Letting nature help "fill in the blanks..."

One of the best things about starting up a new blackwater or botanical-style system is that you get to go through the full "experience" yet again, and look at things a bit differently than you would if you were a bit more pragmatic about the process...Just hell- bent on getting it done quickly...


I'm at what, to me, is arguably one of the more fascinating times in developing these types of systems in my home tanks. My essential "anchor" hardscapes are done. The wood and botanicals that will be the largest pieces are set. The tanks are emerging from that that sterile-looking, stark appearance (You know, that look which leaves no doubt about this being "artificial"). My "campfire-style" wood stack certainly gives off that vibe, which, a few months back generated concern, questions and suggestions from my (more talented) friends to make the layout of the wood look more "artistic..."

Feedback which, in years past, would put a lot of doubts in my head. Like freaked me out.

Not this time, however. I have a vision.

And I have patience to let it unfold gradually, steadily. This time, I knew that the wood had to be in this sort of configuration, seemingly artificial though it seemed initially, because the picture I had in my head dictated this.

It's setting the stage for the long term.

If I had to give this absurd exercise a title, like they do in those contests, I think I'd call it something like "What a pile of...!" or something, as this aggregation might appear to be more like a bunch of branches placed in the woods for the purposes of making a fire at some future date...OR, could it be representative of the way a tangle of branches might slowly assemble itself, given a unidirectional flow of water...like an inundation caused by an overflowing stream? Maybe?


The pic below by David Sobry gives me some interesting ideas...and context.

I've found that some of the most compelling aquascapes- botanical-style, hardscape, planted, reef, etc.- seem to have a special "something" about them. Of course, a large part of it is the overall "look"; however, one of the things which, in my opinion, seperates good tanks from great ones is the little details...stuff that completes the underwater scene. Not necessarily "structural" details, like anchor hardscape pieces, mind you. No, we're talking about little, subtle details which make a system more natural-looking and "shade in the corners" where needed.

Gert Blank's recent tank is an absolute "poster child" for this!

Those little things make a difference over time.

For example, in our botanical-style world, it's little things, like bits and pieces of broken up botanical materials, like bark, twigs, the occasional larger seed pod or what not, which make your scene look much more complete and lively.

If you take your cues from natural underwater habitats, like I do, you'll notice that they are filled with all sorts of materials- not just the more obvious leaves and branches. If you think contextually, particularly when we're talking about habitats like igapo inundated forests and igarapes ("canoe ways" in the Amazonian forests), take into account that they literally are flooded forest floors. As such, they have seemingly random aggregations of botanical materials scattered about everywhere, punctuated- or, rather defined- by larger features like fallen logs, branches, a few random rocks.

The look of sort of awkwardly-placed hardscape pieces in an aquarium might certainly not be seen as being "artistic", in the way fabulous work by my friends like Jeff Senske at Aquarium Design Group are- but, in my opinion, it's nonetheless compelling- once the details arrive to soften and fill in the scene.

See, I said the "D" word.


I believe that an aquarium that attempts to replicate a sort of chaotic scene like the ones we're talking about starts with what looks like really artificial placement of wood, anchored by numerous details which soften, define, and fill in the scape. A sort of analog to the theater/motion picture concept  of "mise en scene", where pieces literally set the stage and help tell a story by providing context.

Yes, unlike a scape which depends upon growth of plants to fill it in and "evolve" it, the botanical-style blackwater/brackish aquarium is largely hardscape materials, which requires the adept placement of said materials to help fill in the scene. And of course, part of the "evolution" is the softening, redistribution, and break down of botanical materials over time...just like what happens in nature.

(One of Mike Tucc's underwater igarape pics to the rescue..again!)

I suppose this little rant could be viewed as a "defense" of my work, lol!

Perhaps it is. But I think it serves to re-examine what I feel is one of the foundational philosophies of the botanical-style aquarium aesthetic.

I must confess, it's an aesthetic which certainly doesn't appeal to everyone. In fact, many in the mainstream aquascaping world would levy all sorts of "constructive criticisms" and "Yeah, but..." comments about our practices and ideas.. And that is part of the attraction of this the of aquarium for me. Rather than conform thoroughly to some sort of "rules" based on design, layout, and technique, this type of aquarium tends to ask for very basic initial design, and lets Mother Nature handle a lot of the emerging details over time.

This is a slightly different approach to aquascaping than we usually think about. It requires some vision. It requires belief in one's ideas. It requires understanding...And it requires patience above all else.

And the passage of time.

Nature has been working with terrestrial materials in aquatic habitats for eons. And nature works with just about everything you throw at her. She'll take that seemingly "unsexy" piece of wood or rock or bunch of dried leaves, and, given the passage of time, the action of gravity and water movement, and the work of bacteria, fungi, and algae- will mold, shape, evolve them into unique and compelling pieces, as amazing as anything we could ever hope to do...

If we give her the chance. 

If we allow ourselves to look at her work in context.

Always let nature "fill in those blanks..."

That's it for now. I have to tend to my "campfire..."  :)

Stay determined. Stay diligent. Stay faithful. Stay independent. Stay creative...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


1 Response

Steve Rollins
Steve Rollins

March 17, 2018

Great article, I share the same sentiments with the approach of letting nature fill in the gaps and at times during this “journey” into this aspect of the hobby I have at times been met with temporary feelings of dispair, only to let time pass and watch my creations blossom into their own. This was a very inciteful and reflective literary peice. Well needed motivation for me to continue in the direction that I am currently headed.
Warrior Planted Tanks

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