One of the most important things we do here at Tannin Aquatics is to encourage you, as our fellow hobbyists, to feel free to experiment, scheme, and just try new stuff with your aquariums. To question old "rules", practices, methodologies, and ideas. To push the boundaries of aesthetics and function with aquariums.
I talk so much about how Nature, in it's "unfiltered" form, is a random, unkempt, even "dirty" place. Not in the sense that it is polluted or unhealthy (usually, that is) mind you- but that it's simply not often consistent with the aquarium hobby's perception or narrative of "aesthetically attractive."
In my opinion, this is a huge hurdle that we as a hobby simply need to get over.
Look, I totally, completely get it when hobbyists say that they don't like the look of muddy, silty substrates, tinted water, decomposing leaves, biofilms, etc.- the kind of stuff we discuss and laud so much here. Not everyone can appreciate or find beauty in this stuff. Yet, I think we need to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves what's up when we utilize certain terminology to describe the other "approaches" to methodology, design, 'scaping and aesthetics.
And- since it comes up every time I discuss topics like this, I'll make it clear now that I am not trashing the beautiful planted aquascapes and "high-concept" diorama-style hardscape that we see at contests and all over social media. They're awesome. The talent required to produce them is incredible.
And I get that the name "Nature Aquarium" that pervades well- everything-is an homage to the brilliant influence of the great Takashi Amano, who's work I have admired for many years myself- and who originally adapted the term and, in an ironic twist, actually proffered something quite different than what is currently presented as a "Nature Aquarium" so often.
So, please, take no offense at my "soapboxing" here...We're not "Amano-bashing."
I just want to gently remind everyone that when we present our carefully planted aquarium which adheres to that style as currently interpreted and executed by aquarium culture as THE ultimate true expression of a "biotope" or of "Nature" in an aquarium, I think that we do a sort of disservice to the uninitiated if we don't at least explain it a bit more.
Now, yeah, having plants and fishes together does foster some natural functions. These tanks are gorgeous. They represent an aspect of Nature, indeed. No one questions that. However, it's the aesthetic mindset which we seem to push so hard, which pervades everything else.
I can't help but have these nightmare scenarios enter my head- as admittedly ridiculous as they likely are- about people being indoctrinated to the underwater world by looking at like 50 of these so-called "Nature Aquariums"as presented in a typical 'scaping contest, and thinking this is what a natural aquatic habitat really looks like.
Then, at some later date, these people actually find themselves visiting a wild stream or river and are not only profoundly disappointed at how it looks, but perhaps calling for some "intervention" to "rescue" the habitat because of its "deplorable" appearance (compared to what they saw in the "Nature Aquariums" as presented and anointed online)
I mean, it's weird, and probably way over-reactionary, I know.
However, the prevailing aesthetic "bias" in the hobby against presenting Nature as she really is in our aquariums makes me a bit sad. There really IS beauty in the silty, decomposing, earthy world of the Amazonian igarape, the Asian peat swamp, Malaysian mangal, African forest stream, etc. There is something graceful about the broken branches, accumulating leaves, and scattered seed pods on the floor of a tropical river. It's just not what we have typically appreciated because of our exposure to a more "artistically interpretive" version of Nature in the aquarium world.
Rather, I think we've spent so much effort distilling, editing, and otherwise sanitizing Nature that we might have actually lost sight of it's true beauty, and about how and why natural systems look and function the way they do. Blasphemy to some, no doubt...However, I think I might be at least partially correct here. Notice that I'm actually a bit ambivalent to the "legit" biotope aquariums, as I think that some of the classification strategies and rules created in that world are a bit unrealistic and perhaps overreach habit and discourage some.
Amano understood these habitats. He appreciated them for what they were. Now, he loved the use of aquatic plants to represent them. They were sort of his "media" in creating his works. However, he also understood that there are other natural materials which can be utilized for this purpose, and which may be utilized in different ways to express Nature in the aquarium. He encouraged experimentation with them. However, the majority of his personal work focused on aquatic plants.
