I hate to be the one to break it to you:
We've got it all wrong.
We've been getting it all wrong.
Yeah, I know that hurts. It's crazy. But I think that it's true.
A century or more of aquarium keeping, and I think the bulk of us in the hobby are still not quite "getting it." We "sanitize" Nature. We look for "shortcuts" to accomplish what Nature has been doing for eons. We attempt to circumvent the processes and what many of us consider the "ugly" parts of Nature.
We resist. We fight. We go halfway. And yet, we laud ourselves for creating "natural aquariums."
We're pretty close, in some respects. But we miss by a mile in others.
Now, sure, there ARE aquatic habitats in Nature which are more-or-less crystal clear, sparkling, and filled with plants and white sand- just like in our aquariums. However, the reality is that many- if not most-natural aquatic habitats are replete with leaves, twigs, plant parts, and, for want of a better word- "dirt."
Even the "crystal clear" ones aren't quite as pristine as we fantasize them to be. And of course, many are far more "dirty" than we realize. And our label of "dirty" doesn't equal "bad."
And that's where we find the real magic, IMHO.
In this world of decomposing leaves, submerged logs, twigs, and seed pods, there is a surprising diversity of life forms which call this milieu home. And each one of these organisms has manages to eke out an existence and thrive.
It's Nature at her most beautiful.
Yet, we have been taught for generations to siphon out detritus, scrub algae, and remove decomposing plant materials. On the surface, these are the tenants of good husbandry for aquariums: Remove stuff that can degrade water quality before it has the opportunity to do that.
I get it.
However, think about it. These things occur in Nature for a reason. They play a vital role in the function- and yeah, the aesthetics- of natural aquatic habitats.
A lot of hobbyists not familiar with our aesthetic tastes will ask what the fascination is with throwing leaves, palm fronds and seed pods into our tanks, and I tell them that it's a direct inspiration from nature! Sure, the look is quite different than what has been proffered as "natural" in recent years- but I'll guarantee that, if you donned a snorkel and waded into one of these habitats, you'd understand exactly what we are trying to represent in our aquariums in seconds!
We also happen to like the way it looks, of course!
And, to apply what we see in Nature to the aquarium requires a real "mental shift", as we've preferred here for some time now. With our "mental shift" that embraces the use of a melange of botanical materials, breaking down and recruiting some biofilms and such- just like in nature- I think we're on the verge of seeing more truly remarkable displays emerging, with greater functional and aesthetic authenticity than has previously been seen.
I think that in our zealousness to make things easy and accessible for everyone, we've replaced studying how Nature does things with our penchant for learning how to use gadgets, additives, and other processes in an attempt accomplish the same thing. I can't help but think that these things create a different sort of "dependency", despite the hobby/industry's effort to make everyone "successful" in the hobby.
How do we reconcile this? How do we "re-establish" our connection with Nature?
The first step is to let go of some long-held preconceptions and to meet Nature where it IS, instead of where we WANT it to be. When we fight Nature by removing, say, all of the detritus in our tanks- we are quite literally "breaking the cycle" and depriving various groups of microfauna the environment and food source they need to carry out their life functions-which happen to include metabolizing organics and such...
And, think about it: Removing stuff near the bottom of the chain significantly affects stuff at the "top"- ie; our fishes, and the aquarium as a whole.
Again, I believe that we tend to become dependent solely on our filters, filter media, the large water exchange. Equipment and processes designed to circumvent the "pitfalls" of having decomposing organics and such in our tanks.
Now look, I'm not advocating ditching filters, skipping water exchanges (indeed, I am an advocate of more frequent ones), and just disregarding a century of aquatic "best practices" for husbandry.
However, what I am asking you to do is to reconsider why we utilize these things. What purpose do they serve? How do they sere this purpose? And to ask ourselves if we can use our knowledge and equipment to better work with Nature to accomplish the same things, rather than to fight off, circumvent, or eliminate some of these processes in our zeal to "sanitize" what Nature has successfully done for eons.
What if we encouraged decomposition; the microfauna who perform this role, and the growth of biofilms which metabolize organics and excess nutrients, rather than took the siphon hose to them at first opportunity? What if, rather than being alarmed by the appearance of this stuff in our tanks, we took it as a positive that Nature is working her magic, deploying the correct life forms to help utilize the abundance in our closed systems?
What if we encouraged these processes, rather than disrupted them because...well..because that's what we have been doing.
Guess what? An aquarium can still be beautiful while embracing all of Nature.
You can create aesthetics that can challenge just about any competition scape out there. The great Takashi Amano himself actually proffered this more than a decade ago...and somehow, this got utterly lost in the frenzy to replicate his work. He wasn't asking us to replicate his work.
He was asking us to replicate the work of Nature.
This was a man who would literally lie down in a field of weeds and enjoy the subtle, yet intricate web of life that was present in the most esoteric of natural settings.
He got it.
It's time to get down into the weeds again.
Stay curious. Stay bold. Stay original. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.