Radical departures. Interpretations of Nature. Mandatory mental shifts.

Part of being the "point man" for a company and for a movement that fosters a bit of an alternative, perhaps even rebellious spin on the way we keep and look at aquariums is that you find yourself on the receiving end of occasional "incoming fire" from those who feel your ideas somehow diminish or disparage their view of how things should be in the hobby.

It's part of the game, and I've long ago stopped taking this stuff personally, or even caring, to be quite frank. However, the important thing for me is to always look for a "teaching moment" or other opportunity when those criticisms come my way. Very altruistic of me, I know...😆

It never typically works out quite like that, but it's worth a shot, right?

And, I freely admit, as someone who fancies himself a writer, it's a bit tough to keep from going down the proverbial "rabbit hole" when addressing this stuff and sounding like a total ass...but I try!

The "concerns" from those who don't follow the work and ideas of our community, haven't studied the 700 or so blogs/podcasts we've put out, researched, or even looked at some of the photos of wild aquatic habitats we feature always center on the very two things that we spend the most mental "capital" on in our world: The look and function.

Now, the criticisms generally start with the "look."

I know that much love in modern aquascaping is given to things like "surgical cleanliness", manicured plants, carefully symmetrical rockwork, proportion, negative space, etc. Many of the most breathtaking contest 'scapes adeptly embrace this concept.

That's awesome. It's all well and good...

Nature, other hand, couldn't give a flying f-ck about that.

And neither should you. 


Yeah. It's true, though.

Yesterday I had a rather one-sided "discussion" (actually, it was mostly him attacking) with a "fanboy" of a certain style of aquarium keeping, who took a tremendous amount of pleasure in telling me that our interpretation of Nature and our embrace of decomposing leaves, biofilms, detritus, and such is a (and I quote) "...setback for the hobby of aquascaping..." (which, those of you who know me and my desire to provoke reactions, understand that I absolutely loved hearing!) and that "it's not possible to capture Nature" with our approach... (an ignorant, almost beyond stupid POV. I mean, WTF does "capture Nature" mean? Word salad.)

I was like, "C'mon, dude. Really? It's 2020 and we're still at it?"

Oh, you know where this is going today ...

I mean, sure...

For everyone's benefit, I'll sort of share my opinions on this stuff yet again. Perhaps YOU might find it useful when "questioned" by one of these friendly, open-minded folks!

You've heard me say this a million times before:

NEWS FLASH: What we proffer-our interpretation of Nature- is not everyone's idea of a dreamy aquarium.

Frankly, it puts off some people. It scares the living shit out of others. And many just don't understand. They can't get past brown, soupy water and all of the good stuff that goes with it. IMHO, they've been sort of "programmed" by the world of perfectly clean sand, bright lighting, rocks you could eat off of, and wood that, on day 45,  looks as sterile as they day it was submerged. Oh, wait...Don't those guys usually break down their tanks by day 45?😆

("C'mon, Fellman, THAT was just mean!")

It's okay. I get it. We all get it.

Yet, some of the adherents to this rigid interpretation of Nature love to "call me" on this for some weird reason to "tamp down" our ideas just a bit, I suppose.

Reality check, guys.

What you do is cool. I dig it. Seriously. it's rad. Do YOU, and keep sharing your fine work.


Stop trashing on what you don't really understand.

You need to understand that Nature is really not always clean and tidy. In fact- most of the time, it isn't. And if you buy into the head-scratching hobby narrative that every pristine "high-concept" contest aquarium is somehow what Nature "looks like", you're simply fooling yourself. Sure, there are some really clear, sparkling habitats out there in the world, but they represent the exception, really.

And I'll go out on a limb and suggest that none of them have tidy rows of symmetrically trimmed, color- balanced plants, or neatly arranged rocks of related size and proportion.

Talking tough here, but I can't stress this enough.If you really want to understand the natural aquatic habitats of our fishes, some of you have to get out of the idealized aquascaping mindset for a bit and stop dissing everything that doesn't fit your idea of the way the world should be, and just accept the realities which Nature presents...

I am actually surprised we still get the occasional DM like this.

So I must push back a bit.

I am not at all joking when I tell you that I'd take an aquarium that can faithfully replicate the scenes above or below in form and function over any IAPLC "Grand champion's" aquarium. Like, any day of the week.

With zero hesitation at all.


Tinted, turbid water. Sediment, biofilm. Decomposing botanical materials. Soil. A random scattering of branches covered in fungal growth.

To me, it's freaking gorgeous. Beyond anything I've ever seen in any contest anywhere on planet Earth.

Unfiltered Nature.

Okay, I'm not mentioning this to brag about how our avant-garde love of dirty, often chaotic-looking aquariums makes us cooler than the glass pipe and stupidly-named aquascaping stone crowd, or something like that. 😆 (well, possibly, but..)

