Permission to have...FUN?

We've been blessed to see lots of hobbyists get into the "botanical style" aquarium in the past few years. Maybe they were experienced hobbyists looking for a new challenge. Perhaps they were a bit bored with what they were doing and seeing. Maybe, they were curious about the unique environmental and aesthetic conditions that these  aquariums offer.

For many years, the blackwater aquarium was relegated to a sort of "side show" existence; something that would just freak people out a bit. Something that, because of its unusual aesthetics, had a sort of "dangerous", perhaps even mysterious feel. A mystique. And maybe even a bit of a "stigma." Yeah, I think the looks alone served to create the impression among hobbyists that this was a challenging, hard-to-manage "stunt", as opposed to a legitimate way to run an aquarium.

There was a tremendous proliferation of the attitude that these types of aquariums were environmentally unstable, fraught with peril, and likely to kill fishes under all sorts of mysterious circumstances. And unfortunately, this mindset became more and more widespread on internet forums and groups...Misinformation was rampant. It was not all that uncommon, only a few years ago, to see some inquiry about the subject on a hobby forum met with responses from other hobbyists with warnings like, "You're dealing with a lot of bioload and soft, acid water- that's really unstable and is likely to create a pH crash. I wouldn't do it..."

Like so many things in the hobby, this "advice" and the "cautions" were metered out by well-meaning hobbyists who, with no firsthand experience, were simply "regurgitating" stuff they've heard for years an years from others. The result was that these those types of aquariums became a sort of hobby "pariah", relegated to receiving hushed whispers in discussions. Hobbyists who dared pierce the "botanical barrier" were often looked at as foolhardy, perhaps even rebellious souls who simply wanted to do something that made others wince.

I'm not exaggerating here. This was what blackwater/botanical-style aquarium keeping was like for many years. 

I mean, blackwater conditions were embraced by some hobbyists who bred various species of fishes, like killifishes, characins, Apistos, and the like for generations...But only when they were trying to breed these fishes.

And I found that part interesting...Like, why would hobbyists only utilized these conditions when they were trying to breed these fishes? What about the other 360 days of the year, right? I mean, the benefits were understood...So why not just keep the fishes under these environmental conditions- the ones they evolved under for eons- full time? 

Like, wouldn't that make sense?

I just couldn't get my head around that.

So I joined a small, rather quiet, yet adventurous group of hobbyists who decided that there was "something to this stuff..." and did just that. My world was filled with reef tanks and blackwater aquariums filled with decomposing leaves and seed pods.

I never had a goddam "pH crash", either.

Oh, and notice I never once have said that I "invented this stuff.."- 'cause I didn't. No one did. No one "created" this idea or "invented" the processes...

Nature did.



We're just getting around to figuring this shit out.

Flash forward a couple of decades, and we're now in a sort of "renaissance" with this stuff. There is tremendous interest in these types of aquariums from all sorts of hobbyists. Experiences are accumulating; "best practices" and techniques" are emerging.

We're really starting to get this stuff. 

One of the most interesting aspects of the "botanical-style aquarium revolution" has been when fellow hobbyists approach me and tell me stuff like, "I don't understand why I waited so long to try this..."

I had a couple of conversations with hobbyists in the past few weeks that might be a bit of a clue- or at least, might serve as a "cultural marker" that can give us some insight.

They were questions that echoed those which I'd received many times before in my days in the coral/reef aquarium world...

Stuff like, "Okay, trying to get my head around the implications of the GH and pH relationship in my tank. I can't seem to get my water down to 5.7.." or, "Why isn't my tank as dark as that one you featured in the Facebook post? I mean, I have like 30 catappa leaves in a 10-gallon tank, and my Apistos just bred last night for the 4th time in two months, but...!" or, "I can't seem to get the nitrate reading below 10ppm...what gives?" or, "How am I supposed to read the indicator on my phosphate test in the dark water...?" 

Stuff like that.

Stuff which, although important to understand, isn't likely to make or break things for most of us. Stuff which seems to be coming from a good place- or at least, a place with good intentions- but a place that is grounded in numbers and "rules" and absolutes...

Yeah, I've seen it before. Hobbyists chasing numbers and driving themselves absolutely f- cking crazy in the process. Like, not actually enjoying it because they were too busy trying to hit some sort of parameters or find some sort of "rule" or recipe to conform to.

Yup- these were clear-cut cases of what I used to label "Fish Geek Complication Syndrome..." - some hobbyists' urgent necessity to overanalyze, over-practice, over-test, over-complicate stuff. And in the process, take almost all of the fun out of the hobby.

I saw this shit in the reef aquarium world all of the time.

Hobbyists would drive themselves crazy trying to over analyze and control every single aspect of their tanks, at great expense in money, time, and gadgetry- in some vain effort to get their coral to grow, when all that they really had to do was to...relax. To observe. Let Nature do some of the work. Enjoy. 

I've seen it in the planted "Nature Aquarium" world. Rules about how to arrange rock, how to set plants, conform to this, that, or some other rule or process...Stuff that we feel is necessary to get us..."there."

There IS a philosophy in that world, however. Yet, it's been overtaken by "rules" that people have created. And, in my opinion, it's made it a lot more oppressive than fun lately.

Don't believe me?

Try to create an "Iwagumi" setup your own way, and see the feedback the aquascaping community gives you.


And I realized that perhaps, this mindset and craving for some "rules" has been a factor in keeping some people out of this fun sector that we play in! They are so caught up in the mindset which says, "This looks really different- so it must be really complicated and need some serious analysis and..." (Okay, maybe not exactly THAT. But something like that!)

We tackle stuff thinking that if we follow some set of rules- some recipe- then we will get the exact, perfect result every time. And rather than enjoying the process- the journey, and understanding that Nature has to do a lot of the work, many of us panic and look for something to get us on track towards the desired result...Never realizing that the "answer" was right in front of us the whole time.

A blackwater/botanical-style aquarium does require some understanding. Some technique. Some observation.

However, what it requires mostly is...mindset.

It requires an adoption of a philosophy which trusts Nature to find a way...To accept a different look and perhaps different "set points" along the journey than we have previously appreciated or understood.

It requires faith. 

Faith that Nature, in her infinite wisdom garnered over eons of creation, destruction, and evolution- has our backs. 

If we listen to her her. If we learn WHAT to look for. If we cede some of the work to Her. 

That's really hard for some hobbyists to accept, I know. 

However, I think we have to. 

Sure, we need to learn about what we're doing...and there is nothing wrong with studying and analyzing...Just not to the point where we dissect every aspect of the wonder and pleasure out of the practice.

Give yourself permission...

To have FUN.

Stay thoughtful. Stay bold. Stay enthusiastic. Stay curious. Stay faithful...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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