That certain "something..."

Yesterday's blog/podcast about "realism" seems to have struck a responsive chord in many of you. There is something about the way we interpret Nature that gets everyone thinking. It has taken us several years to get to this point, but the emerging philosophy within our community reflects a more nuanced position.

Aesthetic-wise, our aquariums have never been more beautiful. The sheer talent out there is amazing.

However, many hobbyists who I correspond with regularly have communicated to me that something has been was lacking in many scapes in recent years. I mean, every aquarium is beautiful in its own way. Every aquarium has attributes that we can all agree are awesome. Yet, a smaller fraction of aquascapes just have a certain "it" factor that evokes something... 

Regardless of how they are conceived and set up- "artistic", "high concept", or "natural" style- certain tanks have that "something" about them that seems hard to quantify.

 Yet others fall short by miles.

For many years, I couldn't quite place it. What could it be? I had to really contemplate this...I mean, there's a lot of great work out there.

What makes a great aquascape well, "great"- is not just the materials it uses.

Sure, they can help. However, they're only part of the story.

We see a lot of talk online about excitement over some "new" type of rock or wood (really, there's "new" rock or wood? Who the f--k is "making" it?), and there is a certain percentage of the aquarium world that thinks that THIS is key to creating bold new work. Using the "new" rock to create the same old "iwagumi" or "diorama scape" is not really "new", right? I personally don't feel that it's advancing the hobby, really.

We all know how to advance the hobby...

It's about applying the philosophy, the idea, talent, and the execution.

It's NOT simply the materials making the 'scape. Utilizing specific materials may give you an "edge"- perhaps it will evoke something...Yet, they're just "materials" if not used in a unique way. I think that the majority of hobbyists know this, yet the idea of "THIS rock/wood/botanical/etc. will be the key to a great scape" lingers...

However, I think that there is something that we can apply to our work-a philosophy which doesn't really care what materials you utilize in your scape.

I think I know what it is. Really.

It's a concept which is truly inspired by Nature.

It's "Wabi-Sabi" again. Something that's been on my mind a lot lately.

Remember this philosophy?

In its most simplistic and literal form, the Japanese philosophy of "Wabi Sabi" is an acceptance and contemplation of the imperfection, constant flux and impermanence of all things. 

This philosophy absolutely is applicable to the art and science of aquarium keeping.

 Indeed, I think it's foundational.

This is a very interesting philosophy, one which has been embraced in aquascaping circles by none other than the late, great, Takashi Amano, who suggested that an  aquarium is in constant flux, and that one needs to contemplate, embrace, and enjoy the sweet sadness of the transience of life.

It's about accepting the changes which occur in aquariums over time; enjoying each phase.

Many of Amano's greatest works embraced this philosophy, and evolved over time as various plants would alternately thrive, spread and decline, re-working and reconfiguring the aquascape with minimal human intervention. Each phase of the aquascape's existence brought new beauty and joy to those would observe them.

Did you get the part about "minimal human intervention?" I mean, it implies that an aquarium has to be left set up long enough for plants to thrive, decline, etc. In other words, you set it up for the long run.

Yet, in today's contest-scape driven, Instagram-fueled, "break-down-the-tank-after- the-show" world, this philosophy of appreciating change by Nature over time seems to have been tossed aside as we move on to the next 'scape. It's all about "sketch it out, set it up, photograph it, edit it, share it...break it the f---- down- and move on to the next one..."

Sure, it might be a product of our current social media-fueled environment, and that's an easy thing to "blame" it on-but I think it's deeper than just that. I think it's a reflection of the lack of patience which has crept into the "craft" part of the aquarium hobby. The desire to achieve immediate gratification for our work- which, in reality denies us the opportunity to see it really evolve into something truly special.

And that is almost tragic, IMHO.

In fact, I can't help but wonder if Mr. Amano would feel the same.

Many of the beautiful aquariums you see splashed all over the internet aren't even typically left up long enough for Nature to really "do her thing." It's not about a few weeks- or even a few months..It's about  allowing processes which take many months-or even years- to arise and evolve aquascapes over long periods of time.

And not all of these processes are "Insta-beautiful", right? They often take time to go from what would be perceived as not so attractive to "evolved" and intricate.

Just like in Nature.

I mean, sure, you can do things like wrap wood or rocks with moss to get a kind of "mature look" in some aspects of the scape, but you can't rush the formation of "patinas" of biofilms and such- or in our case- the softening and breakdown of botanical materials- stuff that really takes time to occur.