However, I want you to understand the degree to which we at Tannin Aquatics love the concept of Nature in it's most compelling form, and how strongly we feel that we as a global community of hobbyists need to look beyond what's regularly presented to us as a "natural aquarium" and really give this stuff some thought. We CAN and SHOULD interpret natural aquatic features more literally in our aquairums.

Now, not all of Nature requires us to make extreme aesthetic preference shifts in order to love it.

Well, maybe not all. A lot of it, though.

Let's look at some interesting aquatic features from Nature which push us out of our collective hobby comfort zone.  Let's try to think why we hesitate to replicate them, and what to expect when we do.

We could all appreciate this, I think.

One concept that critics seem to delight in leveling against those of us who play with botanical-style aquariums is our love of letting Nature take an "active role" in our aquariums...

Embracing a certain degree of "randomness" in our aquariums. They call it "sloppy" or "undisciplined."


In general, it helps to ask questions about why things look the way they do in Nature. What creates the aggregations of wood, soils, leaves, etc. that we as a hobby spend so much effort and energy trying to wrap our heads around? Could it be that factors like current, weather events, and wind distribute materials the way they do for a reason? Could our fishes benefit from replicating this dynamic in our aquariums?

And, is there not incredible beauty in that apparent "randomness?"

Now, there are some ideas that are significant departures from what you'll normally see, yet are not radical enough to discourage you from accepting some different aesthetics and functions in the aquarium...

Example: There are a lot of aquatic habitats in Nature which are filled with tangles of terrestrial plant roots, emergent vegetation, fallen  branches, etc., which virtually fill small bodies of water completely.

These types of habitats are unique; they attract a large quantities of smaller fishes to the protection of their vast matrix of structures. Submerged fallen tree branches or roots of marginal terrestrial plants provide a large surface area upon which algae, biofilm, and fungal growth occurs. This, in turn, attracts higher life forms, like crustaceans and aquatic insects.

And yeah- that brings our friends, the fishes- to the party.

These are incredible habitats for fishes.

Can't we replicate such aquatic features in the aquarium?

Of course we can!

This idea is a fantastic expression of "functional aesthetics." It's a package that is a bit different than the way we would normally present an aquarium. We hesitate to densely pack an aquarium like this, don't we?

Why do you think this is?

I think that we hesitate, because- quite frankly- having a large mass of tangled branches or roots and their associated leaves and detritus in the cozy confines of an aquarium tends to limit the number, size, and swimming area of fishes, right?

Sure, it does...

On the other hand, I think that there is something oddly compelling, intricate, and just beautiful about complex, spatially "full" hardscapes. And when you take into account that these are actually very realistic, entirely functional representations of certain natural habitats, it becomes all the more interesting!

What can you expect when you execute something like this in the aquarium?

Well, for on thing, it WILL take up a fair amount of space within the tank. Depending upon the type of materials that you use (driftwood, roots. twigs, or branches), you will, of course, displace varying amounts of water. So, for example, if you tend to use a lighter, more "diffuse" material, such as Melastoma Root, or the material that we call "Tangle Branch Wood", you'll displace less water from the aquarium than you would if you use materials like Manzanita or other "denser" types of wood.

It's really up to you in terms of the effect of course.

However, a dense matrix of material like roots will recruit biofilms after a relatively short period of time. This stuff will likely "ebb and flow", largely dissipating after a relatively short period of time. However, there are no guarantees- and you WILL, 100% see this stuff on the surfaces at some point. What you choose to do is up to you. You can wait it out, manually remove it with siphon snd oft brash, etc.

Keep in mind that this biofilm growth is precisely what happens in Nature in densely-packed aquatic systems with fair amount of nutrients, sediment, and not a significant volume of of flow.  Stuff settles on the branches, and further fuels biofilm growth. It's a rich, highly productive "micro habitat" that hosts an astonishing amount of life.

Another potential problem with this kind of configuration in the aquarium is that you'll have to decide for yourself just how hard to push the lighting over the tank. Too much, and you'll grow a big ol' batch of stringy, gooey algae. You have to play with it- especially if your purpose for lighting the tank is aesthetic, as opposed to facilitating plant growth.

I know, because I purposely pushed it to the limit in one of the several  iterations of my "Tucano Tangle" aquarium, blasting the shit out of the tank to see exactly what would happen..And, well, it was a fairly predictable result! 

Light+nutrient+limited water movement= algae.


On the other hand, with the right balance of light, fishes, and water movement, you can achieve beautiful results with a dense matrix of wood or roots.

Ideas like this require multiple mental shifts and an acceptance that you may not be completely in control of the whole game.

Uncomfortable with this idea?

I understand.

It's hardly "revolutionary" or crazy...Yet, to attempt to replicate one of these complex natural habitats in the aquarium requires us to look ourselves in the mirror and see if we're up to the challenges (aesthetic and otherwise).

Had enough of this. Or thirsty for more?

I submit to you the idea of turbid, sediment-filled tanks, where dead branchy materials, decomposing leaves, twigs, biofilms, clays, soil and silt play...

 This type of feature really pushes us out of our comfort zone.

You have 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.

Could you handle this?

