Celebrating the journey...

We've been about 5 years now into our mission of elevating and educating the aquarium hobby community about the joys, benefits, and challenges of botanical-style, blackwater/brackish water aquariums. We've touched on a lot of topics- ranging from big picture stuff to the extremely arcane.

I think we've done a pretty good job at spreading the word.

However, there is something that I keep coming back to. An idea that keeps popping into my head after numerous discussions with other hobbyists, seeing the evolving "market segment" for botanicals, and just answering lots of questions regularly:

I think that we- as a hobby, are not doing a good enough job celebrating the process of creating aquariums.

I think we celebrate the “finished product” and fail to celebrate the joy, the heartache, the time- and the patience- the journey-which go into an aquarium. And further, I don't think we as a hobby do enough to recognize the telltale signs of hobbyists going too fucking fast..

And we continue to coddle stupid behavior (yeah, I said it) by not instructing newcomers to do some of the research themselves, rather than plunge ahead blindly, only to ask specific questions when something goes wrong.

If you frequent various hobby forums or Facebook groups, you’ll see evidence of this issue all over the place. And I’m not the only one who has been noticing this, as evidenced by the considerable number of dm’s and emails I receive, and, the discussions I’ve had with other hobbyists on the subject.

A lot of hobbyists want to "not be bothered" with the details or background education, and just jump into the game without any effort to educate themselves or do some of the homework required. It's apparently far easier to just look at pictures, go the the LFS or online vendor and buy a bunch of stuff, set up the tank, and see what happens.

Okay, we do have “build threads”, which are pretty cool and often inspiring, I think! We at least facilitate the sharing of the process of building aquairums. They’re pretty popular, as they are inuring, interesting, and for many- aspirational.

While the bulk of them do just that- celebrate the process- a disturbing number of them seem to exude an underlying feeling of “impatience”- a sense that there is a “destination” to get to- and that the person posting wants to get there really quickly! And I get this sense when I talk or correspond with some hobbyists, too. I see these types of “dysfunctional” (for want of a better word) build threads in reef keeping forums constantly, and they follow a very predictable path:

They start out innocently- and excitingly enough- the tank concept is highlighted, the acquisition of (usually expensive) equipment is documented, and the build begins. The pace quickens. The urgency to “get the livestock in the tank asap” is palpable. Soon, pretty large chunks of change are dropped on some of the most trendy, expensive coral frags- or worse yet- whole colonies- available.


Everyone “oohs and ahhs” over the additions. Those who understand the processes involved- and really think about it- begin to realize that this thing is going too fast…that the process is being rushed…that shortcuts and “hacks” are cherished more than the natural processes required for long-term success. Sure enough, within a month or so, frantic social media and forum posts are written by the builder, asking for help to figure out what his/her expensive corals are “struggling”, despite the large amount of cash spent on high-tech equipment and said corals from reputable vendors.

When suggestions are offered by members of the community, usually they’re about correcting some aspect of the nitrogen cycle or other critical biological function that was bypassed or downplayed by the aquarist. Usually, the “fixes” involve “doubling back” and spending more time to “re-boot” and do things more slowly. To let the system sort of evolve (oh- THAT word!) The “Yeah, I know, but..” type of responses- the ones that deflect responsibility- start piling up from the hobbyist.

Often, the tank owner will apply some misplaced blame to the equipment manufacturer, the livestock vendor, the LFS employee…almost anyone but himself/herself. Then, the hobbyist goes "radio silent" for a while...And soon after, the next post is in the forum’s “For Sale” section, selling off components of a once-ambitious aquarium.

Another hobbyist lost to lack of patience.


The single most important thing you need for a successful raquairum (well, except maybe cash!)- and the thing we celebrate the least, IMHO. And we should celebrate it a lot more.

Because you really can’t skip the process…

Well, we can speed up some processes by adding bacterial additives to our new aquariums to “jump start” the nitrogen cycle. We can utilize specialized soils and additives to help give aquatic plants the nutrition they need from day one. We can densely plant. All of these things and more are ways we have developed to speed up the natural processes which occur in our aquariums over time.

They are band aids, props- quick starts…”hacks”, if you will.  All of them can work as part of a comprehensive process. However, they are not the key to establishing a successful long-term-viable aquarium in and of themselves. Ultimately, Nature has to “sign off” on, and work with any of the “boosts” we offer.


It’s a problem, IMHO.

It doesn’t apply to everyone- it’s not always a devastating ending. However, it happens often enough to affect the hobby as a whole, especially when someone drops out because they went in with unrealistic expectations brought about by the observations they make every time they open up their iPad.

The problem is, we as a hobby love to highlight the finished product above almost all else.

We document and celebrate the beauty of the IAPLC champion’s ‘scape. But we minimally document the process that it took to get there. The reality is that the journey to the so-called “finished product” is really every bit as interesting as the finished product itself!

It’s where the magic lies. The process. The journey. The time. The evolution. The patience.

I’ve always found it somewhat odd to see those amazing "high-concept" planted tanks broken down in their prime by the owner, to start a new one. I guess it’s part of the culture of that niche…a sort of self-imposed “termination” when something new is desired.  And I think it's part of the "contest mindset", too. The “process” is about hitting certain benchmarks and moving on, I suppose. (and if you only have one tank and 500 ideas, and the goal is to enter it into a new contest, it makes sense)

And we have to respect that.

However, that's great for the contest guys, right?

Yet, we also have a duty to explain this to newcomers. We have to let people know that, even in one of those seemingly “temporary” displays, patience and the passage of time are required.

