Sorting it out...Naturally.

Even though we might not think of it as such, the aquarium hobby is all about process...and change.

As we've gone deeper and deeper into the practice of natural, botanical-style aquariums, we gained a lot more confidence with them- the inevitable benefit of experience. And sometimes, experience breeds content or even complacency...and that's when we have to be careful.

Relying on natural processes- and fostering them in our aquariums, without understanding the "operating system"- can lead to some bad outcomes on occasion. I mean, just because you've decided to go down the road of adding leaves, seed pods, bark, etc. to your aquarium doesn't mean that it's all "peachy" and that a successful aquarium is guaranteed.

You need to have an understanding of the "why?" and the "how?" part of this. Just what is it you're trying to accomplish? 

You still have to follow all of the basic rules and tenants of aquarium husbandry. Just because we're playing with a different "system" and embracing a different look and function in our tanks doesn't mean that you can "blow off" every husbandry principle we've developed in the hobby for the past century.

If you do, it's likely that bad shit can happen.

Nature can be a rather unforgiving place.

We've discussed this idea many times in regards to our hobby. Like, how if you flaunt Nature and blow off her "rules" and proceed forward without due regard for, or understanding of, her processes, you'll get your ass handed to you. We've seen it tens of thousands of times over the years in this hobby; we'll likely see it thousands of times more in the future, too. 

And it's not all bad, really.

Sometimes, the lessons learned from these misadventures- and the surprisingly easy ways to resolve them- can yield some practical, transformative results!

Yes. They can. If we try to understand, then solve, the problem. If we don't quit.

And, quite frankly, I've been surprised over the decades by just how many so-called "problems" can be solved in aquariums by simply NOT doing some radical moves. In fact, I've been surprised by how many things that we label as "problems" aren't really problems! For example, by enduring the "ugly" early phases of a tank, or by waiting out the initial bloom of fungal growth and biofilms and understanding/appreciating them, or by persevering in an algal bloom (after educating oneself as to what caused it to happen in the first place), etc.  

Adjusting our tolerances to how much we can handle. And understanding that some of the stuff we see as unsightly isn't. Rather, that it's exactly what you see in Nature; it's what you should expect. 

You generally need to just...hold. Ride it out. Wait. Be patient.

Now sure, some stuff that happens in our aquairums needs immediate action: Disease outbreaks, heater malfunctions, aggressive fishes, etc. Other things require something not every hobbyists has in his or her "toolkit"- the ability to look beyond the immediate and to understand what could have caused the situation, and to understand that the simple passage of time is a great "fix" for many things.


And a little faith.

Faith enough to just ride it out.

Yeah, I know that's hard for a lot of us.

However, often excessive intervention in biological processes in an attempt to "fix" them, ends up circumventing some other, vital aspect of the process, to the detriment of the entire aquarium ecosystem. As we've said many times, removing decomposing botanicals, for example, deprives some of the beneficial organisms in our systems their food source, which has broader implications for the ecology of your tank and its occupants.

Yes, many times, we simply need to wait through things which seem "wrong" to us because of our experience in the hobby; however, they are often totally normal in Nature- yet just outside of what we have come to expect in the hobby.

A case in point is some of the substrate experiments with my "Urban Igapo" idea that  I've shared with you over the past several years. This is stuff that I had been working on for years, and it reached the point where I just taught myself to expect certain things to happen, and to understand that they will pass or change over time if I leave things alone.

It was about looking at things differently and not letting our biases or the 'burden" of past experiences taint our outlook...

For example, the substrate formulations I've developed  for "Nature Base Igapo" and "Nature Base Varzea", are designed to be part of a "process"- perhaps even a "technique", of taking a tank through various phases: A dry "terrestrial phase", then a gradual inundation period, then a fully aquatic phase, and then a drying phase again. It's a different way of doing a tank- and a different set of characteristics and expectations accompany it.

Can you use it simply as a substrate in a "wet" tank?

Of course. You just need to understand how it works; what to expect: A bit of turbidity for a few days. A different initial "outcome." 

