What Nature does...

First off, before we get too far into this- I want to make it clear that I'm not angry. I'm not writing this piece to be a jerk. I'm not trying to pass judgement on the hobby, even though it will likely come across that way.

It's that I was drawn into a discussion a few days back that featured a beautiful, so-called "Nature Aquarium"-style tank. It was truly worthy of admiration. Definitely a fine example of a well thought-out, nicely executed tank. It was an interesting discussion, featuring different opinions and views, too.

However, what made things take a sort of dark turning my mind was when it was vigorously asserted and mentioned ad nauseam that the tank was (and I quote literally) "...a perfect representation of Nature", with a full-throated homage to Mr. Amano, along with lots of elegant, poetic, haiku-like quotes attributed to him and his disciples, about "standing with Nature" and stuff like that.

I mean, cool. 

Yet, it became a full-on fanboy fest from that point.

Objectivity was thrown out the window. Bold, prosaic-sounding statements were made. It turned into a celebration of Mr. Amano, which was really neat, and an homage to how the tank in question captured the essence of his work..Which it likely did. I'm a fan of Mr. Amano's amazing works, too, so I can appreciate.

Where I personally lost my shit, though, was when the assertion was made repeatedly that this highly- stylized, heavily "design-centric" aquarium was, "...the ultimate expression of Nature!" and that it "...looks just like an Amazon basin stream does." (it most certainly did not) And that this tank, "...communicates how Nature really works in a better way than virtually any other aquarium we've seen..." (again, I'm quoting literally)

Yeah. "Ultimate" really got to me somehow.

I mean, look- everyone has an opinion. I totally get that.

The tank was beautiful, objectively. No disputing that.

However, when a perfectly-ratioed, overtly color-coordinated, highly artistic, "lab-sterile" display is called the perfect representation of how Nature looks, we have a bit of a problem.

We're deluding ourselves, IMHO.

In the aquarium hobby, we tend to convince ourselves of a lot of things, IMHO.

As I've argued before, one of the things that we seem to buy into a lot are that our  aquariums are perfect replications of Nature.

They're not.

Representations of aspects of Nature, sure.

Replications? Likely, not.

I'll come out and say it: I believe that the words "Nature" or "natural" are probably the most over-used ones in the aquarium hobby. I've heard it argued-and am inclined to agree at times- that the words almost have no meaning in our hobby at this point, IMHO, because they've been so over-used, mis-applied, and straight-up "dumbed down" over the years by hobbyists, authors, and brands. 

Nature is not a "style."  

It's defined as "...the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations."

Okay, cool. 

Nature is ubiquitous. Unavoidable. Nature is...well- everything.

Nature- or more specifically, natural processes, find their way into every aspect of our existence. In the aquarium hobby, natural processes control the success or failure of our tanks. They influence our techniques, and react to our actions. This may sound mean or harsh, but Nature couldn't give a fuck about your ideas and how you want to do them.

Yeah. Ouch.

She will react to what you do or don't do. 

But don't take it personally.

It's not about you. Or your fancy gear, your expensive "designer" wood, the brand you support, or the philosophy you follow on aquarium keeping. 

She doesn't "judge."

She determines. She reacts.

She works with whatever you give her; applies her processes to it, and determines how it will evolve and grow.

It's about process...and how what you're doing either works with or against Hers. 

NEWS FLASH: Your sexy, pristine-looking "Frodo Stone"-laden Iwagumi tank is not..well...natural. Not in the sense that it was created by Nature. Not in the sense that it represents accurately a specific wild aquatic habitat in its form, or maybe  its function. Nature generally doesn't assemble or curate rocks and plants in a specific, perfectly-ratioed, color-balanced design, with crystal-clear water endnote a speck of algae to be seen.

Now, it does incorporate some natural materials and follow some natural processes. But Nature didn't create it. You did. It's an artificially constructed, human-conceived art piece, which incorporates some aspects of Nature in its execution.

And that's just fine. It's gorgeous, and you can pat yourself on the back for bringing something beautiful into the world. 

