The term "Nature" is really used a lot in the aquarium hobby. It's important that we recognize Nature as the ultimate inspiration for our tanks.
Nature, however, can be a rough place. The natural aquatic world doesn't take lightly to those who seek to edit it, parse it, or circumvent it.
We know this, because when we try to "beat the system" by skipping a step, wishing things away, or ignoring Nature's "rules", bad outcomes usually follow.
But, here's the thing...
Even when we cheat; even when we take a shortcut; even when we fly in Her face- after the "ass kicking" - She's got our back...
For example, when you aggressively siphon your sand, interrupting Her process by removing the bulk of the detritus, biofilms, or other organics, not to mention the organisms which utilize them, there might be consequences like a temporary ammonia or nitrite spike.
However, after the spike, if you are patient, keep feeding your tank, and don't do anything stupid, like adding more fishes- your tank will recover. Beneficial bacteria and microorganisms populations will re-establish themselves.
Our aquariums are a lot more resilient than we give them credit for.
The passage of time and a "hands-off" approach to this recovery is crucial. Nature is oddly forgiving in this regard. We simply have to give Her the opportunity to continue on, as She has for eons, without our continued interference.
As we've mentioned repeatedly, Nature "does Her thing" regardless of what we think. Algal blooms appear because the conditions favoring their growth- light and nutrient loads, favor their establishment and growth. And they'll continue to do so as long as these factors remain in play. If we back off the light and continue regular nutrient export processes, at some point, the algae bloom will fade to a more "tolerable" level.
Now, sure- some of Nature's processes require us to make "mental shifts" to accommodate.
Biofilms and fungal growths- as objectionable in appearance though they may be to us as aquarists- perform vital functions in Nature and in the aquairum. They are not only normal- they're beneficial. They are something that we have been indoctrinated to loathe; to fear.
Why? Largely because they look "yucky." Because they tear at our aesthetic sensibilities. They go against everything that we've been told is "healthy"- when the reality is that the appearance of these life forms is your confirmation from Nature that everything is functioning as it should.
We can benefit enormously as aquarists by embracing Nature in its most unedited, literal form.
And that is something that we understand is not appealing to everyone. And sort of "sticking it in everyone's face" and suggesting that a truly "natural" aquarium requires the acceptance of a very polarizing aesthetic certainly can turn off some people.
I do get it.
However, I see little downside to studying Nature as it is.
It's very important, IMHO, to at least have a cursory understanding of how these habitats have come to be; what function they perform for the piscine inhabitants who reside there, and why they look the way they do. Even if you simply despise the types of aquariums we love here!
Because in the process of learning about Nature as it is, and the uniqueness and fragility of the habitats we love, we become more attuned to the way aquatic ecosystems function, and the threats these wild systems face. And when we have a greater understanding of the habitats themselves, we have a greater understanding of how to replicate their form and function in the aquarium.
Simply copying exactly every beautiful aquarium you see here, or elsewhere online deprives us of the amazing opportunity to study and be inspired by the wonders of Nature as it is.
A confluence of terrestrial and aquatic elements, working together to create a unique and inspiring habitat. By selecting to replicate, at least on some level, an "unedited" interpretation of these habitats, we open up new aesthetic possibilities, foster breakthroughs in aquatic husbandry, and further the state of the art of the aquarium hobby.
Having a certain degree of faith in Nature is extremely important for us as hobbyists. Understanding that, as our botanical-style aquariums evolve, we can benefit by not panicking; not rushing to "fix" every little "bump in the road" which we encounter.
Sometimes, it's best to do nothing...To let Nature perform the correction Herself.
She's damn good at it!
Obviously, you need to obey all of the common best practices of aquarium management, in terms of nitrogen cycle management, water quality testing, nutrient export, etc. in a natural, botanical-style aquarium (blackwater or otherwise). However, you have to also apply a healthy dose of the above-referenced "emotional element" into your regimen as well!