One that yields some different results, and takes a slightly different path to the goal we have in mind. Not "bad"- just "different."

That's all.

By understanding the story behind the product, and what it was intended to do, which we've talked about a lot here over the past year or two, you can have a complete understanding of how to use it, what to expect from it, etc.

The good, the bad, and the ugly.

And this sedimented substrate is proving very popular in our community, with all sorts of cool experiments taking place...because you understand what to expect from the stuff. You know that Nature will "sort it out" over time.

It's simple, in the case of "NatureBase.

The most important thing you'll need when you use the stuff is understanding... A mental "buy-in" to a process which goes against most of what we expect from aquarium products. That doesn't come with a bag of dirt, no matter how col the packaging is- trust me.

When you initially wet a substrate consisting of soil, clays, and sediments, you realize that you're going to get horrifically turbid, cloudy water.

It can last for a few days, or perhaps a week or more.

And again- that's okay..

Because you need to go into working with this material understanding that it's not intended to look or function like a normal aquarium sand. That's not what it's about. You don't rinse the stuff. What do you think will happen when it gets wet?

It involves process. Patience. And the passage of time.

Hell, you're not even going to use the stuff to create a "typical" aquarium in the first place! It's so important to understand the "how and why's" of specialized aquariums when we embark on these journeys. 

Yeah, this is sounding like an "information-mercial" for our product, but it's more about the broader theme of process and patience.

It's a tangible example of a "process" that requires not only a different outlook and set of expectations, but a mental "buy-in" to a system of doing things for a reason. Sure, you can fill a tank with NatureBase with water 100% full from day one, and have a "supercloud" of sediments and mud for a few days or a week. It's okay. 

Nature will simply adjust the initial outcome.

Leave it alone and let Nature "sort it out" herself!

Either way, Nature eventually sorts it out.

Again, this mindset of "zen-like patience" and confidence in Nature "figuring shit out" is but one way of looking at and managing things- and it's not for everyone. 

Control freaks and obsessive "tinkerers" need not apply.


Intervention, in this case, is more mental than actual. We need to change our thinking! Not every process has- or needs- a "workaround."

The "workaround" is to understand what you're doing, what could happen, WHY it happens, and what the upside/downside of rapidly "correcting it" can be. The key, typically, as with most things in the aquarium world, is to simply be patient. 

Despite our best efforts to "fix" stuff- Nature almost always "sorts it out"- and does it way better than we can.

Think about the bane of most hobbyists' existence- So-called "nuisance algae."

It's a "nuisance" to us because it looks like shit.

To us.

It derails our dreams of a pristine aquarium filled with spotless plants, rocks, coral, etc. Despite all of the knowledge we have about age being fundamental for life on earth, it bothers the shit out of us because we think that it looks "bad."

And collectively as hobbyists, we freak the fuck out about it when it appears.

We panic; do stupid things to get rid of it as quickly as possible. We address its appearance in our tanks. Seldom do we make the effort to understand why it appeared in the first place and to address the circumstances which caused it to proliferate so rapidly. And of course, in our haste to rid our tanks of it, we often fail to take into account how it actually grows.

Algae will ultimately exhaust the available excess nutrients which caused it to appear in the first place, if you take steps to eliminate "re-supplying" them, and if you wait for it to literally "run its course" after these issues have been addressed.

We've seen this in the reef aquarium world for a generation now. It almost always passes- once we address the root cause and allow it to play out on Nature's time frame.

Of course, as fish geeks, we want stuff to happen fast, so hundreds of products, ranging from additives to filter media, and exotic techniques, such as dosing chemicals, etc. have been developed to destroy algae. We throw lots of money and product at this "problem", when the real key would have been to address what causes it in the first place, and to work with that.

Yeah, the irony is that algae is the basis of all life.

