Someone just had to do it.
Someone asked me about the underlying philosophy and "concept" behind Tannin and my interpretation of the place that the natural, botanical-style aquarium occupies in the aquarium hobby.
So, I took the bait. Here's the answer, J.C. It's sounding a lot more like a "manifesto" of sorts, but I suppose it's what I'm feeling today, lol.
Because you asked. 😆:
There is something very pure and evocative-even a bit "uncomfortable" about utilizing botanical materials in the aquarium. Selecting, preparing, and utilizing them is more than just a practice- it's an experience. A journey. One which we can all take- and all benefit from.
Right along with our fishes, of course.
The energy and creativity that you bring with you on the journey tends to become amplified during the experience. We don’t want everyone walking away feeling the same thing, quite the opposite actually.
That uniqueness is a large part of the experience.
The experience is largely about discovery.
I believe that all aquarists are wildly curious about the natural world, but that they tend to "overcomplicate" what is unknown, not well understood, or outside of the lines of "conventional aquarium aesthetics and practices"-and literally "polish out" the true beauty of Nature in the process-often ascribing "rules" and "standards" for how our interpretations of Nature must look.
Such rules, in my opinion, not only stifle the creative process- they serve to deny Nature the opportunity to do as She's done for eons- to seek a path via evolution and change to forge a successful ecosystem for its inhabitants. When we seek to "edit" Nature because the "look" of Her process doesn't comport with our sense of aesthetics, we are, in my opinion, no longer attempting to replicate Nature as it is.
Suffice it to say, there are NO rules in rediscovering the unfiltered art beneath the surface. Our "movement" believes in representing Nature as it exists in both form and function, without removing the very attributes of randomness and resulting function that make it so amazing.
We are utterly inspired by this.
The only "rules" that should be embraced are those which Nature has laid down over the millennia. Rules that govern the function of the natural aquatic environments of the world. "Rules" that dictate how biological processes work.
We are about the preservation of biofilms, decomposition, and that "patina" of biocover that exists when terrestrial materials contact water. The change in water color and chemistry as tannins and humic substances from leaves and botanicals work their way into the milieu.
Understanding that these materials physically break down and influence the environment...and that this process doesn't always conform to our hobby interpretation of what is "beautiful" leads to a greater appreciation of the ephemeral, the transitional.
It's a sexy hashtag that we've embraced over the years for Tannin- it sounds cool. Yet, it's one which, in my opinion, captures the ultimate "essence" of our philosophy. A way of capturing aspects of nature in our aquarium in a manner that accepts it as it is, rather than how we want it to be. Understanding that, by allowing Nature to do what she does, we are truly blurring the lines between the wild aquatic habitats of the world and our aquariums.
Indeed, fostering a true slice of the natural world in our homes- in all of its splendor.
Simplicity. Complexity. Creativity. Transience. "Randomness."
We receive so many PM's, emails, phone calls, and other inquiries from hobbyists when we run pieces featuring pics and discussions about natural environments as topics for modeling our aquaria, excited about the details, and how they can be replicated in an aquarium.
This is a really cool thing.
Yet, sometimes, someone will pose a question like, "How does what you talk about differ from the concept of the "biotope aquarium" idea that you see so often in the hobby?"
It's a good one.
The answer is, it doesn't differ all that much, with the exception being that biotope aquariums, even though they seek to replicate much of the look and environmental conditions of a given habitat, yet seem to eschew some of the "functional" aspects. Like, they'll often incorporate some of the same materials that we do. They can nail the look and the pH and flow and light and such.
Yeah, many use leaves and botanicals beautifully. However, they're typically used more for the appearance-sort of like "props"- as opposed to facilitating decomposition, the growth of biofilms, microorganisms, fungal growths, etc. It's a bit less "functional" and a bit more "aesthetic", IMHO.
The difference between what they do and what we do us subtle. It's in the management; the nuance.
Although we might also make "geographic transgressions" and incorporate materials from different parts of the world to recreate the aesthetic part without apologies. We won't obsess over making sure that every twig, leaf, and seed pod is the exact type found in a given region. "Generic tropical" is okay by us when it comes to materials we use. Because we're about creating the function as much as-if not more than- the form. We're all about the overall picture. "Inspired by..." is our mantra.
We're seeing a greater understanding for the random beauty of Nature- in bother wild habitat images we study and the aquariums that we create.
And the cool thing that we've noticed is that every aquarium pic that is shared by our community, which incorporates botanical materials and other elements of nature in a similar matter is studied, elevated..often celebrated- as a representation of the genius of nature in all of its random glory.
It makes sense.
We've made a collective "mental shift" as a community.
In my own rebellious way, I can't help but think that part of this enthusiasm which our community has for this stuff is that aquarium hobbyists in general have a bit of a "rebellious streak", too, and that maybe, just maybe- we're a bit well, "over" the idea of the "rule-centric", mono-stylistic, overly dogmatic thinking that has dominated the aquascaping and biotope aquarium world for the better part of a decade or two.
Again, my encouragement to you:
Maybe it's time to look at nature as an inspiration again- but to look at nature as it exists- not trying to sanitize it; clean it up to meet our expectations of what an aquarium is "supposed to look like."
And by the same token, understanding that not every hobbyist wants to-or can-go to the other extreme-trying to validate every twig, rock, and plant in a given habitat, as if we're being "scored" by some higher power- a universal "quality assurance team"- which must certify that each and every rock and branch is, indeed from the Rio Manacapuru, for example, or your work is just some sort of travesty.
I find that a bit too restricting for my taste.
Not that there is anything "wrong" with this pursuit, or that I take any issue with talented hobbyists who enjoy that route. I identify with them far more than the "high concept aquascaping" crowd for sure! I simply believe that there is a "middle ground" of sorts, where the celebration of the function of Nature is the primary influence, and accepting it and its function, while attempting to replicate it "as it is" -becomes the goal.
It's at the delta- the intersection of science and art.
It's where we play.
It's where we're most comfortable.
Not everyone is.
And, if you want to get really "meta" about this shit, think about it this way: The botanicals themselves already have a certain "feeling" and an "energy" to them. Everything we’ve done with them in our aquariums has been in response to using the botanicals as both the "armature" and "conduit" of the experience.
What happens next is in the hands of...Nature.
I'm pretty comfortable with that.
I suspect that many of you might be, too.
Stay brave. Stay proud. Stay open. Stay diligent. Stay observant. Stay humble...
And Stay Wet.