What's the upside to a tank like this?

Well, for one thing, you have the benefit of a substrate which actively leaches minerals, organic materials, and other compounds into the aquarium.  It also fosters  the growth and proliferation of fungi, bacteria, and microorganisms which not only facilitate processing of dissolved organics, but serve as a supplemental food sources for our fishes.

This is extremely similar to the benefits such areas of flooded forest floors and such provide in Nature.

It's a very different type of "aesthetic beauty" than we are used to. It's an elegant, remarkably complex microhabitat which is host to an enormous variety of life forms.  And it's a radical departure from our normal interpretation of how a tank should look. It challenges us, not only aesthetically- it challenges us to appreciate the function it can provide if we let it.

"Functional aesthetics." Again.

Suffice it to say, there are NO rules in 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.

We are about the preservation of biofilms, decomposition, and that "patina" of biocover that exists when terrestrial materials contact water. 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." An appreciation of the ephemeral, the transitional. 

It makes sense to me. 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 a decade.

Maybe it's time to look at Nature as an inspiration again- but to look at Nature as it exists- not trying to sanitize it; clean it up to meet our expectations of what an aquarium is "supposed to look like."

And by the same token, also understanding that not every hobbyist wants to-or can-go to the other extreme-trying to validate every twig, rock, and plant in a given habitat, as if we're being "scored" by some higher power- a universal "quality assurance team"- which must certify that each and every rock and branch is, indeed from the Rio Manacapuru, for example, or your work is just some sort of travesty.

At the end of the day, we all should do what we love. That's a given. 

However, we should also stop convincing ourselves that what we do is the only way to achieve a successful, beautiful aquarium. There is much we can learn from each other. And much we can learn from Nature- which can help us create more successful aquariums.

Blurring the lines between Nature and the aquarium, from an aesthetic sense, at the very least- and in many respects, from a "functional" sense as well, proves just how far hobbyists have come...how good you are at what you do.

What an incredible dynamic!

Those who profess loudly that their highly stylized interpretation of Nature is somehow a "better" way to manage an aquarium than a system which fosters the processes (and as a collateral "benefit"- the look) of Nature in a more realistic way should take a deep breath and study wild aquatic habitats "holistically."

It will only make their works better and even more meaningful. 

Learning how natural habitats work, and what outside pressures they face from human intervention helps us to appreciate, understand, and protect them for future generations to enjoy.

At the end of the day, I admit that our approach is less easily digested than many other approaches. Yet, I believe that there is an elegance, an educational component, and a beauty that botanical-style aquariums can deliver like no other.

Continue to take pride in what you do.

Don't let dogma and the prevailing mindset of "what's cool" distract you from doing what you love and believe in. Embrace, enjoy, and accept the thoughts, attitudes, and works of others, while constantly questioning and striving to do what moves you.

Question, observe, and query those who do things differently than you do. However, don't just levy criticism on something you don't understand because it differs radically than what you love so much.

Find what makes your heart sing, and do it. Share it with the world. Educate. Listen. Enjoy.

You'll never be "wrong."

Stay open-minded. Stay creative. Stay bold. Stay curious. Stay diligent...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


4 Responses

Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

December 24, 2019


Glad you’re working on a botanical-style tank..I think that once people get a feel for the vibe of the tank, they’ll be as intrigued as you are…particularly those with no aquarium experience, and therefore, a “bias” towards what the world “tells” hem an aquarium “should look like…”



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman

December 24, 2019

Kris- Fabulous observation and insights. I think you’re spot on…It IS a reflection of culture and perhaps- as you surmise- a human desire for everything to be orderly and perfect- in an increasingly complex and disorganized world. I agree with you about those “jungle tanks!”, too! Brilliant observation on Dante!

Kris Haggblom
Kris Haggblom

December 23, 2019

Hey Scott -
Just a quick – maybe philosophical – observation.
I think many of these “You’re doing it wrong” comments are anchored in today’s flash culture. Something, whatever it is – a movie, a book, art, an aquarium – needs to be grasped immediately or it is dismissed: “Don’t make me think.” The disdain for the dirty, the real world is reflected in the escape into a highly structured virtual reality. The problem with virtual reality, is that it will always be missing something non-virtual – that is, real. I also enjoy the sculpted beauty of a well presented aquascape, but that missing piece – the reality of the scene – eventually leads to boredom. I think that is why those tanks never last – trim the plants, polish the windows, mow the lawn, paint the house. It’s a lot cheaper to redo the tank than remodel the house.
I would rather get lost in the jungle of my “swamp” tanks. There is always a surprise, always something happening.
It’s the difference between an Instagram Poet and Dante – one may be oohed and ahhed over this week, the other will haunt you for the rest of your life.
As you say: Stay wet!

Anthony Wright
Anthony Wright

December 23, 2019

Interesting read Scott, thanks. I’m in the process of setting up a new tank ready to ‘let go’ and let it evolve and I just love it so am showing off to people and some are a bit weirded out by how it looks, lol :)

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