As a lifelong aquarist, I’ve had a lot of good, bad, and awful experiences playing with aquariums. Like many of you, I’ve experienced and endured stuff that pushed the limits of what I thought I could tolerate. Adapting the botanical-style aquarium approach (or the ideas behind it) about 18 years ago was a radical departure from what was know, comfortable, and "easy." It involved adopting a new mindset, creating new comfort levels, and a different approach.
For many years, I was a form believer in the “remove ____________ when it shows up in your tank.” philosophy of aquarium management. Everything had to be scrupulously clean. It makes sense that I'd have this mindset. I was raised in the hobby during the era of "technology and water quality", wherein the doctrine was to essentially scrub out or remove anything which went against the goal of crystal clear water and spotless substrate.
As you know, my mindset has shifted over the years to the point where I'm almost the diametric opposite of that mindset. And, being a philosopher of all things aquatic, I have expended a lot of mental energy over the years trying to figure out why this "doctrine of spotlessness" arose in the first place, and has stuck in the hobby for so long. I mean, I think I figured out why it started: In the mid 20th century, we finally figured out the way to "control" natural processes via a combination of technique and technology...You know, like accumulations of detritus, turbid water, algae, etc.
Think about the late 1950's and 1960's in the aquarium hobby. Filtration technology, pumps, filter media, lighting, etc. all began to evolve and reach prominence. The possibilities were endless for hobbyists. The desire to control Nature and bring a piece of it into our suburban living rooms was irresistible. The "we can do anything!" mindset, which arose out of the space age trickled down into virtually every human endeavor, including aquarium keeping! Why would you want want algae, turbid water, and detritus when this filter will provide you with crystal clear, algae-and-detritus-free water by just plugging the thing in?
And I think that began the desire to control all sorts of parameters in our aquariums; to wrangle control from Nature. The idea of crystal-clear water and spotlessness was a sort of "over-compensation" for almost a century of "being at the mercy of Nature" and not understanding what was occurring in our tanks, and why technology gave us the ability to circumvent the things which represented our lack of control of Nature.
And this mindset has been pervasive for decades in the hobby. And I think that's evident in many different approaches to aquarium keeping right now. It's pervasive and has impacted the popular perception of what aquariums should be like and look like...
Okay, big lead up there.
My point is this:
The botanical-method aquarium approach is fundamentally different than what is currently espoused in the hobby. It functions and looks different than virtually any type of aquarium that you'll typically see. There is a completely different set of expectations that goes along with this approach.
And yeah, it can even be seen as a bit of a spiritual journey, too- leading to some form of enlightenment and education about Nature, from a totally unique perspective. This is important to grasp.
The energy, attitude, and creativity that you bring with you on the journey tends to become amplified during the experience. As you work with botanicals in your aquariums, your mind takes you to different places; you let go of old preconceptions about the hobby and embrace new ideas for how your aquarium's microcosm can evolve. Every tank- like every hobbyist- is different- and different inspirations arise. We don’t want everyone walking away feeling the same thing, quite the opposite actually.
That uniqueness is a large part of the experience.
The experience is largely about discovery.
Our aquariums evolve, as do the materials within them. We've discussed this concept many times, and it may seem a bit trivial to some, or overly prosaic to others. We keep coming back to this idea because it's a huge part of why our aquariums look and function so differently in the first place.
If we think of an aquarium as we do a natural aquatic ecosystem, it's certainly realistic to assume that some of the materials in the ecosystem will change, re-distribute, or completely decompose over time.
There are many times during the establishment of your aquariums (it applies to a lot of aquarium types, but I'm specifically focusing on the botanical-method aquarium here) when you might be challenged to persevere by what you see happening in your tank. You might have been expecting a perfectly orderly, "Insta-ready" tank from day one.
Nature had other plans.
Often times, you'll see turbid, tinted water, stringy biofilms, and detritus building up in your tanks.
Your aquarium water may appear turbid at various times. We are pretty comfortable with this idea; however, some of you may not be. As bacteria act to break down botanical materials, they may impart a bit of "cloudiness" into the the water. Also, materials such as lignin and good old terrestrial soils/silt find their way into our tanks at times.
Some of these inputs, such as soils- are intentional! Others are the (unintended) "by-products" of the materials we use. The look is definitely different than what we as aquarists have been indoctrinated to accept as "normal." It gives the water in botanical-method aquariums a certain "texture" or opacity that's hard to describe. One of my good friends, and a botanical-method aquarium freak, calls this phenomenon "flavor"- and we see it as an ultimate expression of a truly natural-looking aquarium.
Yeah, the water itself becomes part of the attraction. From a purely aesthetic standpoint, the color, the "texture", and the clarity of the water are as engrossing and fascinating as the materials which affect it. It's something that you either love or simply hate...everyone who ventures into this method of aquarium keeping needs to make their own determination of wether or not they like it.
Need a bit more convincing to embrace the charm of the water itself in botanical-method aquariums?
Simply look at a natural underwater habitat, such as an igapo or flooded varzea grassland, and see for yourself the allure of these dynamic habitats, and how they're ripe for replication in the aquarium. You'll understand how the terrestrial materials impact the (now) aquatic environment- the function AND the aesthetic-fundamental to the philosophy of the botanical-method aquarium.
