We keep live tropical fishes in glass boxes filled with water.
Isn't that crazy?
I mean, ensconced in their little homes, our fishes live out their entire lives in the worlds that we construct and maintain for them. It's not only an awe-inspiring concept when you think about it- it's an awesome responsibility that we as aquarists take on.
There is something remarkable about planning, constructing, and managing an aquarium intended to replicate the function of Nature.
Many of us consider this practice- this journey- to be an almost solemn responsibility to our animals.
It takes a certain audacity to do this, doesn't it?
Even though we've been playing with this stuff commercially for about 5 years, as a hobbyist, I've been dabbling with blackwater/botanical-style aquariums for around 19 years...and the hobby itself has been "doing" blackwater tanks for many years. Like, generations. So, it's weird when people within the hobby use the sharing of our experience in this area as an occasion to make strange insinuations about myself, Tannin, our the community which has flourished around it. Periodically, someone will "remind us" that we "didn't invent this idea.." As if we ever claimed that we did! Who would make claims like that?
Nature "invented" this "idea."
Gotta love our hobby culture, huh? How do ideas like that get started?
Yeah, Nature was the "inventor." We- all of us- just play with Her. We follow Her lead. We absorb Her inspiration.
We dream in water.
Now, I will claim that- perhaps- we "elevated" the art and science just a little bit; perhaps brought it out of the "darkness" (literally), but we did not invent it.
Regardless of who pioneered blackwater/botanical-style aquariums and when, there are still lots of questions surrounding this stuff. There are still many unknowns, misconceptions, misinformation, and perhaps even a bit of confusion...
We're doing our best to dispel many of these misconceptions, yet it takes time (and hundreds of blog posts and podcasts!) and a global community of active hobbyists to really get the word out more that this is cool stuff- and that there is no single "recipe" for success with botanical-style aquairums. It's good to see many hobbyists, authors, influencers, and YouTube-ers sharing their personal experiences and ideas in this sector.
If we as humans have the sheer audacity to try to capture a part of Nature in our home aquariums, it's important that we understand how She works with the materials and ideas that we incorporate in the process.
As we know, natural botanical materials not only offer very unique natural aesthetics- they offer literal "enrichment" of the aquatic habitat through their release of tannins, humic acids, vitamins, etc. as they decompose- just as they do in Nature.
This is a pretty amazing thing. And it's something that we can embrace.
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 (providing food for fungi, bacteria, and other fauna), and offer a different 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?
With the publishing of photos and videos of leaf-influenced aquariums in the past few years, there has been much interest- and more questions by hobbyists who have not really considered incorporating these items in an aquarium before. This is really cool, because new people with new ideas and approaches are actively experimenting. And, perhaps most important of all- we're looking at Nature as never before. We're celebrating the real diversity and appearance of natural habitats as they really are...
Not everyone likes this nor appreciates it. Or understands it. And that's perfectly fine. Not everyone finds brown water, decomposing leaves, biofilms, and detritus beautiful. A lot of aquarists just sort of shrug. Some even laugh. Some love to criticize.
It's not the "best" way to run a tank. Just "a way."
Some want "rules." Order. Guidelines from experts.
We at Tannin offer no "rules."
We can only offer an assessment of what Nature does to an aquarium when it's set up a certain way. We can only point out the way Nature looks and study how it functions, and perhaps offer some hints on how to embrace the processes which it utilizes.
There are no real "rules" when creating a blackwater/botanical-style aquarium, other than the biological aspects of decomposition and water chemistry, which are the real factors that dictate just how your aquarium microcosm will ultimately evolve.
The initial skepticism and resistance to the idea of an aquarium filled with biofilms, decomposition, and tinted water has given way to enormous creativity and discovery. Our community has (rather easily, I might add!) accepted the idea that Nature will follow a certain "path"- parts of which are aesthetically different than anything we've allowed to occur in our tanks before- and rather than attempting to mitigate, edit, or thwart it, we're celebrating it!
It's less about perfect placement of materials for artistic purposes, and more about placing materials to facilitate more natural function and interactions between fishes and their environment.
We are looking more and more at the natural habitats for inspiration, rather than "last month's Tank of The Month"- which is a huge leap towards unlocking a greater understanding and appreciation for Nature. And towards preserving it. It's amazing how much you respect and treasure a natural habitat when you have a miniature replica of it in your living room, isn't it?
We are in a really cool place, where we can inspire, assist, and learn from everyone from the most hardcore biotope aquarist to the curious "Nature Aquarium Style" addict, to the serious fish breeder, and show them a way to really incorporate a different side of Nature into their aquariums.
The natural side of Nature...
And yeah- there is a certain trait that you need to acquire if you have the audacity to dance with Nature.
Yeah, patience. We talk about it a lot, huh?
Look, I'm not trying to force you to be patient or telling you you're "wrong" if you don't (well, sometimes I will!). However, I think you'll find over time that Nature will sort of force you to conform. Or, She'll unceremoniously kick your ass if you don't.
