An aquarium is not just a glass or plastic box filled with water, sand, plants, wood, leaves, seed pods, and fishes.
It's not just a disconnected, clinical, static display containing a collection of aquatic materials.
It's a microcosm.
A vibrant, dynamic, interconnected ecosystem, influenced by the materials and life forms-seen and unseen- within it, as well as the external influences which surround it.
An aquarium features, life, death, and everything in between.
It pulses with the cycle of life, beholden only to the rules of Nature, and perhaps, to us- the human caretakers who created it.
But mainly, to Nature.
The processes of life which occur within the microcosm we create are indifferent to our desires, our plans, or our aspirations for it. Sure, as humans, we can influence the processes which occur within the aquarium- but the outcome- the result- is based solely upon Nature's response.
In the botanical-style aquarium, we embrace the randomness and unusual aesthetic which submerged terrestrial materials impart to the aquatic environment. We often do our best to establish a sense of order, proportion, and design, but the reality is that Nature, in Her infinite wisdom borne of eons of existence, takes control.
We have two choices: We can resist Nature's advances, attempt to circumvent or thwart her processes, such as decomposition, growth, or evolution.
Or, we can scrape away "unsightly" biocover on rocks and wood, remove detritus, algae, and trim our plants to look neat and orderly.
Or, we can embrace Her seemingly random, relentless march.
We can make mental shifts, which look at stuff like the biofilms, fungal growth, decomposing leaves, and tinted water.
Mental shifts which start by accepting the look.
It's not a mystery that botanical-style blackwater aquariums simply look different.
Now, it sounds a bit, well- "dramatic"- but we've all come to realize that this type of aquarium simply has different "operating parameters" (literally and figuratively) than pretty much any other type of system you'd keep. Not that there is some big "mystery" or "secret" to keeping one...Like any aquarium, you simply need to understand, appreciate, and yes- enjoy- the characteristics, phases, and nuances of this type of system.
The biggest parts of the "mental shift" are the understanding that botanical materials break down in the water column as they impart tannins and other substances into the environment. The well-manicured aquscape you might have conceived will be reshaped by Nature as the leaves, seed pods, and other botanical materials are broken down by bacterial and fungal action.
The realization that Nature is not the pristine, orderly environment that we have conjured up in our stylized aquariums and global aquascaping contests is perhaps the most difficult thing for the aspiring "tinter" to grasp. We've been indoctrinated for so long to think that this is the way Nature is, and that the definition of a successful, well-conceived, or "healthy and clean" system is one that consists of perfectly symmetrical/intentionally-placed/trimmed plants, pearly-white sand, and impeccably clean driftwood.
Of course, the reality is that this is just one aesthetic, and that Nature rarely has such circumstances combining in the same place. Rather, it's a world of biofilms, patinas of algae, randomly distributed botanical debris, scattered rocks and wood tangles, deposited by currents, rain, and even the fishes themselves, settling into positions that typically defy the "Golden Ratio" and other human-created constructs.
As a reefer for decades, I learned a lot about balance, understanding that there is a certain amount of natural growth, such as coralline algae and such, which goes with the territory, and that a well-functioning and stable reef aquarium has achieved a certain balance between what we perceive as "nuisance" and "necessary." No reefer likes huge algae outbreaks, but every reefer appreciates the presence of some algae in his or her system, as well as the random appearance of various micro and macro-fauna.
A sort of acceptance of a "holistic" environment within the confines of our aquarium. It's one of the "foundation principles" of reef keeping, and I think it would serve many within the freshwater aquascaping community to study and appreciate this as well. Rather than simply appropriating the term "Nature" or "Natural" to describe our system, we should think about how Nature actually operates- and looks, and appreciate, emulate, and embrace the unusual look of botanical-style aquariums.
The "mental shift."
Far more than a barrier, really.
Rather, it's like a "point of demarkation" between what we have come to expect from an aquarium and indeed, Nature- and the way Nature wants to "evolve" our aquariums. There is a certain dynamic- perhaps even a "tension"- between expectation and reality, and the understanding of this, wether we embrace it or not- will only make us better aquarists, with a more complete appreciation of the natural world and how function and form unexpectedly combine to create beauty- if we make the effort to see it.
And when we see it, we're far more likely to want to preserve and protect it, and educate others about its wonders. Or replicate it in our aquariums!
