Setting the stage...

As I muse the idea of several new aquascapes over the next several weeks, as part of an "Autumn refresh" I'm hell-bent on doing, I can't help but think back on the ideas I've played with in the past; particularly those which started out a certain way and ultimately evolved into something quite different.

And of course, one of the best things about starting up all of these new (blackwater) botanical-style systems is that I get to go through the full experience yet again, and look at things a bit differently- a bit more closely and intimately than I would if I were a bit more detached...

I realized, early on in my "serious" aquarium affliction, that I take a sort of different view than a lot of hobbyists and aquascapers about setting up aquariums. I can barely set up a tank which looks "finished" from day one. Like, you know how the really talented 'scapers can set up a tank with all of the wood and plants and such in place, and the tank looks "done?" I just can't do that. Sure, once in a while, I might nail the hardscape- but for the most part, my tanks are just beginning after the "work" is done.

They look a bit sterile; almost too artificially contrived at that point. I've sort of learned to look beyond that time frame, and realize that all that I've really done is sort of set the stage for the "evolution" to come. In summary- my tanks almost always look like shit at the outset.

Yeah, they need time.

I set tanks up for the long run. 

Like, I cringe a bit when clubs will ask me to set up a "blackwater aquascape" at a meeting. I'm usually horrified, because the tank will literally look like a pile of leaves and botanicals and such when I[m done with my 45 minute "scape", and it's completely out of context with my "world view."

My game is just beginning when the last leaf is dropped...

I'm fascinated by what happens at what, to me, is arguably one of the more fascinating times in developing this type of system: That period when the essential "anchor" hardscape is done. The largest wood pieces are set. The tank has that sterile-looking, stark appearance that leaves no doubt about this being artificial at this stage.

If we go back to one of my all-time-fave blackwater aquariums from about two years ago, I remember being at this stage and the look that could only be referred to as a "campfire-style" wood stack, which certainly gave off that "contrived" or "not-fully-fleshed-out-idea" vibe. And that, of course, generated concern, questions and suggestions from my more talented friends to make the layout of the wood look more "artistic..."

Feedback which, in years past, would put a lot of doubts in my head.

Not in the last decade or so, however. 

As with a lot of my recent tanks, I had a vision for that one. A game plan...And I had patience to let it unfold gradually, steadily. I knew that the wood had to be in that sort of configuration, seemingly artificial though it may seem early on, because the picture I had in my head dictated that.

It's this idea of "setting the stage" for the long term that engages me in aquascaping. I think it's a mindset and way of looking at things which can really set our work as botanical-style aquarium lovers apart from virtually everything else out there. 

We scape for the future. Literally.

Going back to the example from a couple of years back- it simply followed this philosophy to a "t." This aggregation appeared to be more like a bunch of branches placed in the woods for the purposes of making a fire at some future date than some "high-concept" hardscape....


OR, could it be representative of the way a tangle of branches might slowly assemble itself, given a unidirectional flow of an inundation caused by an overflowing stream?


The pic below by David Sobry gives me some interesting ideas...and context.

Oh, interesting...

Yeah, I've found that some of the most compelling aquascapes- botanical-style, hardscape, planted, reef, etc.- seem to have a special "something" about them. Of course, a large part of it is the overall "look"; however, one of the things which, in my opinion, separates good tanks from great ones is the little details...stuff that completes the underwater scene.

Not necessarily "structural" details, like anchor hardscape pieces, mind you. No, we're talking about little, subtle details which make a system more natural-looking and "shade in the corners" where needed. Leaves, twigs, and smaller seed pods. The big pieces, which, in ANY scape, seem to be "harsh" and "sterile" when first laid down, take on a softer, more "realistic" vibe after they acquire that patina of biofilms and such weeks later.

And, those little things do make a difference over time.

For example, in our botanical-style world, it's little things, like bits and pieces of broken up botanical materials, like bark, twigs, the occasional larger seed pod or what not, which make your scene look much more complete and lively.

