Some 5 plus years into the journey of Tannin Aquatics, I am consistently blown away by the fantastic work that our community does in the area of botanical-style/blackwater aquariums!
I believe that aquarists are wildly curious about the natural world, but that they tend to "overcomplicate" what is unknown, not well understood, or outside of the lines of "conventional aquarium aesthetics and practices"-and literally "polish out" the true beauty of Nature in the process-often ascribing "rules" and "standards" for how our interpretations of Nature must look.
In my own rebellious way, I can't help but think that part of this enthusiasm which our community has for this stuff is that aquarium hobbyists in general have a bit of a "rebellious streak", too, and that maybe, just maybe- we're a bit well, "over" the idea of the "rule-centric", mono-stylistic, overly dogmatic thinking that has dominated the aquascaping world for the better part of a decade.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with interpreting and utilizing inspiration from Nature however you choose in your aquascaping work. Nothing. The results of a "diorama" style can be beautiful. However, the problemcomes when we endeavor to communicate to the uninitiated that this type of aquarium is "based on Nature" -as if a carefully-contrived "diorama mountain range" comprised of Glostostigma-covered rocks is what a natural aquatic habitat looks like.
That is where it gets a bit weird, IMHO.
What was ever not good about looking at a stream, flooded forest, pond, or bog, and attempting to replicate it accurately as it is-both in form and function- in our aquarium? To replicate it without overly stylizing and "ratio-ing-out" every rock, every twig, every plant? What is it about the actual appearance of so many aquatic ecosystems that has the bulk of the aquascaping world somehow avoiding replicating them?
Is scaling down a mountain, or creating a "sanitized" version of some elements of a genuine aquatic habitat the best we can do? Is creating an aquarium based on Nature as it actually is just not "good enough" as an art form for us?
Is it because it doesn't "measure up" somehow to the "fantasy forest scape" that the guy did in that last big contest, in terms of perceived effort,"creativity" or "interpretation?" Is it because that in Nature, the water isn't always crystal-clear, blue/white? Is it because the bottom of many natural aquatic habitats are covered in decomposing leaf litter, tree parts, and twigs? Because it's not clean and neat and tidy and "Iwagumi-friendly?" Yeah, It's often dark, disorderly...unpredictable.
Can we not handle that?
I know that we CAN.
here are so many amazingly talented hobbyists out there- I just can't buy that argument.
Maybe it's time for us to once and for all accept that things are not aesthetically "perfect" in Nature, in the sense of being neat and orderly/ratio-adherent from a "design" aspect, filled with "rules" and best practices governing the "style" of the tank.
Such human-imposed rules, in my opinion, not only stifle the creative process- they serve to deny Nature the opportunity to do as She's done for eons- to seek a path via evolution and change to forge a successful ecosystem for its inhabitants. When we seek to "edit" Nature because the "look" of Her process doesn't comport with our sense of aesthetics, we are, in my opinion, no longer attempting to replicate Nature as it is.
Nature could care less about our rules.
Rather, She asks us to follow Hers...and to accept the accompanying aesthetics that go with this acceptance of them.
A "mental shift" we need to make.
To make this mental shift takes a certain understanding. And asking questions.
Understanding that in Nature, you have branches, leaves, rocks, and botanicals materials scattered about on the bottom of streams in a seemingly random, disorderly pattern. Or are they? Could it be that current, weather events, and wind distribute materials the way they do for a reason? Could our fishes benefit from replicating this dynamic in our aquariums?
And, is there not incredible beauty in that apparent "randomness?"
I believe so.
Now, I realize that a glass box is NOT a flooded Amazonian forest, mangrove estuary, or Asian peat bog. I realize that we're constrained by size and water volume. We've touched on that hundreds of times here over the years. However, it can look and function like one to some degree, right?
The same processes which occur on a grander scale in nature also occur on a "micro-scale" in our aquariums. And we can understand and embrace these processes- rather than resist or even "revile" them- as an essential part of the aquatic environment.
It's entirely possible to accept the appearance of biofilms, "murky" water, algae, decomposing botanical materials, and can be managed to take advantage of their benefits. You know, accepting them as supplemental food sources, "nurseries" for fry, and as interesting little ways to impart beneficial humic substances and dissolved organics into the water.
Understanding the dynamics of decomposition and the natural processes which govern it.
Now, that being said, we don't all have to embrace our more "hardcore" interpretations of Nature in our aquariums that we love so much here. I think that we feature so much talk and examples of these types of systems as a sort of "overcompensation", because it's kind of been tough to "deprogram" the larger hobby world from the mindset that a "natural aquarium" is polished, spotless, crystal clear, and filled with ratio-compliant hardscape and plants.