Don't shoot the messenger.
When it comes to botanical-style aquariums, the most valuable "asset" you can have is most definitely patience. The patience to understand that developing one of these systems is a process, and realizing that, like any aquarium, there are sort of "stages" or "iterations" that, if you take time to enjoy along the way, create a very satisfying and even engrossing aspect!
It's so important to look at things a bit differently than you would if you were a bit more pragmatic about the process...Just hell-bent on "getting it done" as quickly as possible...Rather than purposely arriving at some "point", we look at the whole process, and all of its stages, as "the result"...
As humans, we can control some things. Others are best left to Nature.
To do otherwise; to think you can "outsmart" Nature, is to have an excess of audacity!
Audacity in our hobby can come in many forms.
The other day, someone asked me about my opinion on "the state of the botanical-style aquarium movement" and where I thought things were headed; where Tannin's "world view" falls in this... It's neat being asked this...but it's sort of weird. It's not like I'm some prophet or something, nor have I ever declared myself as such. I'm just a hobbyist...perhaps with a slightly different view, but a hobbyists nonetheless. That being said, I think I am a bit lucky because this is also a business, I'm in a position to see some of the cool changes taking place on a daily basis.
And yeah, I talk about them here!
Yet, it would be absurdly audacious for me or anyone to position myself as the kingpin of this aquarium speciality. No one has got that title. Humilty is a good thing in this hobby. No pretty website, awesome aquarium, pictures, etc. is going to make someone "the boss" of this. It's a collective effort of an entire community of hobbyists, working to understand how to work with Nature in a more thoughtful manner than ever before.
Like it or not, the world of botanical-style aquariums is changing at a more rapid pace than ever before...New ideas and old ideas are merging being developed- being rediscovered...working their way into our hobby specialty's "collective consciousness." And yes, some ideas, attitudes, and mindsets seem to stick around, regardless of the rapid changes taking place, for better or worse.
The best any one of us can do is to share our experiences, knowledge, ideas, and opinions.
We as humans sometimes forget this. Some hobbyists decide to take on an air of authority without truly understanding their place in Nature's "order." They regurgitate without adding, criticize without self reflection, and roundly dismiss the ideas of others. They use whatever platform they have to preach dogmatically. This is toxic for the hobby, and simply ignorant. All it does is set things back.
These people tend to lose site of the fact that we collectively have a responsibility first and foremost to the animals that we keep. A responsibility which goes much deeper than trying to position oneself in some social pecking order within the hobby. Nature doesn't care about who's is spreading Her messages. She is just concerned that someone IS sharing them.
In one's haste to gain "position" within the minds of the hobby, it's easy to end up doing to others the very thing that they falsely accuse the rest of the hobby doing to them: Passing judgement, creating exclusivity, and sowing divisions. Wasting time trying to be cool and entertain, instead of actually innovating and sharing the how's and why's of what we do in this speciality. And their inability to see that they're doing this is the worst part. A shallow, hypocritical waste of effort, with misguided intent and arrogance to match.
Rather, share your love for this hobby without arrogance.
Understand that following Nature's lead gives us an amazing amount of freedom when playing with our botanical-style aquariums. This even applies to the aesthetic of these systems.
Rather than conform thoroughly to some sort of human-designed "rules" based on design, layout, and technique, this type of aquarium tends to ask for simply a very basic initial design, and lets Mother Nature handle a lot of the emerging details over time.
This is a slightly different approach to aquarium keeping than we usually think about. It requires some vision. It requires belief in one's ideas. It requires understanding...And it requires patience above all else.
And, oh- again- the passage of time.
Nature has been working with terrestrial materials in aquatic habitats for eons.
And Nature works with just about everything you throw at her. She'll take that seemingly "unsexy" piece of wood or bunch of dried leaves, and, given the passage of time, the action of gravity and water movement, and the work of bacteria, fungi, and algae- will mold, shape, evolve them into unique and compelling pieces, as amazing as anything we could ever hope to do...
If we give her the chance.
If we allow ourselves to look at her work in context.
If we lose some of that audacity to challenge what she does, and have the audacity to place our faith in Her!
Always let Nature add the details... She pretty much never messes them up! Don't be afraid to cede some of the work to Her.
Botanical-style aquairums are not just a look. Not just an aesthetic. Not just a mindset...
They're a way to incorporate natural materials to achieve new and progressive results with the fishes and plants we've come to love so much.
And, It's still early days.
A ground floor opportunity for every aquarist who gives this stuff a shot to make a meaningful- and beautiful contribution to the evolving state of the art of the botanical-style aquarium., and to share what Nature really looks and functions like with people all over the world.
That's some of the most compelling work that we can do.
And knowing the we can collectively do this requires some thought. Some motivation. A lot of effort, a fair amount of talent...
And some audacity.
Stay diligent. Stay thoughtful. Stay kind. Stay bold. Stay resourceful...
And Stay Wet.