The aesthetics behind "Natural"

Natural:  (nat·u·ral) adj- existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.

Of all the terms we use in the aquarium hobby to describe tanks or techniques, perhaps one of the most commonly applied, and possibly misunderstood- is the word "natural." 

It's easy to apply it to just about everything we do in the hobby, right?

I mean, I certainly tend to use the term a lot. I have this theory that we tend to use the term a bit too "loosely" sometimes. I mean, especially when it comes to describing our aquariums in form and function.

And, it is a bit of an odd fit- because what we do straddles the natural world, its processes, functions, and aesthetics- and the world of art and manmade constructs. Short of just admiring fishes in a steam outside, it's really impossible to apply the term "natural" in a literal sense to what we do, right?

So, we nuance it a bit. 

And that's okay. However, I think we still can be a bit more accurate when using the word.

We tend to use the term "natural" when describing the aesthetics of our aquariums. And that's where it gets interesting...

One of the things I've found in the almost two decades that I've been playing with botanicals in aquariums is that there are no real "aesthetic guidelines" when it comes to using them in our tanks. In fact, the "aesthetic" of botanical-style aquariums is largely driven not by the "placement" of botanicals; rather, it's driven by what happens to them after they are placed.

As I've mentioned 16,000 times by now, it's about ceding some of the work to Nature and accepting the aesthetics which come with that process.

When you consider the types of aquariums that we work with, I would imagine that it IS probably funny to outsiders, or those new to our little obsession, to hear us going on and on about utilizing dried leaves, twigs, and seed pods in our aquariums with words such as "methodology" and "technique" and the like.

And the processes of decomposition, biofilm coverage, etc. which occur when using botanicals are really the whole game, IMHO.

I can't help but think that the great Takashi Amano, who spent years studying many aspects of Nature and her influence on the aquatic environments, would really love this stuff!!  Now, I think that he'd love the unique aesthetics of using seed pods and leaves, sure- but I think he'd especially love how these ephemeral materials we play with can influence the way our aquariums function.

It's the essence of his embrace of the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi. I think he'd gently scold the hobby and perhaps lament how it has embraced mostly the more "superficial" aspects of Nature, beautiful as they are- as opposed to "the whole picture" in aquarium work- sanitizing and editing it along the way, versus representing Nature as it is...

"Editing" Nature has become extremely pervasive in the hobby, IMHO- even as we collectively appropriate the term "natural" to describe many of the things we do. I suppose I can understand why hobbyists like to use the term. However, I am not sure why so few really apply the term to a greater extent.

I guess a lot of it has to do with the aesthetics of "natural" once again.

The habitats which inspire us, and which we seek to replicate in our tanks require the adoption of a totally different aesthetic/functional mindset...a "reboot" of generations of thinking borne out by doing things in our aquariums in a vastly different way that Nature does.

I suppose that there are occasional smirks and giggles from some corners of the hobby when they initially see our tanks, with some thinking, "Really? They toss in a few leaves and they think that the resulting 'sloppiness' is natural, or some evolved aquascaping technique or something?"

Funny thing is that, in reality, it IS a sort of evolution, isn't it? A mental one, if nothing else.

Adopting a different way of thinking...

And when the term "natural" is applied to one of those clinically sterile, highly stylized scapes that permeate the aquarium world, I think it takes us another step away from Nature, as opposed to closer to it, IMHO. It potentially gives the uninformed or uninitiated the impression that this "interpreted sterility" IS how Nature really looks. And it can be detrimental, actually.

Seriously. In today's online, "removed-from-in-person-experience" world, it is entirely possible for such an impression to take hold.

Much like an orderly garden is a distillation of Nature, one of these tanks represents a highly edited interpretation of Nature. 

That's all.

And yeah, I have no illusions that what we do is not anything more than that, either- an interpretation of Nature- yet one which is more accepting of Her nuances and aesthetics.

I mean, sure, on the surface, our "approach" doesn't seem like much: "Toss botanical materials in aquariums. See what happens." It's not like no one ever did this before. And to make it seem more complicated than it is- to develop or quantify "technique" for it (a true act of human nature, I suppose) is probably a bit humorous. 

Yeah, I can see that...

On the other hand, the idea behind this practice is not just to create a cool-looking tank...

And it's not about making excuses for abandoning aquarium "best practices" as some justification for allowing our tanks to look like they do.

We don't embrace the aesthetic of dark water,  a bottom covered in decomposing leaves, and the appearance of biofilms and algae on driftwood because it allows us to be more "relaxed" in the care of our tanks, or because we think we're so much smarter than the underwater-diorama-loving, hype-mongering competition aquascaping crowd.

Well, maybe we are? 😆

(I promise to keep dissing the shit out these people until they put their vast skills to better use in the hobby...C'mon- we need your talents!)

I mean, we are doing this stuff for a reason: To create more authentic-looking, naturally-functioning aquatic displays for our fishes. To understand and acknowledge  that our fishes and their very existence is influenced by the habitats in which they have evolved. 

We've mentioned ad nauseum here that wild tropical aquatic habitats are influenced greatly by the surrounding geography and flora of their region, which in turn, have considerable influence upon the population of fishes which inhabit them, and their life cycle.

These habitats are diverse and productive.

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. It's fundamental to the function of our botanical-style aquariums, and this will be obvious over time. I emphasize this over and over and over again because, once you get over the, "This stuff is interesting..." phase and execute one of these tanks, you'll just "get it."

Or, you'll absolutely hate it.

I have generally not seen people take a "middle ground" when it comes to botanical-style aquariums! And the term "natural" in the sense that we use doesn't just describe the aesthetics- it describes the function and even the "operation" of the system.

The aesthetics are symbolic of both an acceptance of what Nature really looks like, and an appreciation for how She works to "manage" the ecosystem.  Her "default" is something far different than what we might have in our heads about what is beautiful. And yet, if we get out of our own way, appreciate what is really happening in our aquariums, and understand that Nature will do whatever she wants (if we allow Her to, that is)- we can then really understand the aesthetics behind "natural."

Stay open-minded. Stay creative. Stay observant. Stay appreciative. Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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