If you take your cues from natural underwater habitats, like I do, you'll notice that they are filled with all sorts of materials- not just the more obvious leaves and branches. If you think contextually, particularly when we're talking about habitats like igapo inundated forests and igarapes ("canoe ways" in the Amazonian forests), take into account that they literally are flooded forest floors.

As such, they have seemingly random aggregations of botanical materials scattered about everywhere, punctuated- or, rather defined- by larger features like fallen logs, branches, a few random terrestrial plants poking through.

The look of sort of awkwardly-placed hardscape pieces in an aquarium might certainly not be seen as being "artistic", in the way fabulous work by my friends like Jeff Senske at Aquarium Design Group are- but, in my opinion, it's nonetheless compelling- once the details arrive to soften and fill in the scene.

See, I said the "D" word.


I believe that an aquarium that attempts to replicate a sort of chaotic scene like the ones we're talking about starts with what looks like really artificial placement of wood, anchored by numerous details which soften, define, and fill in the scape. A sort of analog to the theater/motion picture concept  of "mise en scene", where pieces literally "set the stage" and help tell a story by providing context.

Yes, unlike a scape which depends upon growth of plants to fill it in and "evolve" it, the botanical-style blackwater aquarium is largely hardscape materials, which requires the adept placement of said materials to help fill in the scene. And of course, part of the "evolution" is the softening, redistribution, and break down of botanical materials over time...just like what happens in nature.

(One of Mike Tucc's underwater igarape pics to the rescue..again!)

I suppose this little rant could be viewed as a "defense" of my philosophy, lol!

Perhaps it is.

But I think it serves to re-examine what I feel is one of the foundational philosophies of the botanical-style aquarium aesthetic:

The passage of time.

The ability to get out of our own way and allow things to evolve naturally. A sort of "hands-off" approach. Like, one of my friends asked me about my approach to 'scaping these tanks, "It's like you set the tank up and just don't even look at it for a few weeks, right?"

Well, sort of. Yeah! 

I mean, not literally, but I don't typically look at them and start editing like mad, unless I have a burst of inspiration that requires me to make some sort of fundamental change before the tank gets too far down the path of "evolving."

I must confess, it's an aesthetic and an approach which certainly doesn't appeal to everyone. It defies current thinking and challenges us to cede some of the work and control to Nature. To accept aspects of an aesthetic which make us face some fears that we might have had for many years...

In fact, many in the mainstream aquascaping world would levy all sorts of "constructive criticisms" and "Yeah, but..." comments about our practices and ideas..

And that, to me- is part of the attraction of this type of aquarium. Rather than conform thoroughly to some sort of "rules" based on design, layout, and technique, this type of aquarium tends to ask for very basic initial design, and lets Nature handle a lot of the emerging details over time.

That's really f---king hard for many aquarists to do.

I get it.

However, you need to have some faith in Nature and her work...

She's damn good at it.

And, you need to learn to embrace the subtle beauty of things in Nature that you might not have initially found even remotely attractive or alluring...

Rather than just looking at wild aquatic habitats and telling yourself, "Gee, that's nice, but..."- try accepting Nature's challenge and try to recreate it in your aquarium- both functionally AND aesthetically. Learn to embrace and see beauty in natural features that might make you uncomfortable, rather than attempting to "edit" or "polish out" what many consider "undesireable."

This is a slightly different approach to aquascaping than we usually think about. It requires some longer-term vision. To see beyond the "first hours" of the tank's existence. It requires belief in one's ideas. It requires a different sort of understanding about what we're doing here...And it requires patience above all else.

And the passage of time.

Nature has been working with terrestrial materials in aquatic habitats for eons.

And nature works with just about everything you throw at her.

She'll take that seemingly "unsexy" piece of wood or rock or bunch of dried leaves, and, given the passage of time, the action of gravity and water movement, and the work of bacteria, fungi, and algae- will mold, shape, evolve them into unique and compelling pieces, as amazing as anything we could ever hope to do...

If we give her the chance. 

If we allow ourselves to look at her work in context.

And, if we set the stage.

That's it for now. I have to tend to another "campfire..."  I"m working with on a new tank.

Stay thoughtful. Stay determined. Stay diligent. Stay faithful. Stay independent. Stay bold...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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