To truly enjoy the botanical-style aquarium, you need to understand what's involved, what's required of you as a hobbyist, and then move forward. Just remember one thing when playing with "botanicals in the aquarium:
It's not a "plug-and-play" proposition. It requires some effort, thought, observation, and patience...
By observing and assessing on a continuous basis, you'll get a real feel for how botanicals work in your aquarium. And what's the real "finesse" part of the equation? It's the nuance. The subtle, yet noticeable adjustments and corrections we make to keep things moving along nominally- sort of like pruning in a planted tank, or weeding a garden...it's a process.
Yeah, a process.
In fact, the entire experience of a blackwater, botanical-style aquarium boils down to a process and a pace that helps foster the gradual, yet inexorable "evolution" of the aquarium. And let there be no doubt- a botanical-style aquarium does "evolve" over time, regularly and steadily changing and progressing. As we've mentioned many, many times before, it might be the perfect expression of the Japanese concept of "wabi-sabi", popularized by Takashi Amano, which is the acceptance of transience and imperfection.
A mindset. A point of view. A philosophy, for sure.
And the patience to allow your system to evolve.
It's absolutely the most essential skill to have if you're going to work with botanical-style aquariums. Period. There are no shortcuts, major "hacks", or ways to dramatically speed up what Nature does. Why would you want to, anyways?
Adopt a "long game" mindset.
Know that good stuff often takes time to happen. I'm personally not afraid to wait for results. Well, not to "just sit around" in the literal sense, mind you. However, I'm not expecting instant results from stuff. Rather, I am okay with doing the necessary groundwork, nurturing the project along, and seeing the results happen over time.
A "long game."
That's what we play here.
It goes hand-in-hand with interpreting and recreating the form and function of Nature as it really is.
Uncomfortable with this idea?
It's hardly "revolutionary" or crazy... Patience is something most hobbyist already have- or should have- in their metaphorical "toolkit." Trying to re-create Nature in the aquarium is as old as the hobby itself.
Yet, to attempt to really replicate one of these complex natural habitats in the aquarium in form and function requires us to look ourselves in the mirror and see if we're up to the challenges (aesthetic and otherwise).
Can you handle the detritus? The biofilm? The fungal growth? The decomposition?
Had enough of this stuff? Or are you thirsty for more?
I submit to you the next step- the idea of turbid, sediment-filled tanks, where dead branchy materials, decomposing leaves, twigs, biofilms, clays, soil and silt play...
It's our next example of replicating Nature in all of its unabashed glory.
This type of feature really pushes us out of our "comfort zone."
You have a substrate comprised of silty, sedimented material which, when disturbed, will cloud the water a bit for days at a time. Sort of like what happens in Nature- but it's in your living room.
Is that something you'd want?
Trying to circumvent or "edit" this look is easy- yet it simply glosses over the real beauty of Nature. The "rules" of Aquascaping which we embrace so willingly simply fly in the face of how Nature works.
Suffice it to say, there are NO rules about rediscovering the unfiltered art beneath the surface. Our "movement" believes in representing Nature as it exists in both form and function, without "editing" the very attributes of randomness and resulting function that make it so amazing.
We are utterly inspired by this.
And challenged by it.
We are all about the preservation of biofilms, decomposition, and that "patina" of biocover that exists when terrestrial materials contact water. We've come to the understanding that these materials break down and influence the environment...and that this process doesn't always conform to our hobby interpretation of what is "beautiful."
We've developed a keen appreciation for the ephemeral, the transitional.
It makes sense to me. It makes sense to many of you, too.
I believe that there is a huge hunger in the aquarium hobby to find out more about the natural habitats from which our fishes hail, and to create more realistic functional representations of them in our aquariums.
In my own rebellious way, I also can't help but think that part of this enthusiasm which a growing number of aquarists seem to have for this stuff is that aquarium hobbyists in general have a bit of a "rebellious streak", too! Our taste in "style" is changing.
And that maybe, just maybe- we're collectively a bit- well, "over" the idea of the "rule-centric", mono-stylistic, overly dogmatic thinking that has dominated the aquascaping world for the better part of two decades.
We're ready to look at Nature- and our aquariums, in a different way.
We're ready to learn more- from the worlds we create. Because they follow the path which NATURE created.
Stay attuned. Stay observant. Stay open-minded. Stay humble. Stay brave...
And Stay Wet.