Going with your feelings is not always such crazy notion. Learning to have faith in Nature and her work isn't so bad, either. Nature always finds a way, right? Nature can correct many of the problems we create in our aquariums.
We talk a ton about the "aquarium as a microcosm" thing.
And don't forget- although aquariums are closed ecosystems, they are still subject to Nature's rules and processes.
Remember, anything you add into an aquarium- wood, sand, botanicals, and of course- livestock- is part of the "bioload", and will impact the function and environment of your aquarium. Even materials like rock and substrate add to the chemical dance occurring in our aquariums and have their own set of impacts.
Nothing we add to our systems has no consequences -either good or bad- attached to it.
Aquariums are living, breathing entities. They are influenced by a large number of internal and external factors- just like the wild aquatic habitats which they represent. Giving them a certain amount of "space" to "be" is really important. Constant "tweaks" and "adjustments"- well-intentioned though they might be- are stressful for the miniature ecosystems we create.
Rapid, dramatic environmental shifts are never a good thing for any type of aquarium, and a system like we run, with lots of organic material present, is just as susceptible to "insults" from big, poorly thought-out moves as any other. Perhaps even more, because by its very nature, our style of aquarium is based upon lots of natural materials which impact the environment on multiple fronts.
We need to remember this.
We need to observe our systems keenly- test when we can, and always apply common sense to any move we make.
Nature's got our back- provided that we do our part.
there is no "plug and play" formula to follow- only procedure. Only recommendations for how to approach things. Only common sense and the wisdom gained by doing. We sound a bit repetitive at times; however, like so many things in aquarium-keeping, our "best practices" are few, simple and need to be repeated until they simply become habit:
1) Prepare all botanicals prior to adding them to your aquarium.
2) Add botanical materials slowly and gradually, assessing the impact on your aquarium environments and inhabitants.
3) Either remove botanical materials as they break down (if that's your aesthetic preference), or replace them when they reach a point where they are no longer providing the aesthetic and environmental conditions that you desire.
4) Observe your aquarium continuously.
Specifically, observe the changes that your aquarium goes through as it evolves into a little microcosm.
Do you really want to "prove" to yourself that Nature's got your back?
Leave your tank to "fend for itself" for a while.
How much more will things change by simply delaying water exchanges for several weeks? By not siphoning detritus at all? Will this really become some sort of problem? Or, will the bacteria, fungal growths, and other microorganisms and crustacean life living in our botanical substrates continue to do what they do- break down organic waste and reproduce?
Yeah, they will.
It's what Nature does.
I'm 100% convinced that a natural, botanical-style aquarium can better handle a period of "benign neglect" than almost any other type of aquarium can. systems...Not that you'd want to do this, mind you... Although, I tried it as a sort of "experiment." Yeah-I'm a fairly diligent/borderline obsessive maintenance guy. I love my weekly water exchanges. But I did it.
And my tank ran just fine.
And that shouldn't really be a surprise, when you think about it.
The natural, botanical-style botanical aquarium is sort of set up to replicate a habitat where all of this stuff is taking place already. Leaves, seed pods, etc. are more-or-less ephemeral in nature, and are constantly breaking down in these environments. Decomposition, accumulation of epiphytic growth, and colonization of various life forms is continuous.
And I think to myself often, "How strange is it that we spend so much concern, time, money, and effort trying to eradicate some of the very things which our fishes have embraced for eternity?"
And further, I can't help but consider what audacity we have as humans to feel the need to "edit" nature to fit our own aesthetic "sensibilities!"
Sure, we can't get every functional detail of Nature down- every single component of a food web- every biochemical interaction...the exact materials found in every tropical aquatic habitat- we interpret- but we can certainly go further, and continue to work with Nature, and employ a sense of "acceptance"- and awe-in our work.
Embrace Nature. Understand how our closed systems are still little "microcosms", subject to the rules laid down by the Universe. Realize that sometimes- more often than you might think- it's a good idea to "leave well enough alone!"
Because Nature's got our back.
Stay calm. Stay inspired. Stay open-minded. Stay bold...
And Stay Wet.