The appreciation of Nature: The beauty that's beyond our control.

It seems like, no matter how much I get into the practical, "Here is how you do this..." sort of blogs, I can't ever escape that fact that what we do in the botanical-style aquarium world is as much a philosophy as it is a "methodology." It's always on my mind, because I realized very early on in this game that there is so much more to what we do than simply tossing leaves and seed pods into our aquariums.

A couple of days ago, I had one of those hardcore fish discussions with an old hobby friend who is as much a philosopher as he is an aquarist..Real "Obi-Wan Kenobi"-type. Like, every time I talk to him, I leave the conversation with this amazing sense of....enlightenment or something.

It's cool.

We all know a hobbyist or two like him, huh? 

During our long-winded discussion, we talked about the ideas of aquariums reflecting Nature, and how a good segment of the hobby has been chasing a sort of interpretation of Nature for the last 15-20 years or so, but somehow falling a bit short...

Don't get me wrong: Aesthetic-wise, our systems have never been more beautiful. Skills in the 'scaling world are way up; the "art" of aquascaping is pretty amazing at the moment. However, my friend felt something was lacking. Some sense of reality, or some feeling...


Couldn't quite place it.

I think I know what it is. Really.

It's "wabi-sabi" again. Yes! 

Something that's been on my mind a lot lately.

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

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.

Yet, in today's contest-scape driven, Instagram-friendly, "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.

In fact, it's really virtually non-existent at the moment in much of the hobby, IMHO. Sure, planted tanks change as they grow. Yeah, I get that. And yet, the idea with many of the high-concept planted tanks I see is to prune and trim, and more or less  control Nature, rather than allow it to do it's thing. 

There is this great emphasis on planted aquaecapes looking very similar to the way they did when the tank was first set up...Sort of "arresting" it in a manicured phase. Of course, you can and should trim tanks, lest you end up with....

With what? A lush, disorderly "jungle" of plants, fighting each other for space and resources? Is that bad?

I mean, to some people, it's a tragedy. I get that. They must have order. Design. "manicuring."


To others... it's what would happen in Nature- so they ask if it's such a bad thing...Personally, I'm not that all put off by this kind of thing. Rather, I find it fascinating to put Nature in charge.

Now, when we talk about the use of natural botanical materials in our aquatic hardscapes, such as the use of leaves and seed pods, which begin to degrade after a few weeks or months submerged, one can really understand the practicalities of this philosophy. It could be argued, perhaps, that the use of botanicals in an aquarium are the very essence of what "Wabi Sabi" is about.


A lot of my fave botanical-style aquariums have an abundance of "permanent" things, like rocks and driftwood, complemented and enhanced by "degradable" items, such as Catappa, Guava, and other leaves, as well as the "softer" 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, 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?

On the other hand, there are many hobbyists how love the crisp, fresh look of new botanicals. They'll replace any leaf the moment it starts to soften. They'll polish every seed pod the moment in acquires a "patina" of biocover. I get it. It's what they love. The equivalent of a manicured planted aquarium. Beautiful, tidy...controlled.

Not really "wabi-sabi" oriented...yet, beautiful in it's own artistic way.

With the publishing of photos and videos of leave-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. There is a burgeoning interest in the wild aquaecapes of the world, and an appreciation for the ephemeral nature of terrestrial materials underwater.

This is really cool, because new people with new ideas and approaches are experimenting.  And we're looking at nature as never before. We're celebrating the real diversity and appearance of natural habitats as they really are...

Some hobbyists have commented that, as their leaves and botanicals break down and the scape as initially presented changes significantly over time. They may not know it, but they are grasping some aspects of"wabi-sabi"...Well, sort of. One must appreciate the beauty at various phases to really grasp the concept and appreciate it.

"Setting the stage" for the process to take its course is only the beginning. Then comes the part about letting go a bit. Allowing Nature to evolve our work. We can look on in awe, and take delight in what is happening. 

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

And the changes...those earthy, perhaps inevitable changes which occur when terrestrial materials are submerged in water for an extended period of time? They're elegant- yet untamed...and not everyone's idea of "beautiful." Why? Largely because we don't control every aspect of the process; because we don't impose excessive amounts of order or influence to it.

We cede some of it to Nature...And that includes accepting the "look" as well.

It's hard.

Some people just "don't get it", and proffer that this is simply sloppy, not thought-out, and seemingly random. I recall vividly one critic on a Facebook forum, who, observing a recent botanical-inspired aquascape created by another hobbyist, commented that the 'scape looked like "...someone just threw in some pods and leaves in a random fashion.." 

Yeah, this guy actually described the aesthetic to a certain (although unsophisticated) degree...but he couldn't get past the look, and therefore concluded it was, "...haphazard, sloppy, and not thought out."

A shame. I think if he glanced at a natural habitat and then looked at the tank again, he'd gain a new appreciation. Or at least, a sort of understanding.

But on the other hand, that was the charm and beauty of such a conceptual work. The seemingly random, transient nature of such an aquascape, with leaves deposited as in Nature by currents, tidal flows, etc., settling in unlikely areas within the hardscape. Allowing Her some of that control.

Not everyone likes this nor appreciates it. And that's perfectly fine. It's not the "best" way to run a tank. Just "a way."

Regardless of how you choose to manage a system with leaves and non-permanent aquatic botanicals, you can enjoy the beauty of their "Wabi Sabi" existence. If you can learn to let go a participate by observing as opposed to controlling every aspect of your aquarium...then I think you'll be on your way to really appreciating this philosophy.

The real beauty is that there are no real "rules" when conceiving such a 'scape, other than the biological aspects of decomposition and water chemistry, which are the real factors that dictate just how the aquascape will ultimately evolve.

Accepting this inevitable change and imperfection is the very essence- and beauty- of the "wabi-sabi" philosophy, IMHO.

Stay open to new ideas, experiences, and interpretations. Look to nature as a key influence in your designs...Share your revelations with other hobbyists. Enjoy the benefits of such experiments...

Enjoy the beauty that's beyond our control...

Stay awed. Stay enthralled. Stay creative. Stay open-minded. Stay intrigued. Stay reserved...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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