The "Space Between."

I have this thing where I love to "classify" stuff in the hobby...not sure why. We had a discussion yesterday on our Facebook page around yesterday's edition of "The Tint", and there were a number of interesting points brought up about aesthetic and function and other aspects of aquarium presentation and what is considered attractive and such. One of my fave hobbyist/writers/photographers, Sumer Tiwari ( who's pics have graced these pages many times) brought up one of my fave points:

"...In the modern aquarium keeping, we are constantly applauding nature aquarium tanks which are very carefully built to be aesthetic masterpieces. Any newcomer in the hobby is constantly reminded how important “crystal clear” water is. I’m not saying it’s always wrong. There are times when fishes do come from very clear water or maybe you want to go for that look. My concern is that this other side of the hobby’s is often not exposed to the newer generation of the hobbyists.
Hobbyists who are lucky to have visited natural habitats of the fishes they like know and understand this concept very well."

Boom. 💥


Sumer went on to bring up some other very important points in his response, but I want to focus on the topic above for today.

I think that we as a "movement" in the hobby (What I have long called the "New Botanical"-style of aquarium) not only present a different sort of aesthetic, but a different mental approach, too. We understand that the materials we place in our aquariums not only affect its appearance, but its function. 

And they change over time.

For decades, I found the truly "ephemeral" nature of the botanical-style aquarium as compelling as any. Not everyone found this "look" to be attractive- or even slightly interesting. The near-dominant prevalence of aquatic plants and the rigid interpretation of the "Nature Aquarium Style" movement seemed to leave little room in the hobby's collective psyche for a tinted, darker tank full of randomly-placed decomposing leaves and seed pods.

Or did it?

I mean, Amano's whole idea in a nutshell was to replicate nature to a certain extent by accepting it and laying a conceptual groundwork for it to unfold. (Just look at all of the pics of grassy fields and moss-covered fenceposts in Amano's books. He got it.) Now, granted, his general aesthetic involved plants and what seems to be a natural-looking aquascape, although executed in an intentionally artistic way. There is nothing wrong with this. Some of the world's most beautiful aquariums were/are created this way. 

However, what I noticed over time in the freshwater world was an almost obsessive, rigid adherence to certain parts of Amano's formula and aesthetic; specifically, ratios, placement of hardscape and plants, and a certain type of aesthetic formula that one had to replicate in order to gain legitimacy or "acceptance" from the community. 

I really don't think it was Amano's intent.

"Wabi-sabi", the Japanese philosophy which embraces the ephemeral nature of the existence of things, was/is a key concept in Amano's approach, and it still is. I think it fell into a bit of "disuse", though, in the "Nature Aquarium" movement, as aquarists aspired to replicate his works, perhaps trying to by-pass what seemed to be a less exciting -or less immediately rewarding- part of his approach.

I think that this is why we have some many "diorama-style" tanks in competitions, and I also think it's why we see more and more serious aquascapers taking another look at a more realistic type of aquarium utilizing botanicals. I think many are simply tired of overly-stylized and are leaning back into a truly more natural look.

Is there not also beauty in "randomness", despite our near-obsessive pursuit of rules, such as "golden ratio", color aggregating, etc? Just because last year's big 'scaping contest winner had the "perfect" orientation, ratios, and alignment of the (insert this year's trendiest wood here) branch within the tank, doesn't mean it's a real representation of the natural functionality of "randomness." 

In other words, just because it looks good, it doesn't mean it's what nature looks like. Or acts like, for that matter.

Yes, I know an aquarium is not "nature"- but it does function in accordance with Nature's laws, regardless of what we want, right?

One of the things that we've noticed lately in the hobby is a trend towards more "realistic" aquariums. Not just systems which look like natural environments; rather, systems which are modeled as much after the function of them as the aesthetics.

"Functional aesthetics."

I think this is where Tannin Aquatics falls, if you had to nail us down into one specific "stylistic/philosphical approach" to aquariums.

The "Space Between", so to speak. 

A less rigidly aesthetically-controlled, less "high-concept" approach to setting the stage for...Nature- to do what she's done for eons without doing as much to "help it along." Rather, the mindset here is to allow nature to take it's course, and to embrace the breakdown of materials, the biofilms, the decay...and rejoice in the ever-changing aesthetic and functional aspects of a natural aquatic system- "warts and all" -and how they can positively affect our fishes.

Wabi-Sabi? Yeah, I think so.

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 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 recovering Nature Style addict, to the serious fish breeder, and show them a way to really incorporate a different side of nature into their aquariums. 

And you can embrace both "style" and nature, as we're trying to show with the "Studio Tannin" bespoke aquascapes.

We're seeing that not only do botanicals, leaves, and alternative substrate materials look interesting- they provide a physiological basis for creating unique environmental conditions for our fishes and plants. We're seeing fish graze on the life forms which live in and among the decomposing botanicals, as well as the botanicals themselves- just like in nature...And we are seeing the influence- aesthetically and chemically- that these materials assert on the aquarium's environmental parameters.

It's not just a look. Not just an aesthetic. Not just a mindset.

It's a way to incorporate natural materials to achieve new and progressive results with the fishes and plants we've come to love so much. It's still early days. A ground floor opportunity for every aquairst who gives this stuff a shot to make a meaningful- and beautiful contribution to the evolving state of the art of the botanical-style blackwater/brackish aquarium., and to share what nature really looks like with people all over the world.

Welcome aboard.

Stay bold. Stay innovative. Stay excited. Stay curious. Stay busy...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 




Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


2 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

August 20, 2018

Thanks for the kind words, Lily! Means a lot! I think that the aquarium world has been embracing this a lot more recently because collectively, we were caught up in a mindset of “clean, pristine, clear” for so-called “natural aquariums” which, if we looked at it objectively, were anything but! Once aquarists kind of started looking at the wild habitats of our fishes a bit more, and understanding the complex relationships they have with their environment, the benefits became obvious… And, like in so many endeavors, once the first people started jumping in. and having fun and success, more and more people “felt safe” and joined the party! We played a very small role in getting people re-introduced to some ideas which the hobby knew for decades, yet inexplicably fell out of favor. Glad to see so many having success and fun with botanical-style tanks! -Scott

Lily Northover
Lily Northover

August 19, 2018

I very much enjoy your articles having discovered the use of botanicals about 18 months ago. I’ve always preferred random looking tanks and you’ve nursed me through bio films and decay. Now I’m delighted to say my favourite fish shop, The Aquatic Store Bristol UK, who have always had wood, stone or plants in their display tanks, have now switched to a sand substrate and have leaves and cones in most of their sale tanks. Your influence is making countless fishes lives better.

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