Don't get me wrong- there is nothing at all wrong with "artistic" interpretations of Nature...And who the hell am I to assert otherwise? Really, my only concern, as I've reiterated before, is that the uninitiated will view some of these perfectly unnatural aquariums- beautiful though they are- as "what Nature is really like"- and thus sort of setting them up for disappointment and confusion when they actually see a wild aquatic habitat in all of it's random, disorganized glory- completely at odds with what they've been "programmed" to believe.
Some of the most amazing comments we receive after sharing underwater pics of the wild habitats of Amazonia and elsewhere are from hobbyists who, at first, thought that some of these pics were from someones' aquarium! In a few instances, some of the close ups of botanical-themed aquaria are virtually indistinguishable from wild scenes!
That says a lot. It shows how far we've come.
What an incredible shift in dynamic! At the very least, it's a most delicious irony, wouldn't you say?
Now, of course- there is a "happy medium", which merges the art of aquascaping with the functional interpretations of Nature that we admire so much.
A way of capturing aspects of Nature in our aquarium in a manner that accepts it as it is, rather than how we want it to be. Understanding that, by allowing Nature to do what she does, we are truly blurring the lines between the wild aquatic habitats of the world and our aquariums.
Yet, such interpretations can still be beautiful from an "artistic" standpoint, can't they?
Indeed, it's entirely possible to foster a beautiful, yet true slice of the natural world in our homes- in all of its splendor and function. It simply requires us to adopt a mindset that merges some divergent ideas into one.
Simplicity. Complexity. Creativity. Transience. "Randomness."
We receive so many PM's, emails, phone calls, and other inquiries from hobbyists when we run pieces featuring pics and discussions about natural environments as topics for modeling our aquaria, excited about the details, and how they can be replicated in an aquarium.
This is a really cool thing.
Yet, sometimes, someone will pose a question like, "How does what you talk about differ from the concept of the "biotope aquarium" idea that you see so often in the hobby?"
It's a good one.
The answer is, it doesn't differ all that much, with the exception being that biotope aquariums, even though they seek to replicate much of the look and environmental conditions of a given habitat, yet seem to eschew some of the "functional" aspects. Like, they'll often incorporate some of the same materials that we do. They can nail the look and the pH and flow and light and such, which is amazing.
And many use leaves and botanicals beautifully. However, they're typically used more for the appearance-sort of like "props"- as opposed to facilitating decomposition, the growth of biofilms, microorganisms, fungal growths, etc. It's a bit less "functional" and a bit more "aesthetic", IMHO. I say many, not all, of course.
The biotope crowd are our brothers and sisters in a most intimate way. difference between what they do and what we do us really subtle. It's in the management; the nuance.
Although we might also make "geographic transgressions" and incorporate materials from different parts of the world to recreate the aesthetic part without apologies. We won't obsess over making sure that every twig, leaf, and seed pod is the exact type found in a given region. "Generic tropical" is okay by us when it comes to materials we use. Because we're about creating the function as much as-if not more than- the form. We're all about the overall picture. "Inspired by..." is our mantra.
The idea about the way our tanks are as much an artistic interpretation as they are anything else is not a bad thing. However, I won't stop pleading with you to accept different- perhaps more literal- interpretations of unique natural habitats. Not just because they look cool...But because they lead us down interesting paths to study and embrace the function of them.
Perhaps we can give it some more consideration?
Maybe we can look at a few pics of a wild aquatic habitat as a possible influence for our next aquarium? Am I too blasphemous here? I don't think so. Read some early Takashi Amano writings and see if you agree. Don't read the "cargo cult"-style fanboy homage drivel that's everywhere now. Go to the actual source. Google it. Find his older works and READ his words.
It's pretty cool stuff!
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?
I mean, sure, on the surface, this 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.
On the other hand, it's not just to create a cool-looking tank. 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, competition aquascaping crowd.
I mean, we are doing this for a reason: To create more authentic-looking, natural-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. Botanical-style aquariums aren't really an "aquascaping style"- rather- they're a way of interpreting the function of Nature and accepting the look that accompanies it!
We know 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.
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.
Perhaps one day, among the things we indoctrinate neophyte aquarists to play with as fundamental skills, besides water exchanges, quarantine, and careful stocking, will be things like "adding appropriate botanical materials to the aquarium to facilitate more natural conditions for the aquatic organisms we keep."
This is, indeed what we mean when we talk about how we operate at "The delta at the intersection of science and art."
We think that it's a cool place to be.
Stay studious. Stay curious. Stay creative. Stay diligent. Stay consistent...
And Stay Wet.