all-encompassing and satisfying it is. I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who “dabbles” with aquariums. Then again, I tend not to hang with people who "dabble" in aquariums...

Rather, it's "binary": They’re either hooked on aquariums, or they keep mice or something. Why is that? Well, I think that part of the reason is that once you try a tank, you just “get it”, and your interest and passion blossom from there. Aquarium keeping offers stimulation and challenges that few other hobbies can. It's what creates 4--tank fish rooms from one 10-gallon "community tank" in the living room from Christmas time.

Those of us who are hardcore hobbyists are basically in it for life. Sure, there might be a year or two where circumstances keep us out of the game for a bit, but we never fully disengage. I know a lot of aquarists who had awesome tanks, and then for one reason or another, got out for a while…However, when they got back into it- and they ALWAYS did- they would tell me things like, “Yeah, I always followed the forums and read the magazines and stuff..” It just never really gets out of your system.

This “thing” that we do- this hobby, pastime- obsession…whatever you wan to  call it, seems to encompass every emotion and experience you can have in life, doesn’t it? Pleasure, pain, happiness, sorrow, frustration, a sense of individuality, as well as a sense of belonging- they’re all there. 

I've learned over the years to view each aquarium that I've created as a step in a very long journey. I've learned that each and every aquarium is a"teacher"; a sage imparting wisdom to me.

All of these tanks have helped me as hobbyist share the love I have for the process of creating unique botanical-style aquariums.

That, to me, is the charm of what we do as aquarists who embrace this philosophy. We celebrate the process. We celebrate the process because we understand how it positively impacts the environment of our aquariums and the fishes which reside in them.

Those of us who look at Nature as it is, and choose to embrace it in our tanks, instead of some sanitized, stylized representation, find true beauty in this ephemeral characteristic that botanicals bring.

Just like in the wild, the way terrestrial materials break down and "devolve" under water is fascinating, biologically useful...and beautiful.


We've learned this by following Nature, and allowing these processes to occur over and over again in our tanks. Now, some hobbyists find the fact that we allow materials to break down in our tanks like they do in Nature to be undisciplined, even "messy."

However, I've learned what many of you have over your fish keeping careers: The so-called "mess" is- or often leads to -something beautiful, permanent, and utterly engrossing. So the term "mess", as we might commonly use it, should not be viewed as negative. It's more of a "transition", IMHO!

"Mess" is actually a vehicle to propel us in different aquascaping/experimental directions. It actually is the embodiment of Amano's wabi-sabi philosophy, which embraces the transience of nature- and celebrates it. It appreciates and understands the beauty in the ephemeral aspects of Nature.

It requires some study, appreciation, and yes- mental shifts.

These mental shifts come as a result of a progression, gained by experience. And that experience is obtained by creating and managing these unique aquairums over time.

Mental shifts which allow us to appreciate the process in Nature as much as we do in our tanks. Somehow, I think that seeing these processes play out in the wild aquatic habitats gives some of us "permission" to allow it to happen in our aquariums!

We can take comfort in seeing that these habitats thrive despite what appears to be contrary to our hobby interpretation of how we think they're "supposed" to look and function.

And that's okay. It's part of the game. It's how Nature teaches us. And what Nature teaches us is, in my opinion, every bit as valuable- if not more so- than the latest aquascape contest winner who's "diorama 'scape" is all the rage on Instagram, or wherever.

Yet, I've had numerous tanks which, for one reason or another, I simply elected not to go forward with.

Perhaps you can relate to this:

So, you have this idea for an aquarium. You kind of see it in your've assembled the materials, got it sort of together.

You add water.

Then, you walk in the room one day, look at it and... you HATE it.

Like, you're done with it.  Like, no re-hab on the design. No "tweaking" of the wood or whatever...You're just over the thing. Ever felt that?

What do you do? 

Well, I had this idea for a nano tank a while back. It seemed good in my head...I had it up for a nanosecond.

Even memorialized it with some Instagram "Stories" posts.

I thought that the tank would be a sort of "blank canvas" for an idea I had...I liked the idea, in principle.

But I didn't see a way forward with this one. I even took the extraordinary step of removing one element of the tank (the wood) altogether, in the hope of perhaps just doing my "leaf only scape V3.0"- but I wasn't feeling it.


It was a stillborn idea. A tank not capable of evolving to anything that interested me at this time.

So...I killed it.

Yeah, made away with it. Shut it down. Terminated it...

Whatever you want to call it.

That's really a kind of extraordinary step for me. I mean, I'm sort of the eternal optimist. I try to make almost everything work if I can...

Not this time, however.

I killed it.

Now, after reviewing the aborted aquarium, I was actually able to gain some clarity about why I did it.

What made me do it? 

I think it centered around two things that I simply can't handle in aquariums anymore.

Don't laugh:

1) I absolutely can't stand aquariums which don't have some sort of background- be it opaque window tint, photo paper, or paint. This tank had no background. You could see the window behind it, and the trees outside on the street, and...yeah. 

2) I disdain seeing filters or other equipment in my aquariums. Like, I hate it more than you can ever even imagine.  Like, I hate seeing filters and stuff. Its only in recent years that I've been able to tolerate seeing filter returns in my all-in-one tanks...and just barely. Now, this nano had a little hang-on-the-back outside power filter...Which I not only saw from the top, but from behind...because-you got it- I didn't have a goddam background on the tank, yes.

I mean, am I that much of a primadonna that I can't handle that? I mean, maybe, but I like to think of it as a situation where I have simply developed an aesthetic sense that just can't tolerate some stuff anymore. I have good ideas, and then I get to equipment...and it sort of "stifles" them a bit.

This is weird.

Okay, yeah, maybe I am prima donna.

What could I have done to salvage this tank?

Use a canister filter and glassware, you say?  

Oh, sure. That's easy, right? I mean, all you see in the tank are these elegant curves of "lily pipes" and intakes...You just take 'em out and bleach 'em every once in a while and they stay nice and clean, and..

Okay, yeah. Great. On paper, anyways.

IMHO, glassware isn't the "organic art" that everyone seems to place on some lofty pedestal in the hobby. It reminds me of high school chemistry lab (which I think I got a C minus in, so some residual trauma there, no doubt!). You think it's beautiful...I think it's simply dreadful.

I do. 

It's another piece of equipment, which you see on the outside of the tank, too, with its "umbilical" of return lines shooting up along the sides. Now sure, I know these were developed to make an obvious, visible necessity (filter returns) more elegant and beautiful...Cool. It's a significant improvement over what was available before.

However, to me, they're just that- obvious, visible, distracting...and ugly.

I know, I'm being too stupid about this. There are a lot of other things I should getworled up about.

Yet, even in that aborted project, I learned something.

I gained further clarity on something thatI held my head:  I have an "anti-glassware/lack of colored background/visible equipment fetish!" I hate equipment that hangs over tanks. I hate seeing through tanks. This tank helped me, by once again reinforcing i some things that I don't like, superficial though they may have been.

These are obviously aesthetic concerns. Of course, there are always concerns about process, procedures, and our philosophy about creating and managing aquariums.

This stuff wasn't necessarily that. 

It wasn't stuff which I felt would not directly advance my "agenda." Yet, in a weird way, it DID. It helped my again realize certain things about aquariums which I don't like, and how to build off of them.

A certain "self-awareness", if you will. 

A way to move forward.

Yeah, EVERY execution, no matter how good or how seemingly not-so-good to us it is, moves us forward.

Stay bold. Stay creative. Stay diligent. Stay observant...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 





Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


Leave a comment