Meeting nature "halfway..."

"The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway."-Michael Pollan

An aquarium is very much a "garden" of sorts, isn't it? It's a well-worn analogy, yes. But fitting for what we do.

And I'm not simply referring just to a well- managed, planted system, either. To me, the "garden" part is that it's a little microcosm of nature, although not necessarily a perfectly manicured, high-concept, "ratio-correct" planted aquarium design. Reef tanks, botanical-style tanks, African cichlid tanks, etc. There are a lot of these kinds of concepts.

As we're progressing in the art and science of blackwater, botanical-style aquariums, we are seeing so many hobbyists are accepting and utilizing various elements of nature in their aquascapes, and not over-thinking it.

Okay, I'm getting a bit philosophical again today. Yup, same old story, right?

Perhaps, but I think sometimes it's good for us to look at what we do i the hobby in a more introspective light.

One of the things I find "liberating" about the blackwater, botanical-style aquarium is that it teaches us to accept our aquariums where they are- and to look at nature as it is- not necessarily as we idealize it. As we have reiterated many times, the idea of putting terrestrial botanical materials into water creates not only varying environmental conditions, but an evolving aesthetic as well.

When you accept that seed pods, leaves, and other botanical materials begin to soften, change shape, accrue biofilms and even a patina of algae- the idea of "meeting nature halfway" makes perfect sense, doesn't it? You're not stressing about the imperfections, the random patches of biofilm, the bits of leaves that might be present in the substrate. Sure, there may be a fine line between "sloppy" and "natural" (and for many, the idea of stuff breaking down in any fashion IS "sloppy")- but the idea of accepting this stuff as part of the overall closed ecosystem we've created is liberating.

It's liberating because we are not allowing ourselves to fall into the trap of other people's guidelines and "rules" about what goes where, or how many there should be, etc. Now, there is nothing wrong with a concept, or even a "design" for an aquascape- I think that's really important. However, where I think it's critical to our success is the point where we lay out a basic idea, bringing our sense of design to it- and then let nature "fill it in" a bit. You select the materials you like, arrange them in an attractive "hardscape" that you like, and then accept that nature will "modify" them as she sees fit. By NOT allowing ourselves the "luxury" of freaking out every time a leaf is out of place, or a spot of algae appears on a piece of wood, we are learning to work WITH nature, rather than push against her.

When you look at those amazing pictures of the natural habitats we love so much, you're literally bombarded with the "imperfection" and randomness that is nature. Yet, in all of the "clutter" of an igarape flooded forest, for example, there is a quiet elegance to it. There is a sense that everything is there for a reason- and not simply because it looks good. It IS perfect. Can't we bring this sense to our aquariums? I think we can...simply by meeting nature halfway.

I was thinking about this the other day while looking at my home blackwater aquarium. Specifically, I was looking at an accumulation of biofilm and gasp- algae!- on parts of the mangrove branches which form the foundation of my 'scape. And rather than be repulsed and have this urge to reach for the algae scraper, I found the look to be utterly tranquil, natural-looking, and beautiful in that random way which only nature can create.

What's more, seeing fishes like Nanostomus eques and Dicrossus filamentosus picking contentedly at the biocover between feedings made me realize that what bothers many of us aquarists is of no consequence whatsoever to our fishes. Rather, they accept it as a part of their world which has been with them from day one. They utilize it as a feeding ground. A place that they are naturally drawn to, engaging in ingrained behaviors that are a result of eons of evolution. 

And I thought to myself, "How strange is it that we spend some much concern, time, money, and effort trying to eradicate some of the very things which our fishes have embraced for eternity?" And further, I couldn't help but consider what audacity we have as humans to feel the need to "edit" nature to fit our own aesthetic "sensibilities!"

Now, I realize that there are many who will take issue with my thinking. Many who would suggest that I am the one who's being dogmatic, and that it's open for us to enjoy our aquariums how we choose. And of course, I'm 100% in agreement with that! Never said it isn't. Do YOU.

However, what I find interesting is that, in many decades of aquarium keeping, we have been "counseled"- even chastised- by our community to keep aquariums free from visible algae, to remove any and all detritus, and to arrange and manicure plants in such a way as to embrace specific "design principles"- all the while spurning the very processes- and the aesthetics- of what nature actually does underwater. 

It's just sort of a dichotomy of inconsistency, IMHO.

Not necessarily "bad"- or "good"- just...interesting. Like, it seems to me that we've worked so hard to create some idealized, "clean" version of nature, that we've ended up in some cases creating the incorrect impression to many that nature is this perfectly ordered "fantasy world" that we've concocted. I think we need to be a bit more careful in how we present our work to the non-hobbyist crowd. Again, it's my skewed opinion, but I think it's a valid point.

To me, the art of aquascaping is not only creating the wonderful designs which so many hobbyists do- it's also the ability to convey the wonder of how nature really is. Granted, in the end, we're trying to recreate our own, scaled-down version of The Amazon in a glass box- but the idea of re-creating- both aesthetically, and perhaps functionally- a "slice of the bottom", as they say- is incredibly alluring. And never more possible than it is today.

Sure, we can't get every functional detail down- every component of a food web- every biochemical interaction...the specific materials found in a typical habitat- we interpret- but we can certainly go further, and continue to look at nature as it is, and employ a sense of "acceptance"- and randomness-in our work. 

Perhaps the aquarium- much like a garden- really IS a place where we can "meet nature halfway."

I think it is.

Stay open-minded. Stay proud of what you've accomplished. Stay creative. Stay studious. Stay thoughtful...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Graham Easton
Graham Easton

January 12, 2018

As usual a great read , this time around in the hobby which has been so enjoyable is creating biotopes that allow the fish to coexist with natural elements, watching shrimp pick in amongst the leaves or Pygmy Corydoras borrow in and out of the leaves and roots. As for algae I have one tank that I use for spare branches and plants that can be swopped out to introduce new algae elements for fish to enjoy .

Don Gray
Don Gray

January 11, 2018

Yea buddy. I love black water.

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