At some point, as a hobbyist, we all have to make that tough decision.
The one where we may not have all of the information that we think we need to have in order to reach what we've always regarded as a "good one." The one that makes us doubt our experience, judgment, or discipline. The one that may cause us to go out of our comfort zone. Way out. The one that requires the larger tank, the more expensive lighting system, the larger fish, the wild-caught one instead of the domesticated one...The one that requires us to embark on a path that everyone says is the tricky or "wrong", radical one, even though everything that we know tells us it's the right one to take...
That point of departure from the tried and true is scary, invigorating, and often fraught with peril. Turning into the wid. Headed out to the uncharted waters, if only metaphorically. However, by treading outside of that well-trodden "mainstream" procedure or practice, we are not only casting off the "shackles" of "conventional aquarium wisdom", we're showing ourselves the confidence that we have in our own abilities. And maybe, just maybe, we're advancing the art and science of aquarium keeping.
This is a big deal.
A lot of you have just created a botanical-style aquarium for the first time. You've had to break the mindset that said "An aquarium needs to have crystal clear blue-white water and no debris, biofilms, algae or other types of materials in its substrate, etc., etc."
You know, the one that says that your aquarium needs to follow the same path that all of the 17,567,287 aquariums that came before yours did.
Sometimes, our experiences start out rough, and the doubts begin to knock at the door. "See, I told you that it wouldn't work!"
You've heard that.
I've heard that.
I remember the first few botanical-style blackwater tanks I built would hit that phase early on when biofilms began to appear, and I'd hear my friends telling me, "Yeah, your tank is going to turn into a mess. Told you that you can't put that stuff in there."
I remember telling myself that this is what I knew was going to happen. I knew how biofilms appear on "undefended" surfaces, and that they are essentially harmless bacteria exploiting a favorable environment. I knew that fungi appear as they help break down leaves and botanicals. I knew that these are perfectly natural occurrences, and that they typically are transitory and self-limiting. Normal for this type of aquarium approach. I knew that they would go away, but I also knew that there would be a period of time when the tank might look like a big pool of yuck.
To reassure myself, I would stare for hours at underwater photos taken by guys like Takashi Amano and Ivan Mikolji in the Amazon region, showing decaying leaves, biofilms,and fungi all over the leaf litter. I'd read the studies by researchers like Henderson and Walker, detailing the dynamics of leaf litter zones and how productive and unique they were. I'd pour over my water quality tests, confirming for myself that everything was okay. And of course I would watch my fishes for any signs of distress...
I knew that this type of environment could be replicated in the aquarium successfully. I realized that it would take understanding, trial and error, and acceptance that the aquariums I build would look fundamentally different than anything I had experienced before. I knew I might face criticism, scrutiny, and even downright condemnation from some quarters for daring to do something different, and then for labeling what most found totally distasteful as "a routine part of the process."
When beautiful aquariums began to emerge, it suddenly seemed all worth it. I mean, it was all along. It's just that it became a lot more tangible. More real. Even more satisfying.
Like anyone who ever took a slightly different path on the way to hobby enjoyment and adventure, I weighed the risks, took the leap, and went for it. I did it in a very visible, one, and highly interactive way, thanks to social media. I believed in the process- the concept- so much, and found it so engaging that I decided to build a company around it. I sold my interest in one of the most successful coral propagation businesses in the US to pursue my passion...
And it was scary. Especially when I began selling the materials that I carefully sourced and worked with over the years to other hobbyists. Then it became really real. People were adding this stuff to their tanks.
I knew some people would try adding stuff to established tank without following my cautions and advice to prepare botanicals, or go slowly, and that the ensuing disaster or loss of fishes would be blamed on me and my product. I knew that some people would not read all of my advice and information about what to expect- biofilms and such, and would misconstrue this temporary phase as the ending- a disaster- and that the idea couldn't work. They'd probably blame me for their failures.
Years of doing things slightly differently, being an aquatic speaker and writer, and the time I spent in the coral propagation trade sort of toughened me, steeled my resolve to do things that I knew were right, and to not fear critics.
I needed to understand. To educate. To share. More than ever.
I knew that I had to "walk the walk." I had to explain by showing my tanks, my work, and giving fellow hobbyists the information, advice, and support they needed in order to confidently set out on their own foray into this interesting hobby path.
I'm no hero. Not trying to portray myself as a visionary.
The point of sharing my personal experience is to show you that trying new stuff in the hobby does carry risk, fear, and challenge, but that you can and will persevere if you believe. If you push through. IF you don't fear setbacks, issues, criticisms from naysayers. You have to try. In my case, the the idea of throwing various botanical items into aquariums is not my invention. It's not a totally new thing. People have done what I've done before. Maybe not as obsessively or thoroughly presented (and maybe they haven't built a business around the idea!), but it's been done many, many times.
Yet, it was still a very, very "fringe" thing, looked upon more as an oddity than a technique by many in the aquarium world. Subject to a lot of criticism and questions. Now, after just a a year since Tannin launched, we've amassed a considerable body of work from fellow adventurers around the world, who have jumped in and decided to give the "botanical-style" aquarium a go, and it's becoming quite a global movement.
There is still a ton to learn. New discoveries to make. Corrections to the practices we employ. Improvements of all sorts. Mistakes will be made. Disasters will happen. Fish will be lost in the process, unfortunately. The price of progress, or of trying new ideas, new paths, is an expensive, risky, and sometimes discouraging one.
However, it's also invigorating, fascinating, educational, often humbling, yet almost always amazing!
So, when you're considering trying that slightly unorthodox step, that new crazy idea to get that tough fish to breed, or even starting an aquatics business- just be true to yourself. Push forward, brush aside fear...and turn into the wind.
Stay bold. Stay excited. Stay unique.
And Stay Wet.