Speaking of the impact of terrestrial materials on the aquatic habitat- remember, too, that just like in Nature, if new botanicals are added into the aquarium as others break down, you'll have more-or-less continuous influx of materials to help provide environmental continuity- or "enrichment"- to the aquarium environment. This type of "renewal" creates a very dynamic, ever-changing physical environment, while helping keep water chemistry fluctuations to a minimum.
The addition of new materials into the aquarium is the perfect analog to the concept of "allochthonous input" which occurs in wild aquatic habitats- materials from outside the aquatic environment- such as the surrounding forest- entering and influencing the aquatic environment.
Take these discoveries into the aquarium, and you have something very different than what we've embraced as a hobby for generations.
For many years, playing with this idea was considered a"problem." We had well-founded fears about the process, the look, and the management of these types of aquariums, based on generations of established ideas and techniques that told us this was contrary to proper aquarium practice.
I think that the "problem" of botanical-method/blackwater tanks for years was that we saw them as "dirty", dangerous", "non-sustainable" etc. We didn't look at the blackwater environment as one that required that we meet a specific set of parameters.
We didn't look at keeping botanical-method/blackwater aquariums as an endeavor that required an understanding of the processes involved, and developing technique and practices to accomplish our goals. Rather, we as hobbyists saw a foreboding, dark environment which had low pH, decomposing leaves, detritus, and all sorts of seemingly contrarian, scary processes.
WE made it a "problem!"
As a hobby, I think we make lot of stuff "problems."
When you think about it many concepts in aquarium keeping started out as "problems", or were considered “impossible” until someone made them work.
Now, sure, I get the fact that Nature imposes "rules" on what we can do. There are consequences- often dire- to trying to break or circumvent natural processes. For example, trying to avoid the nitrogen cycle, or attempting to keep incompatible fishes together. Much of this stuff is common sense. However, it doesn't keep a lot of people from trying to "beat the system."
No look- I'm all for trying new ideas-pushing the limits of what's possible, and questioning the "status quo" in the hobby. However, trying to "game"eons of natural processes in order to create some sort of a "hack" doesn't only not work- it's stupid.
THAT is a problem that WE create.
You can, however, push the limits and break new ground by working within the boundaries of natural processes. That's advancement. That's progress. Innovation.
Many of us are working every day to progress in the hobby.
It took doing things that we hadn't previously done before- researching exactly what it was, what is required to create an aquarium ecology- and doing some things which were perceived by the majority of hobbyists as unconventional to get there.
But we did.
And now, we approach keeping botanical-method/blackwater aquariums not as a "problem" to overcome, but an approach which requires us to do specific things in order to do so successfully.
Among the most important things we can do is to push through mentally when we see how natural processes play out in our aquarium; how they impact its aesthetics...and how we view ourselves in the broader aquarium community. We do stuff differently around here. It is deemed "unconventional" by the vast majority of hobbyists. It's a different mindset than 90% of the aquarium world embraces. It opens you up to questions and criticisms in some quarters, particularly where other hobbyists have not grasped the idea and freed themselves from the pervasive hobby mindset which dictates what an aquarium is supposed to be like.
Yeah, we're different. Our process is different, our mindset and expectations are different, and the results that we see are different.
The simple fact of the matter is, when we add botanical materials to an aquarium and accept what occurs as a "result"-regardless of wether our intent is just to create a different aesthetic, or perhaps something more- we are to a very real extent replicating the processes and influences that occur in wild aquatic habitats in Nature.
The presence of botanical materials such as leaves in these aquatic habitats is foundational to their existence, as it is in our aquarium approach.
And the fact that they recruit biofilms and fungal growths, and break down over time in our tanks is simply part of the natural process. We can consider this a "problem" which needs to be 'mitigated" somehow, or we can make the effort to understand how these processes and occurrences can benefit the little microcosms which we have created in our aquariums.
It's about understanding, education, and acceptance.
As aquarium hobbyists, those of us who take this route are in a unique position to learn about and recreate many of the functions of Nature in our aquariums. We have the opportunity to go beyond long-held suppositions about what is "healthy" for an aquarium.
We have the opportunity to innovate.
When you're challenged after embracing on your first botanical-sale aquarium journey; when you're seeing stuff which "they" tell you is unwelcome, unattractive, and even "dangerous", ask yourselves how this conclusion was reached. Question why it is considered undesirable. Look at how your fishes are doing, and study the processes which are occurring in your tank, and how similar processes arise in the wild habitats which we seek to replicate.
Which is why the reality of a botanical-style aquarium is that it's perhaps one of the best ways to bring Nature into our home. To blur the lines between Nature and aquarium. Sure, planted aquariums give us a similar challenge...but the botanical-style aquarium challenges us in different ways. It tasks us to accept Nature in all of its beauty. And yeah, it makes us accept that there IS beauty in things like decomposition, biofilm, detritus, and algal growth. Things which we as aquarists might have been "indoctrinated" to loathe over the years..
We just have let go sometimes, and trust in Nature to move stuff along the correct path.
Nature finds a way. Nature knows how to do this.
Don't let the hobby's preconceived notions of what things are "supposed to be like" deter you.
Stay focused. Stay observant. Stay bold. Stay diligent. Stay with it...
And Stay Wet.