Things can go sideways sometimes...And that's part of the plan.

One of the things I alternately love and loathe about the aquarium hobby is that, no matter what you do; no matter how carefully you plan- no matter how carefully you execute- stuff can go sideways sometimes for no apparent reason.


Well, the same "variable" which we have come to extoll, emulate, and adore- Nature, of course!

Yeah, Her.

She'll entice, challenge, reward, and punish you- sometimes in the same day! Nature can be wildly unpredictable, yet often thoroughly logical at the same time. You can do everything "right"- and Nature will think of some way to throw a proverbial "wrench" into your plans.

She operates at Her own pace, with Her own rules, indifferent to you or your ideas, practices, and motivations. 

Things can "go sideways" sometimes.

Yet, with all of Her wild and unpredictable actions, it's never a bad idea to show some deference to Her, is it?

With our heavy emphasis on utilizing natural botanical materials in our aquairums, I can't help but think about the long-term of their function and health. Specifically, the changes that they go through as they evolve into little microcosms.

As we've discussed before, a botanical-style aquarium has a “cadence” of its own, which we can facilitate when we set up- but we must let Nature dictate the timing and sequencing. We can enjoy the process- even control some aspects of it...Yet underneath it all, She's in charge from the beginning. She creates the path...

It starts with an empty tank. Then, the lush fragrance exuded by crisp botanicals during preparation. The rush of excitement of the initial “placement" of the botanicals and hardscape materials within the tank. The gradual “tinting” of the aquarium water. The softening of the botanicals. The development of biofilms, fungal growths, and algae “patinas.” Perhaps, even a bit of cloudiness from time to time because of microbial growth.

Ultimately, there's the decomposition.

All part of a process which can’t be “hacked” or rushed.

We can change some of the physical aspects of our tanks (equipment, hardscape, etc.), but Mother Nature is in control.

She "calls the shots" here.

And I think that's perhaps the most important lesson that we can learn from our aquariums. As aquarists, we can do a lot- we can change the equipment, correct initial mistakes or shortcomings the system might have had from the beginning.

We set the stage, so to speak.

However, in the's Nature which does most of the real "heavy lifting" here. Nature rewards us for our good decisions, scolds us for our bad ones, and provides "cues" on what future decisions we need to make. And Nature does it all indifferently...without judgement. It reacts positively or negatively to our attempts to control it. 

Even when things "go sideways"- when our best-laid plans for our aquariums seem to veer off the course we've set, we need to understand that it's not off course, really. And it's not us who are totally in charge here.

It's Her. It's Nature.

Which is why the reality of a blackwater/botanical-style aquarium is that it's perhaps one of the best ways to bring Nature into our home. To blur the lines between nature and aquarium. Sure, planted aquariums give us a similar challenge...but the botanical-style aquarium challenges us in different ways. It tasks us to accept Nature in all of its beauty. And yeah, it makes us accept that there IS beauty in things like decomposition, biofilm, and algal growth.

Things which we as aquarists might have been "indoctrinated" to loathe over the years..

One need only study the wild aquatic systems of the world to realize that it's not all "crystal clear and sterile" out there- and that our aquariums in all of their tinted, murky glory will reflect this. Nature "calls the shots" here.

And that it's totally okay.

Yes, I know an aquarium is not "Nature"- yet it does function in accordance with Nature's laws, regardless of what we want, right? And it is an ecosystem to the organisms which inhabit it.

One of the things that we've seen be more accepted in the hobby over the past few years is a trend towards more "realistic" aquariums. This is a good trend...However, it tends to focus on the aesthetic, and not the function. It's important to try to foster these more "realistic" systems in both form and function. Yeah, 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."

And that means accepting some things. What we see as "going sideways" is just an opportunity to learn; to accept different things. 

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. Sort of straddling multiple approaches, with Nature as the ultimate "critic."

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.

Yes, things can still go sideways sometimes- even when we let Nature run the show.

And that's part of the charm and awe, really.

And that's absolutely what occurs in nature. Random distribution of botanicals and branches, etc. Now, to a certain extent, currents and spatial factors (i.e., how wide and deep a given stream is) affects the distribution, but for the most part, it's quite random. And that is the fascination and beauty of Nature...

I think- THINK- that we as aquascapers have developed some amazing "rules" to proportion out 'scapes in an artistic manner, but it's my opinion that it's also okay to be a bit less "technical" and more "impulsive." I have to admit that I often squirm when I see aquascaping videos and the 'scaper goes on and on about "...You need to have a large element here to offset the piece of wood here.." I'm like, "Why?" It just seems so "restrictive."

And of course, the answer is likely, "Because it looks better."

And of course, I cringe again, because I'm not sure what "better" means- although the serious aquascapers ARE often correct. That being said, I still think that a certain degree of randomness; even what some would label as "haphazardness"- is good; and more important- awareness of how things really work in nature- is even more valuable. Couple good taste with these two key factors and you're in great shape.

Anyways, back to Nature.

I believe that an aquarium that attempts to replicate a sort of chaotic scene like the ones we discuss so much here starts with what looks like really artificial placement of wood, anchored by numerous details which soften, define, and fill in the scape. A sort of analog to the theater/motion picture concept  of "mise en scene", where pieces literally set the stage and help tell a story by providing context.

Yes, unlike a scape which depends upon growth of plants to fill it in and "evolve" it, the botanical-style blackwater or brackish-water aquarium is largely hardscape materials, which requires the adept placement of said materials to help fill in the scene. And of course, part of the "evolution" is the softening, redistribution, and break down of botanical materials over time...just like what happens in Nature.

Nature has been working with terrestrial materials in aquatic habitats for uncounted eons.

And Nature works with just about everything you throw at her.

She'll take that seemingly "unsexy" piece of wood or rock 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- She'll 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 don't worry when things go "sideways."

If we don't give up.

Always have faith in Nature.

She'll challenge you. She'll tempt you. She'll school you. But She'll also educate you, indoctrinate you into her ways, and take you under her wing...if you let Her.

Let Nature handle some of the details... She pretty much never messes them up! Don't fight Her. Understand her. Don't be afraid to cede some of the work to Her.

Botanical-style aquariums are not not "just a look." Not just an aesthetic. Not just a "trend." Not even just a mindset...

Rather, 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.

So set the stage, and enjoy the random, compelling, and ever-evolving work of art that is the blackwater/botanical-style aquarium. Started by you. Evolved with the steady hand of Nature.

Stay engaged. Stay thoughtful. Stay curious. Stay creative. Stay adventurous...


And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman 
Tannin Aquatics 





Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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