It's been very gratifying to see the incredible work being done by aquarists in our community who have embraced the idea of a truly naturally-functioning and appearing aquarium. To see and hear discussions about things like "patience" and an understanding that various natural processes occur which we should study, understand, and embrace while our tanks establish themselves is nothing short of amazing.
It represents a shifting, evolving mindset that allows us as aquarists to meet Nature where she is and appreciate the 'journey" that we take with our aquariums at every stage.
As we've discussed many times, an aquarium has a sort of "cadence"- a speed and sequence by which it establishes itself and runs in. A process that is dictated by biology, chemistry, and the "cards that were dealt" to the little closed ecosystems we create.
It all starts with a more-or-less sterile, empty tank, and then the addition of hardscape, such as substrate, rocks, and wood, followed by (in our case) botanical materials, ranging from leaves to seed pods to bark. The aquarium begins to establish itself; the botanical materials soften. The development of biofilms and that "patina" of algal growth begins. Perhaps you'll even encounter some cloudiness or turbidity from the microbial growth and influx of organics.
Ultimately, there is the unstoppable process of decomposition of these materials. All part of a process which cannot be rushed or "hacked" by us. Sure, we can change some of the things that happen in our tanks, like changing water, removing stuff from time to time...even switching out equipment such as lights or filters.
However, in the end (or the beginning, really!), Nature is in control.
She calls the shots.
This is scary for many hobbyists, I think. We've been indoctrinated by the hobby from our earliest days to attempt to take charge of as many processes and aspects of the aquarium as possible. To attempt to circumvent or avoid stuff like algae, detritus accumulation, decomposition, etc. You know- stuff that doesn't fit into the popular current narrative of what a "natural" aquarium is supposed to look like. Simply appropriating the word "natural" to describe the over-the-top, diorama-infested aquascaping scene that is rampant today overlooks eons of, well- reality.
Yeah, IMHO, we've been fed a load of crap.
I think we've attempted to "sanitize" or "edit" the aspects of Nature which don't meet some "standards" created in the past, when the natural habitats of our fishes and the processes by which they operated were dark, mysterious, and often misunderstood places. Environments in which danger and seemingly disastrous consequences awaited any hobbyist who dared allow Nature to take some control over what happened in our tanks.
And it continues, to a certain extent- to this day.
And, if you dig deep, you'll realize that this shallow view is not what guys like Amano were preaching, either. Rather, he was trying to figure out why natural habitats looked a certain way, and how they functioned. He emphasized the use of plants to recreate some of the beauty of Nature, but I don't think he ever intended for "fantasy forests" and winding underwater roads or miniature Stonehenges and Grand Canyons to be the "standard."
Rather, he proffered that we understand Nature:
"We have to remember that we either live in nature or not at all. Through building and maintaining beautiful natural aquaria, people relearn the intricate connections between forms of life: plants, fish, microorganisms and humans. Riches and beauty come from harmony, from balance. Aquaria are great teachers of this truth."
In other words, there's a lot more to this idea of a "natural aquarium" than just a cool look.
With the unfortunate current narrative and emphasis being placed on the superficial and "artistic" aspects of our aquariums beyond almost anything else, it's more important than ever to "look over our shoulders" from time to time and condor that Nature is not some force to be feared, tamed, or otherwise sanitized. No. Rather, we need to make the attempt to understand what is happening in our tanks, why it happens, and how Nature really looks and acts.
We need to study, appreciate, and nurture these natural processes. Because when we make an effort to understand how they affect our aquariums, we gain an even greater appreciation for how they affect the natural habitats of our fishes, and how we need to protect and defend these processes and environments from damage caused by humankind.
We need to continue to see the parallels between the flooded tropical forest floors and the botanical-style natural aquarium system we set up in our living room.
And we need to "re-program" fellow hobbyists to understand that this is not a bad thing. To see the beauty of a biofilm-encrusted branch, the delicate, ephemeral nature of a decomposing leaf, or the tinted, tannin-stained water, we can appreciate Nature as she really is.
By polishing the "patina" off of our driftwood, siphoning out every drop of detritus, and removing as much of the "tint" from our tank's water as possible, we are effectively "editing" the beauty of Nature, rather than attempting to understand why things are the way they are, and how they are beneficial to our fishes.
Nurture the Nature in your aquarium.
You might just change the hobby.
Stay curious. Stay observant. Stay open-minded. Stay bold. Stay honest...
And Stay Wet.