What would Amano think of the "cargo cult"-like reverence which the aquascaping world has bestowed upon him, without evolving his works in any real new direction, or making any attempts to understand his original philosophies about Nature? Oh, sure, he'd appreciate the amazing talent, the beauty, and the effort that we see displayed by hobbyists worldwide. Yet, I can't help but wonder if, in his own way, he'd ask, "Really? Is that all?"
Please do me a favor. Do Mr. Amano a favor.
Read some of his oldest writings and photo essays. Check out his pics of blades of grass, decomposing logs, abandoned farmhouses, Japanese ceramics, and yeah, Amazonian blackwater habitats. Think about why he was photographing them? Really let it sink in. Don't just read his quotes and memorize the usual regurgitated, re-interpretated marketing-adapted, meme-inspired fanboy drivel which surrounds discussions of his work. In between trying to select the perfect Iwagumi rocks and achieving a "Golden Ratio", there is a lot more.
He GOT it. He understood the relationship between Nature and art absolutely. It's there. He saw beauty in all forms of Nature and encouraged us to express these details in our aquariums. In many different ways.
Please seek it out in his work.
Next, just spend a few minutes on You Tube and search for videos using terms like "wild Amazonian igarape underwater"- look at the videos that you find. Observe carefully the appearance of the substrate, the color and clarity of the water, the way leaves, branches, and other materials accumulate on the bottom, and the way the fishes interact with these materials.
Then, look at a typical "Nature Aquarium" or even the usual hobbyist-produced "Amazon-themed aquarium" video, or whatever, and see the differences for yourself. Now, it's not that they are "bad" or lacking in some way (sure, a few suck, like in any endeavor)- it's just that, in many cases are such an "edited" version of the habitat they purport to represent that you can't help but wonder why they are proffered as such.
Now, sure, there are a lot of subjectives here, and there is no mysterious "Grand Universal Aquarium Standards Committee" passing judgment and reinforcing some standards here. And I'm not attacking everything called "Nature" or "Natural" in the aquarium world except what we do in our favored approach. I'm just asking us to look at things with a bit less bias...really, the way Amano would want us to. Compare the appearance of actual natural habitats to most of the works presented and you will absolutely see a difference. Not just stylistic, but "interpretive." And you might want to ponder just why it is that a lot of our "natural" or "Nature" aquariums look very little like many of these natural habitats.
I think I know why:
We "polish out" or "edit" too much.
Why is this?
It's not that we're doing anything "wrong", of course. It's not that we aren't talented. Lord knows, almost everyone who enters one of those contests is a master scaper, and does great work. The talent is there. We have the information. We have the photos and videos and research papers about these wild environments. Hell, we have access to most of the fishes that live in them! We have easy access to the widest variety of natural materials for aquascaping that we've ever had at any time in the hobby.
You can't use those things as excuses.
And yeah, you CAN run a tank with muddy, silty substrates, decomposing leaves, biofilms, tinted water, etc. Thousands of our customers have been doing this for several years now with great long-term success. These systems can operate just fine for indefinite periods of time. "Disasters" and "tank crashes" are uncommon; and quite frankly, they're the realm of the sloppy, the lazy, the misinformed.
You're far more likely to cause a dreaded "tank crash" with a so-called "high tech planted tank" and all of it's associated gadgets and dosing regimens than you are by going "nature tech" and incorporating leaves, botanicals, and sediments into your aquarium and managing the tank with good old aquarium common sense.
So, still no excuse.
I just think that many of us don't WANT to replicate Nature as it really is.
Perhaps there is a "fear" that we have about it. Maybe it's because contests don't allow it- although I think it's deeper than that. Maybe it's our egos, which tell us that "it's not that hard to create that kind of mess..." or whatever, compared to a so-called "high-concept hardscape" or planted "diorama style" aquarium? Art versus a direct interpretation of Nature? Or maybe, because we cannot control every aspect of the aesthetic experience, it bothers us somehow? Maybe we've grabbed on to just one aspect of Mr. Amano's teachings and it overrode all else he proffered?
