All of you who know me personally know that I'm about as geeky and traditionally-raised aquarist as they come. I was brought up in a world of fancy guppies, killifishes, and Neon Tetras. I had my first legit aquarium when I was about 5 years old...after having maintained goldfish bowls since I was around 3. Aquarium keeping was in my blood, just as it was in my father's before me.
I've been fortunate enough to have grown as a hobbyist, tried all sorts of different stuff; travelled the world studying aquariums, speaking, and starting and managing two successful companies in the aquatics space. It's been a good ride so far!
Yet, like many of you, for a long time, I harbored some fears about stuff in the hobby. Yeah, I was afraid for a long time to walk outside of the well-trodden path worn by our hobby forefathers. I tried all sorts of fishes and aquariums, but seldom, if ever, deviated from what would be seen as decidedly mainstream. To do so not only meant facing the scorn of the hobby community, it meant potentially failing or doing something that had no pre-conceived rules or guidelines...
And that can be scary.
About 15 years ago, I simply decided never to be scared again in the hobby. I started experimenting with all of those ideas and approaches that were in my head for so many years...And most important, I decided that I couldn't give two &*^*&%^^%$ about what anyone thought about the stuff I tried.
It's been really healthy. And very quiet in my head...
Although on some days, I want to yell...
Unfortunately for you guys, today is such a day.
We have a lot of fears that we may not want to admit to, IMHO.
One of the things that drives me crazy is this innate fear of "detritus", "dirt", and "decomposition" that seems to have been beaten into the head of every hobbyist since time immemorial...A fear; a warning that tells the hobbyist that anything decomposing in the aquarium will degrade water quality, unleash horrific algal blooms, and kill your fishes...
The admonition for decades has been to siphon up every gram of detritus each time we change the water in our aquariums. The prevailing thought in the hobby is that this stuff is only bad news:
"detritus is dead particulate organic matter. It typically includes the bodies or fragments of dead organisms, as well as fecal material. Detritus is typically colonized by communities of microorganisms which act to decompose or remineralize the material." (Source: The Aquarium Wiki)
It's one of our most commonly used aquarium terms...and one which, well, quite frankly, sends shivers down the spine of many aquarium hobbyists. And judging from that definition, it sounds like something you absolutely want to avoid having in your system at all costs. I mean, "dead organisms" and "fecal material" is not everyone's idea of a good time, ya know?
Yet, when you really think about it, "detritus" is an important part of the aquatic ecosystem, providing "fuel" for microorganisms and fungi at the base of the food chain in tropical streams. In fact, in natural blackwater systems, the food inputs into the water are channeled by decomposers, like fungi, which act upon leaves and other organic materials in the water to break them down.
Now, sure- the stuff just doesn't look that nice to most of us, and that's partially why the recommendation for a good part of the century or so we've kept aquariums is to siphon it the hell out! And that's good advice from an aesthetic standpoint- and for that matter, from a husbandry standpoint, as well. Excessive amounts of accumulating waste materials can lead to increased phosphate, nitrate, and other problems, including blooms of nuisance algae. Emphasis on the word "excessive" here...(which begs the question, "What is "excessive" in this context, anyways?)
However, with the importance of detritus in creating food webs in wild leaf litter communities, which we are now replicating in aquariums, could there actually be some benefit to allowing a little of this stuff to accumulate? Or at least, not "freaking out" and removing every single microgram of detritus as soon as it appears?
I think so. Really.
Is this another one of those long-held "aquarium truisms" that, for 90% of what we do is absolutely the correct way to manage our tanks, but which, for a small percentage of aquarists with the means, curiosity and inclination to experiment, could actually prove detrimental in some way?
I think so.
Another thing that absolutely drives me crazy, and goes hand-in-hand with the fear of detritus and decomposition is a stunning lack of patience that I have seen in the hobby for years now.
We're afraid to wait. TO let things happen. To evolve. We want it done...NOW.
I am going to beat that impatience out of you if it's the last thing we do here. And
I'm going to call us all out:
I absolutely, 100% blame this on the "hardcore aquascaping world" who feature these instant "masterpiece scapes" and make little to no mention whatsoever about the time required for an aquarium to cycle, to process nutrients. To go through not-so-attractive phases. For plants to establish and grow. To go through the phases where things aren't established. THE TIME. It takes weeks or months to get a tank truly "established", regardless of what approach we take, or what type of tank we're setting up.
