"Walking away." A study in Mental Toughness.

We ask a lot of ourselves in the botanical method aquarium approach. We ask you to embrace a completely different aesthetic. We ask you to accept natural processes of fungal colonization, biofilm recruitment, and decomposition. We ask you to tolerate turbid water, and a deep brown tint.

It's a big "ask."

When you start a botanical method aquarium, you set it up in such a way as to create optimum conditions for a natural aquatic ecosystem to evolve. And once you set those conditions, you sort of "walk away" for a while. 


There is a point when you're like, "Oh, I really like this hardscape"- and you set in your initial botanicals...and then you sort of just "walk away" and let it evolve for a bit. 

A "jumping-off" stage, where our initial work is done, and Nature takes over for a while, breaking down the botanicals, allowing a "patina" of fungal growth and biofilm to cover some of the surfaces, removing the crisp, harsh, "new" feeling.  This is where Amano's concept of embracing the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi takes over. Accepting the transient nature of things and enjoying the beauty of the changes that occur over time.

And of course, once stuff starts "softening" or breaking down, it doesn't mean that your job is done, or that you're just a passive observer from that point on. Nope. It means that you're now in a cool phase of "passively managing" (and by "managing", I am emphasizing observation more than "intervening!") the aquarium.

I personally feel that THIS phase is the most exciting and rewarding part of the whole process!  And perhaps- one of the most "natural..".

A phase when you interact with your aquarium on a very different level; a place where you get to play a role in the direction your tank is going, without constantly interrupting the natural progression taking place within the little microcosm you created!

You're allowing Nature to do what it's done for eons in the wild aquatic habitats of the world; to build up an ecosystem, utilizing the materials present in the local environment. A transformation of sorts, from seemingly lifeless and barren to rich and brimming with life.

And of course, the natural "analog" of this phase is when those initial rains arrive and inundate formerly dry habitats, flooding forests and grasslands, transforming them into aquatic habitats once again. The sort of "pause" between storms gives life a chance to make those adjustments necessary during the transformation.

To get there, your aquarium has to "go through some things." You'll need to endure some aesthetic challenges, such as turbidity, the formation of stringy biofilms and fungal growths, and the decomposition of botanical materials.

If you're like me, and you utilize fine sediments in your tank as part of the substrate, one of the things you need to deal with is cloudy water for a week or two- right off the bat. This freaks a lot of people out. As aquairum hobbyists, we've been indoctrinated to expect crystal clear water, vibrantly clean sand, crisp green plants, and lots of happy fishes as the absolute barometer of success.

The idea of waiting for weeks or even months before you achieve some aesthetically different result is not only alien to most hobbyists, it seems downright antithetical to our hobby culture.

Yet, by enduring, waiting, observing, and persevering as your aquarium establishes and sorts itself out naturally, you're going to end up with a result that is far more satisfying, pleasing, and overall more successful, IMHO.

It takes a certain mental strength to walk away from your newly set up aquarium for a while and let it do its thing. By walking away, I don't mean simply ignoring your tank, of course. What I mean is that you're taking a more "hands off" approach and not constantly interfering as your aquarium goes through its earliest phases. 

You're not going to get a whole lot of sympathy from fellow aquarists while your tank goes through this phase. You'll receive a lot of "I told you so!" type comments, or rhetorical questions/statements, like, "Why would you do it that way in the first place? You had to know this would happen!" (as if this is the final product!) 

Vast swaths of the aquarium hobby are adherent to an attitude of impatience and a "joiner" mentality, eagerly trying to recreate what they see on Instagram. They simply won't understand why you've elected to take a path that takes you though what they would describe as a self-inflicted "aesthetic purgatory" for some protracted period of time! They'd rather be diligently scrubbing their "Ohiko Stone" or "Black Mountain Wood" or whatever is trendy, and enjoy their sterile interpretation of Nature.

Good for them.

You're on a different path.

You have a dramatically different goal, and employ a completely different mindset. You have something that they utterly lack- wether they care to say it or not- patience...and a certain mental toughness. These are "soft skills" in the aquairum hobby that no one really likes to talk about, other than to do the obligatory "lip service" thing about employing patience in some superficial manner. ("Oh, you need to be really patient to get your Iwagumi layout just right...").

We're talking about deploying patience as your miniature closed ecosystem establishes itself in your aquarium! That's on a totally different level, and requires real patience, not buzzword, "Insta-quote ready" bullshit.

DO you have it? Do you want it?

It's okay of you don't; not everyone feels it's of value. A lot of people don't share your enthusiasm for the process, or a desire to go through a slower period of tank establishment. It's okay. A lot of these people will offer you "fixes" for your "problem"- because that's how they see anything which deviates from the "norm" which they so fervently adhere to. Some will out right trash you for your "ignorance."

And, when they're busy shitting on what you're doing because it's "not what everyone who's 'successful' does", I sort of think that it's time to acquire this kind of patience, don't you? If for no other reason than to demonstrate that there is more than one path to "success" in the hobby. And besides, you're a hell of a lot more intrigued by what Nature does with natural materials than you are with the work that some other hobbyist does, right?

Watching a display aquarium evolve and sort of "find itself" naturally over time is proving to be one of the most enjoyable discoveries I've made in the hobby in decades. By simply following established maintenance routines, and monitoring what's occurring in the tank, as opposed to constantly trying to "pre-empt" problems, I've had more stability, more growth...more success than ever before.

Accepting that there is most definitely a "dance" in our aquariums, and becoming an "active monitor" instead of an "active intervener" has added a new and rewarding aspect to my love of the hobby.

I think that it not only makes you a more engaged hobbyist, it gives you a remarkable appreciation for the long term evolution of an aquarium; an appreciation for the pace by which Nature operates, and the direction which your aquarium goes.

It all starts with an idea...and a little bit of a "waiting game..." and a belief in Nature; a trust in the natural processes which have guided our planet and its life forms for eons. 

The appreciation of this process is a victory, in and of itself, isn't it? The journey- the process- is every bit as enjoyable as the destination, I should think.

It just requires a little mental toughness...and patience.

Stay tough. Stay engaged. Stay creative. Stay patient...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics


Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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