Well, I can here it now: "Who the f--k is HE to render judgment on this? He's trashing everything but his weird interpretation." No, I'm not. I'm questioning and asking us to push ourselves a bit and not just "mail it in." And, you'd be surprised how much criticism we've received for this "approach" to natural aquariums over the years from "disciples" of various "schools of thought" on aquariums, because we are teaching people to be "lazy", "sloppy", "uninspired", etc.
Do I really have the answer here?
Again, I don't really know...I just have my hunches. And I'm not judging. I'm not trolling. I'm not attacking. I'm questioning.
I can't state it often enough when I write about a subject like this which instills great passions in hobbyists. And, inevitably, someone will selectively skim my blog and then conclude from a few paragraphs that it's simply an attack on what they love. Look, I'm not asking to overthrow the "world order" of aquascaping, competition aquariums, and the aquatic industry that supports it. I never was.
I'm simply and even humbly (really!) asking for us to look at things in a more open, less nuanced way. I'd love to see us aquarists -at least once in a while- venture way outside of our comfort zones and try something a bit different. To not get caught up in names and titles above comprehending the bigger picture. To look long and hard at the aquatic habitats found in Nature. And to see the true beauty that's there before we see fit to "edit."
Ask yourself why things look the way they do in Nature, and observe how the fishes which live there interact with their environment. Consider how these habitats formed, how they function biologically, and how fishes have adapted to their habitat..Think about esoteric stuff, like why the fishes are shaped or colored they way they are. What kinds of foods they might find there.
You might just find some new appreciation for Nature as it is.
You might question why we as a hobby culture find it necessary to push away the "unpolished" aspects of Nature in an effort to achieve a more "artistic" interpretation of it.
And maybe, just maybe- you might want to try creating an aquarium that looks more like Nature, and less like an artistic interpretation of Nature. Perhaps you'll think about how "food webs" can be created in an aquarium filled with botanical materials, silted substrates, leaves, etc. Maybe you'll start appreciating the elegance that Nature has inherent in everything She creates.
And a reason for the way things look. And function.
You might come to realize that the randomness of fallen tree trunks and accumulating leaves is every bit as elegant and "artistic" as the Oyaishi, Fukuishi, Suteishi, and Soeshi stone placements in an Iwagumi design- and far more liberating to create. And you'll find that there is just as much room for creativity and your skills and talents in this world of "Nature as it is" as there ever was in the "artistic-style" aquascaping culture which has dominated the hobby for so long.
Look beyond the words used to describe this stuff in "popular aquarium culture."
Research the philosophy of wabi-sabi. Think about what it means in the context of a truly natural aquarium. Not an "edited", artistic interpretation of Nature...but think about it in regards to what happens in a botanical-influenced aquarium over time. Think about what Amano meant when he shared this philosophy for aquariums many years ago.
Indeed, his "mission statement" reflects this, even though the popular execution of this philosophy by the hobby might have veered off into art over the years:
"The origin of Nature Aquarium creation is nothing else but Nature"
I think he'd give you a wry smile when he would see your eyes light up when you have that "aha!" moment!
Are we (the natural, botanical-style aquarium movement) the iteration that Amano was heading towards? The one that he laid the foundation for so long ago, but which attained a life of its own and took a different turn? Arrogant though it may be for us to presume such a lofty sense of import, I can't blame myself for at least wondering if our community is sort of evolving in a way Amano would have appreciated, and likely where he would have ultimately headed himself if he were still alive.
Look, do YOU. Enjoy what you do. However, please don't get so wrapped up in ANY "methodology" or "approach" to the hobby and use it as a "wrap" for everything. There is so much more out there if we open our minds. So much more to learn. To do. And to share.
So...I ask again...humbly:
Are we (I know it sounds "biblical!) the "Lost Tribe of Amano?"
Regardless, I like where we're heading. I think Amano might, too.
Much respect to him.
Stay creative. Stay bold. Stay curious. Stay honest. Stay engaged...
And Stay Wet.