Sure, these aspects don’t make for the best “optics”, as they say in politics. You can’t show an empty, cloudy aquarium on Instagram or Facebook and get 400 “likes” on the pic. No one wants to see the results of 33 consecutive nitrite tests.

It’s not sexy.

Sadly, acceptance from others of how cool our tanks are is a big deal for many, so sharing an “under construction” tank is not as exciting for a lot of people, because we celebrate that “finished product” (whatever it is) more than the process of getting there. We simply need to celebrate patience, the journey, and the “evolution” of our aquariums more.

After a lifetime in the hobby it’s pretty easy for a guy like me to see when things are going in a direction that may not give the happy outcome my fellow hobbyists want. I see this just as much in the freshwater world as I do in the reef world.

I see this after some of the "contest giveaways" and club raffles we support. A high percentage of the time (not always, of course), the winner, who receives a package of botanicals or whatever, seems to be the least informed, about this speciality, and often not really all that interested in doing the research before plunging forward. I mean, it's just adding some hardscape to a tank, right?

They just want one of those cool "blackwater aquariums" that seem to be all the rage on Instagram these days. It's a "cool style of aquascaping", right?

It makes me cringe, really...and to question the wisdom of just giving stuff away sometimes. Lack of desire to take the time to educate one's self, and lack of willingness to deploy  patience about the process is almost rampant when it comes to this stuff.

It's all about the finished product.

The questions I receive from some of these people reflect this. There is simply no effort to learn about the process or the expectations, etc., despite reference to a lot of resources on line- here and elsewhere.  A lot of these people simply see the pretty pictures of finished tanks, and are excited to receive a pack of "aquascpaing stuff" for their tank and create one. Quickly.

I cringe, because I know that failure to educate oneself before plunging forward adding botanicals to an established tank without consideration for what they do can be a disaster.

And with concerns about the growth of the hobby always brought up in gatherings and discussions, I think we owe it to ourselves to look at this more seriously; to think about the impact of this stuff on “big picture” a bit more.

Think about this:

Part of the reason why we celebrate the “evolution” of reef tanks is because the very act of working with one of these tanks IS an evolution. A process. A celebration of sensory delights.

A reef aquarium has a “cadence” of its own, which we can set up- but we must let nature dictate the timing and sequencing. It starts with an empty tank. Then, the mixing of saltwater, the addition of live rock and sand…The excitement of the initial placement of the rocks within the tank. The gradual “addition of the corals. The progressive development of biofilms and algae “patinas”. Ultimately, the growth of the corals and associated fauna. All part of a process which can’t be “hacked” or rushed.

Mother Nature is in control.

Whitby 01-01.jpg

Reefers who try to cheat, "hack", or rush the process often become "ex-reefers" really fast. Nature will simply kick your ass- and quickly.

Or, they wipe themselves off and start over again, perhaps better educated for having gone through the resulting disasters which ensue when patience is thrown out the window.

We need to stress the process as much as the “finished product” (whatever that might be, in this instance). I constantly talk about this, I know, but it’s really fundamental, IMHO. And it would be easy to describe my concern as very opinionated (well, it probably is…), and perhaps, a bit "asshole-ish" but if you look at it objectively, it’s worth considering.

We see people come into the hobby with some expectations of how they want their own aquarium to look, based on the tanks they see on forums and elsewhere. Human nature. Nothing wrong with having aspirational tanks to challenge us and inspire us. Yet, we really need to stress the aesthetics of the tank during the “evolution” as part of the function, too.

We should celebrate biofilms, fungal growth and the growth and die off of some plants. It’s the very essence of Amano’s interpretation of Wabi-Sabi- the celebration of the transient nature of existence.

We should.

But we don't always.

And I get it.

Not everyone appreciates the “zen-like” mindset I think is required to truly enjoy a botanical-style aquarium like this. Not everyone finds the biofilms and decomposing leaves on the substrate alluring. The fact that it closely replicates the natural ecosystems we love is of little consequence for the hobbyist who dislikes the heavy growth of various fauna and such, and wants a more “artistic” look to his/her tank, or a way to display his expensive "designer wood".

And that’s okay. 

Now, it's not all "doom and gloom" or negative energy. Really.

Most of us who play with botanical-style aquariums DO celebrate the process. The evolution. Savor the time it takes to see a tank mature in this fashion. We love new tanks, just starting the journey, because we know how they progress if they are left to do what Nature wants them to do. We understand as a community that it takes time.
It takes patience.
And we celebrate that the evolution is the part of the experience that we can savor most of all…because it’s continuous.


And we can reverse this unfortunate trend. 

As a hobby in general, we need to document and celebrate the process. Let's share more "early and 
unglamorous" progress pics of our tanks on Instagram. Let's celebrate the journey!

We need to have faith in Nature, and relish the constant change, slow and indifferent to our needs though it may be. We need to emphasis to new and old aquarists alike that, in this 24/7/365 social media-fueled world we’re in- that patience, time, and evolution are all part of the enjoyment of the aquarium hobby.

All of the aspects of the process are wonderful:

The smell of a brand new tank. The delight at the first new piece of wood or leaves added. The addition of the first fishes. All are experiences on a road -a journey- which will forever continue. As long as we allow the processes which enable it to do so. 

As long as we celebrate the journey.

The long-term health of our fishes- and the hobby itself- demand it.

Be kind to yourself. Be good to the hobby. Document. Share. Savor the process.

Stay patient. Stay generous. Stay honest. Stay curious.

And Stay Wet.

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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