In a reef tank (or freshwater tank) it's a necessary component of the ecosystem. And hobbyists will often choose the quick fix, to eradicate it instead of looking at the typical root causes- low quality source water (which would require investing in an RO/DI unit or carbon block to solve), excess nutrients caused by overfeeding/overcrowding, or poor husbandry (all of which need to be addressed to be successful in the hobby, always...), or simply the influx of a large quantity of life forms (like fresh "live rock", substrate, botanicals, corals, fishes, etc...) into a brand new tank with insufficient biological nutrient export mechanisms evolve to handle it.

And often, a "quick kill" upsets the biological balance of the tank, throwing it into a further round of chaos which takes...longer to sort itself out!

And it will sort itself out. It could take a very long time. It could result in a very unnattractive tank for a while. It could kill some fishes or plants. I mean, Nature "mounts a comeback" at nuclear test sites! You don't think that She could bring back your tank from an overdose of algicide?

She can. And She will. 

In due time.

Once these things are understood, and the root causes addressed, the best and most successful way to resolve the algae issue long-term is often to simply be patient and wait it out.

Wait for Nature to adjust on her terms. On her time frame.

She seeks a balance.

So, it's really about making the effort to understand stuff.

To "buy in" to a process.

Nature's process.

To have reasonable expectations of how things work, based on the way Nature handles stuff- not on our desire to have a quick "#instafamous" aquascape filled with natural-looking, broken-in botanicals two weeks after the tank is first set up, or whatever. It's about realizing that the key ingredients in a successful hobby experience are usually NOT lots of money and gear- they're education, understanding, and technique, coupled with a healthy dose of patience and observation.

Doing things differently requires a different mental approach.

We work with Nature by attempting to understand her.

By accommodating HER needs, not forcing Her to conform to OURS. Which she won't do in a manner that we'd want, anyways.

Nature will typically "sort stuff out" if we make the effort to understand the processes behind her "work", and if we allow her to do it on HER time frame, not ours. Again, intervention is sometimes required on our part to address urgent matters, like disease, poisoning, etc. in closed systems.

However, for many aquarium issues, simply educating ourselves well in advance, having proper expectations about what will happen, and (above all) being patient while Nature "works the issues" is the real "cure.

So yeah, in our world, it's never a bad idea to let Nature "sort it out."

She's done a pretty good job for billions of years. No sense in bailing out on her now, right?

People ask me why I cringe and react so negatively when I see commercial brands, hobby groups, etc. make prosaic statements like, "We're inspired by Nature" or "We seek to replicate Nature", etc. in their marketing. It's not because I think I'm all bad ass and they're all stupid. Of course not. It's because touting the "look" of Nature without accepting and understanding the processes and aesthetics that she utilizes in order to achieve them is really only half the story.

"Sanitzing" and 'editing" Nature to ignore or bypass the parts that we find "offensive" somehow is missing the whole point.

I'm not saying that we all need to achieve PhD's in biology to "appreciate" Nature. I'm not saying that a truly successful aquairum can only be achieved when the tank looks like shit.

I'm merely saying that we need to really make the effort to understand natural processes more. What causes them. What they mean. Why they create the looks that they do. A simple idea. Yet, it's something that will yield enormous benefits to us as aquarium hobbyists.

We simply need to push ourselves a bit harder to understand, rather than just buying into some marketing hyperbole or regurgitating Amano's words and philosophies without actually considering them and making the effort to understand just what the hell he meant by them.  

We need to look at Nature as it really is.

We need to make the effort to understand Her processes.

We need to accept the way She looks and functions.

Without accepting all of the stuff that we as aquarists think is "ugly"- you know, biofilms, tinted water, decomposition, algal patinas, etc., we simply deny ourselves the opportunity to truly understand and appreciate her wonder. To learn how she really works- and how to truly work with her.

Yes, these are things that require a mental shift- a "buy-in" to her process.

Work WITH her, not against her. We've said it thousands of times here over the years, and we'll no doubt say it again and again.

Because it's so damn fundamental to what we do. But into this mind set. Learn. Understand. Let Nature sort it our without "intervention" sometimes. 

Trust me- it'll change your hobby experience for the better. Forever.

Stay studious. Stay observant. Stay patient. Stay diligent. Stay open-minded...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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