I suppose the time frame aspect makes it hard for many to appreciate wabi-sabi in many ways...As a hobby, we're simply not used to looking at things in our aquariums changing over long periods of time, the way Nature organizes, evolves, and operates. We have our own hopes, needs, and desires for our aquariums, and how they "should" look. We haven't traditionally seen things like decomposition, biofilms, algae, etc. as "attractive" in the context of our aquariums.

Yet, they are all integral components of the "something" that is "wabi-sabi."

Something which requires us to have more faith in Nature than many of us have had in recent years.

Now, when we talk about the use of natural materials in our aquatic hardscape, such as leaves and softer aquatic botanicals, which begin to degrade after a few weeks submerged, one can really understand the practicalities of this philosophy. It could be argued, perhaps, that the use of botanicals in the aquariums, by virtue of these attributes is the very essence of what "wabi-sabi" is about.

I think  we can learn to appreciate this transient aspect, and I think in order to do that, a slightly different approach to aquascaping is warranted. An approach that allows hobbyists to experience this in a slightly faster time frame...patience still is huge- but the lessons are learned more quickly, perhaps.

Yes, we do it with botanicals.

Sure, a carefully constructed hardscape, IMHO, will almost always have some more or less "permanent" things, like rocks and driftwood. Yet, these should be complemented and enhanced by "degradable" items, such as leaves, as well as the "softer" seed pods and such, which not only offer enhanced aesthetics- they offer enrichment of the aquatic habitat through their release of tannins, humic acids, vitamins, etc. as they decompose- just as they do in Nature.

Leaves and such are simply not permanent additions to our 'scapes, and if we wish to enjoy them in their more "intact" forms, we will need to replace them as they start to break down. 

This is not a bad thing.

It is simply how to use them to create a specific aesthetic in a permanent aquarium display. Much like flowers in a garden, leaves will have a period of time where they are in all their glory, crisp and "fresh-looking", followed by the gradual, inevitable encroachment of biological decay. At this phase, you may opt to leave them in the aquarium to enrich the environment further and offer a new aesthetic, or you can remove and replace them with fresh leaves and botanicals.

This very much replicates the process which occur in Nature, doesn't it?

Decomposition, addition, renewal, change....

This is absolutely the crux of wabi-sabi.

With the publishing of photos and videos of leaf-influenced 'scapes in the past few years, there has been much interest and more questions by hobbyists who have not really considered these items in an aquascape before. This is really cool, because new people with new ideas and approaches are experimenting.  We're trying all sorts of interesting things...

And we are looking at Nature as never before.

We're celebrating the real diversity and appearance of natural habitats as they really are...Diverse, rich, often turbid and decidedly "messy"- and there is real beauty in them that is both compelling and obvious when we observe them objectively. 

Nature "unedited" and "unfiltered."

Some hobbyists have commented that, as their leaves and botanicals break down, the scape as initially presented changes significantly over time. Wether they know it or not, they are grasping wabi-sabi...sort of. One must appreciate- rather than simply "observe"- the beauty at various phases to really grasp the concept and appreciate it.

To find little vignettes- little moments- of fleeting beauty that need not be permanent to enjoy.

Yeah, it's not just observing a certain "something" in our aquarium- it's a way of appreciating and embracing  the processes by which Nature evolves the world.

Yeah, it's a definite "mental shift", as we talk about so much here. A good one. An important  "unlock" which may help you appreciate the hobby- and Nature- as never before. An affirmation that yes- there is a certain "something" to aquariums which accept and adopt Nature's processes and aesthetics in an "unflitered", "unedited" manner. 

A certain "something" that will advance the hobby. Something many of you are already doing- each and every day.

Stay bold. Stay diligent. Stay creative. Stay engaged. Stay excited. Stay thoughtful...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

November 01, 2019

Wo- love that little anecdote, Pawel…I think there is a lot to absorb there! Accepting the “look” and function of an aquarium at all stages of its existence is a very cool thing. I hope that we can perhaps, “de-sensitize” aquarists in soem way from the fresh, sterile look that is so popular to accept this evolving process of a real natural aquarium system…I think we’re starting to see a tiny shift, right?



October 31, 2019

In the 18th century, some European architects, when designing their buildings, wondered how their works would look like during slow destruction and designed them in such a way that when the building became a ruin it was still beautiful. In addition to the project, the contracting authority received, along with the project, drawings of his building in hundreds of years, when it would fall apart (sounds familiar?). And this is a good point of view for us. When creating our aquariums, we should be confused about how they will look and function (quite independently) in a month, half a year, year …
Unfortunately, in most cases, kitschy display in the style of Nature Aquarium does not assume this … Let’s hope that this trend will pass and something more real will replace it.
best regards

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