Don't be afraid. And yes, not everyone hides the process.
Only about 95% of us.
What we've done collectively by only illustrating the perfectly manicured "finished product "is give our brothers and sisters the impression that all you do is choose some rock, wood, and plants or whatever , do some high concept scape, and Bam! Instant masterpiece. Yes, there are PLENTY of people who actually think that...WHY are we so f- ing scared to show an empty tank, one with the "not-so-finished" hardscape or plant arrangement? The period of time when the wood may not be covered in moss, or when the rock has a film of algae on it? One that has perhaps an algae bloom, a bunch of wood that needs to be rearranged, etc.
That's reality. That is what fellow hobbyists need to see. It's important for us to share the progress- the process- of establishing a beautiful tank- with all of its ugliness along the way.
This does severe long-term damage to the "culture" of our hobby. It's sends a dumbed-down message that a perfect tank is the only acceptable kind.
I freaking HATE that.
Stop being so goddam afraid of showing stuff when it's not "perfect." You don't need anyone's approval. Period.
To all of us...an appeal: PLEASE STOP doing this.
At least, without taking some time to describe and share the process and explain the passage of time required to really arrive at one of these great works. Share the pics of your tank evolving through its early, "honest" phases. That's the magic...the amazing, inspiring, aspirational part EVERY bit as much as the finished contest entry pic.
Wanna help the hobby? Do that.
Patience. The passage of time. Allowing Nature to do her work...These are things that we as humans seem so afraid to let happen. We seem to feel that the time required to establish a truly healthy, beautiful tank naturally is somehow "wasted" or uninteresting. As if it's devoid of value until the tank is "ready for Instagram" or whatever. We're afraid to share anything that's not perfect.
Nothing could be further from the truth. That's the whole game! The beauty of watching a tank evolve- at whatever speed it does- from a disorganized "mess" to a beautiful microcosm of life in all its forms- is a gift from the Universe.
The types of aquariums we do in our little niche absolutely should be documented in all of their phases. The turbid water, the tint. The biofilms. The "patina" of growth on wood...All of these are beautiful things that change over time, and need to be shared so that the world understands exactly how these tanks come into being.
Successes , challenges, and indeed, our failures should be shared...so we can all learn, and understand that Nature is as much a "process" as it is a "thing." And that there is beauty everywhere if we shift our minds to accept it.
Yes. Tannin will organize a contest one day soon. And yes, it will have lots of pretty inspiring tanks. But HELL YES- all entrants will be required to show the raw, unfinished beauty of the evolution of the display as part of the deal. The goal is to show that an aquarium, like Nature itself, is a dynamic, constantly evolving system. Things like algal films, biofilms, decomposing botanicals, pockets of sediment and detritus are every bit as compelling, beautiful, and awe-inspiring to look at as any ultra-manicured "finished" show tank.
Patience. A lack of it will simply wreck your hobby experience.
FACT: If you add all of the contents of your "Enigma Pack" to an established aquarium that has been stable for some time, you will likely kill everything in your tank. Think about the logic here. You can't add a shitload of biological material to any established system and expect there to be no impact on the aquarium environment. The bacterial population as to adjust to the new influx of materials.
And guess what? That takes time. And time is really boring to a lot of people. The very, very few emails I receive from people who wipe out their aquariums after adding botanicals are almost always caused by human error. Adding too much too fast. Not preparing materials. Not thinking.
DON'T BE AFRAID TO BE PATIENT.
Yeah, you may stare at an aquarium full of pods, leaf litter, mud, and detritus for a few weeks or more before it's safe to add fishes. Or, you may add your botanicals just a few at a time over the course of weeks.
Oh well. It takes time. Enjoy the slow process. Enjoy your aquarium at every phase.
Along the way, you'll gain a tremendous appreciation for how Nature works. And a sense of patience, pride, humidly...And ultimately, the realization that an aquarium is never truly "finished."
It's a journey. Frought with peril if we make it that way. Filled with wonder, beauty, and amazement if we accept it.
A journey that we can't be afraid to take.
Until next time...
Stay bold. Stay observant. Stay methodical. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.