The other day, I saw a leaf fall off one of the mangroves in my brackish water aquarium, and it landed perfectly on the substrate, right near a mangrove root and a little pile of decomposed mangrove leaves. You know, "detritus." And, rather than freak out (which I'm NOT prone to doing about such things, btw), I thought to myself, "Damn, that looks pretty natural! And gorgeous"
I wonder how many other people consider something like that beautiful. Or even "tolerable."
As someone who considers himself a fan of unique aquairums, and aficionado of fishes, and a consumer of aquascaping content, I am always eager to see the work being done by hobbyists worldwide. It's neat to see the amazing creativity that is applied towards creating unique aquarium displays.
Let's be honest, "trends" (yuck, I really hate that word, but it applies) emerge over time. Example? The latest one is for pieces of wood to break the waterline of the aquarium. I mean, this is not exactly a revolutionary idea, but it's just sort of become a "thing" of late in the aquascaping world. I mean, it's not like it's something we saw quite a few years ago- at least not all that often.
And when I see tank after tank after tank on Instagram or wherever, with the driftwood boldly projecting out above the waterline, looking for all the world like a deer's antlers ('cause that's how people seem to arrange their wood these days), I start wondering how stuff like this becomes "a thing" in the first place? I mean, one guy does it, people freak, and it's on "The 'Gram"...and next thing you know, three other people feel that they have "premission" to try it because the famous guy did, and...well...Yeah.
We're liberated from the "waterline limitation.."
Next trend...all "rock and rubble scapes."
I see it. I'm calling it here. More rock. Just you watch. Seriously. I see the signs. Give it three months. Four, tops.
If I'm wrong, you can scold me then.
And look, the executions are brilliant in most cases. Really artistic. Really well done. And...well...entirely imitative of each other. After you've seen the first 47 of them, the other 163 just sort of look...well- the same.
Nothing wrong with that. It's just interesting to me what catches the eye of the aquarium world nowadays. What the inspirations are.
How about Nature?
Outside of the super-hardcore biotope aquarium crowd, we see virtually no incorporation of what a natural aquatic habitat really looks like in the world of "trendy aquascaping" (Now I"m just calling it as I see it.). Arranging rocks like the Grand Canyon or whatever is NOT incorporating the natural aquatic habitat into the 'scape. Let's not fool ourselves. Being inspired by a mountain range or alpine forest, and modeling the 'scape after these "scenes"- gorgeous though they are- cannot really be called a representation of a natural aquatic habitat.
And that's okay. Again, it's art. It's interpretation. And it's typically beautiful.
But it's not the "beauty of Nature" that we see in these scapes. Or, more properly- the beauty of a natural aquatic habitat. And in a world that seems to be constantly searching for the next big thing to inspire, there seems to be an almost blatant disregard for the very thing that is the ULTIMATE source of great ideas: Nature, and the aquatic habitats she creates.
Why is this?
What is it that makes these hyper-talented artists- cause that's what they are- resistant or, as one of my friends says, afraid- to simply look at a stream, a pond, a flooded forest, a vernal pool- whatever- and just replicate or draw inspiration from that?
Is it because "it's already been done" (by Nature, lol)?
I wish I knew.
If I had 1/100th of the talent of some of these people, I'd be causing an aquascaping revolution. Seriously. Or at the very least, I'd be pissing off a lot of contest fanatics! I'd be replicating shit like vernal pools, tracks in the African rain forest, marginal rainforest streams in Borneo, Congolese river banks, Igarape in Brazil, rice paddies in Myanmar, etc., etc., etc.
I mean, I try, but I admit, I simply don't have the artistic talent of some of these guys. ("jealous much, Fellman?").
I do have an eye for the function and aesthetics of these habitats, and a fascination to do more than just create a static natural scene. I want to replicate the actual habitat, in all of its "natural-ness"- that means, with tinted water, turbidity, detritus, decomposing leaves, root tangles, muddy substrates, etc.
And I think that a lot fo you do, too. I've seen some works that merge art and Nature beautifully, and in an inspiring way.
And it doesn't have to be pretentious, either. You know- the whole "biotope contest- this has-to-be-100%-precise-to-be-cool" thing: "The Japurá River- late Spring, 32km from Manaus at low water level.." You've seen that stuff. It's cool, but it's specific enough to turn a lot of people off, scare casual hobbyists away, or just make others laugh a bit.
It just has to be inspired by the natural habitats in form and function.
I just think that would be so cool! Imagine if we merge the obsession of the biotopes with the artistic passion of the competition aquascaper, and the diligence of a breeder.
Hey, it's possible. I mean, that's you guys, right?
What if we simply looked at the millions of possibilities that Nature provides if we look at the amazing scenes that are effortlessly created by her processes. Wouldn't attempting to replicate the form and function of such a system in the aquarium be at least as challenging, beautiful, and satisfying as creating an underwater "beach theme" or sunken "Grand Canyon?"
After the initial "Ohmigod, the sand isn't perfectly white!" and, "Isn't that...a decomposing leaf?" or..."Holy #$%&! Those are random twigs covered in biofilm..what the f----?"- would there be an effort to consider why these things were present in the 'scape, and how they truly represent Nature as she exists? Any desire to research the wild habitat that the tank was purported to replicate, and understand the complex interactions between the fishes and their environment?
Imagine what it would do to one of those pretentious contests if someone entered an aquarium that was a functional and aesthetic representation of a muddy African vernal pool or Pantanal watercourse, choked with marginal vegetation, clays, and an appropriate mix of fishes. One that has been up and functioning for a few months or longer.
One that might have had some challenges beyond "that one rock that keeps slipping out of place..." One that requires us to utilize natural materials in a manner which affects their biological function and influences the environment in ways not previously considered. One that the aquarist doesn't have to hold up a blow dryer over the tank to make ripples for "special effects." One that shows a functional represntation of a specialized aquatic habitat- with all of it's delightful "imperfection" that makes it so...perfect!
Isn't that what a "natural aquarium" is? Isn't that what even the great Takashi Amano himself talked about for so long, all those years ago? An idea seminal to his approach, yet an idea that was somehow lost in the mists of time, and in the frenzied race for the perfect "Middle Earth" diorama scape?
Imagine aquaecapes inspired exclusively by the natural aquatic habitats of the world, instead of last month's "tank of the month." One that has it's aesthetics dictated as much by how it functions as it does by the way the materials are arranged.
Nature provides quite the "look book", with an agenda and challenge all her own. One that forces us to go beyond just the superficial "look" and to see how to create function and let go of some of the preconceived notions we have about what we think things should be like...one that forces us to accept how they are.
And to be awed. And inspired in a different way.
A promise to you: At Tannin, we're going to double down on Nature this year.
With more inspiration, more materials, and more ideas to help you create the functional aesthetics of the earth's unique natural aquatic habitats. Sure, there may be some cool 'scapes to inspire you. There will definitely be more imagery of the natural habitats. And there will definitely be some challenges to move past what passes as a mere trend.
Here's to Nature.
And to YOU.
Stay inspired. Stay creative. Stay resourceful. Stay diligent. Stay awed...
And Stay Wet.