"The waiting game..." Natural analogs, processes, and savoring those little victories on the road to success...

One of the neat things about setting up a new aquarium is that, like it or not- you go through the time-honored traditions of stuff as mundane as washing sand, setting heaters and lights, cleaning and preparing wood and other hardscape materials, etc. You can't escape most of those tasks. Nor should you want to.

I mean, unless you're using "live" material from an existing tank or pond, you have to rinse sand...whatever technique you use, it's almost unavoidable. And that often creates lingering cloudiness that simply takes a bit of waiting to resolve. And then there is what I like to call "the settling period", also jokingly referred to by us patient types as the "calm before the storm"- that period of a few days when you let everything sort of "sit" for a but- allowing the water to clear, any bubbles to be mitigated, etc. I love this period of time, because it's the last point in my tank's existence that it's "sterile"- before we begin preparing the "biological" part of the system.

You know, getting the wood and stones positioned right, making sure that the basic water parameters (alkalinity, pH, TDS) are where you want them before you start seeding the system with bacteria, or whatever your technique is to make your tank "come alive." This is an exciting time to really make sure that things are running who you'd like them, that the basic hardscape is positioned how you think it should be, and that the system is running reliably. It's a very exciting time. And, when viewed with the correct mindset, it's as gratifying, fascinating, and enjoyable as any other period of time in the life of your tank.

I'm in this period right now in my new home blackwater aquarium, and I promised to you that I'd document the process in my own esoteric way...

And I find myself viewing this time as a real chance to "get things right"- that time to deploy a lot of patience and ask myself those honest questions, like, "Is this EXACTY how you want those pieces of wood positioned?" or "Do you want to use those rocks in those positions?" Like, I hate "editing" my hardscape as I go, so to me, once I start "going biological" with a tank, the "honeymoon" is over...Those pieces of wood and rock are staying in those exact positions until either I knock them out of position during maintenance (that never happens, right?) or I break down the tank. Yeah, I'm pretty hardcore about it! 

Of course, it's also a time when I tell myself, "Okay Fellman- no turning back..." Sort of like when an airplane is committed to takeoff...I guess I commit to a hardscape like I run my business: Conceive. Tweak. Execute. Manage. I think that it's a lot like how nature works...Well, sort of?  Once a tree falls, it typically moves very little, unless water movement or subsidence from the substrate alters how it's settled. And "stuff" (leaves, twigs, seed pods, etc.) accumulate around it, further "cementing" its position in the habitat.

Yes, I have a weird way of looking at stuff.

And I suppose that it's correct to acknowledge that, despite my labeling this period of time as a "sterile" period, it's really the first step of creating a biologically active system. I mean, wood contains all sorts of "stuff", including organic materials and probably even good old fashioned terrestrial "dirt", which fuels the growth of bacteria...despite our best efforts at "cleaning" or otherwise "preparing" it for aquarium use. And the tannins which wood often gives off once submerged?

I mean, that's like nature's little "gift" for the "tinter!"

While the rest of the aquarium world pouts, agonizes, and generally freaks the f--- out about "the tannins 'discoloring' my water"- we see this as one of the rare "hacks"- a gift from Mother Nature to help us speed up the process of getting that visual "tint" to our water that we love so much! (Don't believe me about how the rest of the hobby reacts to this? Search like any aquatic hobby forum and look at the frantic posts from hobbyists looking for anything to help remove this dreaded "scourge" of tint from their aquariums. I know, I shouldn't be so callous and unsympathetic to their "plight"- but if these heathens only knew what they were missing...

So, yeah. We take our victories where we can get them, right?

And we're patient. And determined. And we understand that a botanical-style blackwater or brackish aquarium truly must "evolve" and take time to begin to blossom into a functioning little ecosystem. And we enjoy each and every stage of the "startup" process for what it is: An analog to the processes which occur in the natural habitats we want so badly to emulate.  I think one of the mental "games" I've always played with myself during this process is to draw parallels between what I'm doing to prepare my tank and what happens in nature.

It kind of goes something like this: A tree falls in the (dry) forest. Wind and gravity determine it's initial resting place (you play around with positioning your wood pieces until you get 'em where you want, and in a position that holds!). Next, other materials, such as leaves and perhaps a few rocks become entrapped around the fallen tree or its branches (we set a few "anchor" pieces of hardscaping material into the tank). Then, the rain come; streams overflow, and the once-dry forest floor becomes inundated (we fill the aquarium with water).

The action of water and rain help set the final position of the tree/branches, and wash more materials into the area influenced by the tree (we place more pieces of botanicals, rocks, leaves, etc. into place). The area settles a bit, with occasional influxes of new water from the initial rainfall (we make water chemistry tweaks as needed). Fungi, bacteria, and insects begin to act upon the wood and botanicals which have collected in the water (kind of like what happens in our tanks, huh? Biofilms are beautiful...). Gradually, the first fishes begin to follow the food and populate the area (we add our first fish selections based on our stocking plan...). It continues from there. Get the picture? Sure, I could go on and on drawing parallels to every little nuance of tank startup, but I think you know where I'm going with this stuff...

And the thing we must deploy at all times in this process is patience. And an appreciation for each and every step in the process, and how it will influence the overall "tempo" and ultimate success of the aquarium we are creating. When we take the view that we are not just creating an aquatic display, but a habitat for a variety of aquatic life forms, we tend to look at it as much more of an evolving process than a step-by-step "procedure" for getting somewhere. Taking the time to consider, study, and savor each phase is such an amazing thing, and I'd like to think that as students of this most compelling aquarium hobby niche, that we can appreciate the evolution as much as the "finished product" (if there ever is such a thing in the aquarium world).

It all starts with an idea...and a little bit of a "waiting game..." and a belief in nature; a trust in the natural processes which have guided our planet and its life forms for eons. 

The appreciation of this process is a victory in and of itself, isn't it?

Stay excited. Stay enthralled. Stay observant. Stay appreciative...Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman 

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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