Yet, not "natural" in the sense that Nature, Herself created it.

And look, there are plenty of super crystal-clear, pristine-looking aquatic habitats in Nature. However, they pretty much never have aggregations of perfectly proportioned rocks, or impeccably manicured plants.

So an aquarium which has that sort of look may encompass some aspects of the appearances or functions of Nature, but it certainly is not "natural"- especially not in the sense that it perfectly and accurately recreates a natural aquatic habitat.

Neither is your earthy, botanical-style aquarium, with all of its decomposing leaves, biofilms, tinted water, and fungal growth. It may embrace and accept more natural processes and functions than many other aquarium approaches- but Nature didn't create it. You did. Nature took the materials that were-placed in the tank, and applied Her processes of decomposition, bacterial growth, etc. to what you did. You simply assembled the stuff, and (thankfully) got out of the way to let Nature do Her work.

Closer, but it's still an artificial assemblage of natural materials.

And the biotope aquariums that we see splashed all over social media? They do an amazing job. I'm a huge fan, but really, if relook at them objectively, they're more about the look of Nature than the functions. They capture the essence or superficial  aspects of natural aquatic habitats way better than many approaches, but still, they're largely "aesthetics forward" IMHO.

Okay, sounds like I'm completely shitting on everything in the hobby, right?

NO. I'm clarifying.

And it's perfectly fine that we all enjoy our tanks however we want to. It's just that I think we need to be a bit more realistic about how we view our work, and present it to the hobby and others. It kind of goes back to that responsibility thing that we have to understand how what we present impacts other hobbyists and the uninformed public alike.

Yes, this is my opinion, but I feel that I have a responsibility to call bullshit on stuff that seems way out of touch with reality.

And it's not all negative.

Yeah, this message isn't intended to be negative, although it might come across that way. And it's not intended to be a chest-beating tirade about how my views on aquariums are best, and the only ones worth accepting.


It's intended to give aquarium hobby culture a metaphorical "whack upside the head" to stop deluding ourselves into thinking that everything we do is a perfect encapsulation of Nature.

It's not.

And that's perfectly okay, too.

The important thing is to draw the distinction between us incorporating elements of Nature in our aquariums, and the way Nature works with all of the elements at Her disposal.

"Natural" is defined as, "existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind."

See the part about "...not made or caused by humankind?"

Yeah, that's the key.

We create aquariums which incorporate many aspects of Nature. In some cases, they are assembled in a manner which seeks to replicate many aspects of Nature in both form and function.

However, WE did them. Nature INSPIRED us.

How we choose to work WITH natural processes, as opposed to push back against them- is our choice. 

Sure, every aquarium embraces Nature in some ways- we're reliant on the nitrogen cycle, etc. Some, like the botanical-style aquarium, incorporate an understanding and acceptance of natural functions (like decomposition,etc.) as part of the process. A little more..."natural.."

But still not "Nature."


Because it was "...made or caused by humankind..."

Again, that's okay!

I'm beating the proverbial "dead horse" here, I know.

Look, all I'm saying is that we, as hobbyists, need to be a little more thoughtful when we toss that word, "Nature" around. Because...

Let's say that our work captures the attention of non-hobbyists...the kind who just skim YouTube or whatever. And let's say that they see an "Iwagumi" or a "diorama-style" tank, and see the drooling fanboy comments extolling the tank as "looking just like a natural habitat"- the kind of comments we see a lot.

And let's just say that one of these casual observers has the opportunity to see a real wild habitat. Suddenly, their reference point is all messed up. They're convinced that The Amazon, for example, is just this "brown, dirty mess" and is obviously polluted- or in need of remediation! Build that dam, rather than keep that "polluted" stream flowing! 

Now, sure, that's likely the other extreme, but it's within the realm of possibility, right?

We, as a hobby, need to wake up a bit, IMHO.

To take a look at what a real wild tropical aquatic habitat looks like. Not all of them are brown, turbid places, of course. Some ARE crystal clear, with beautiful stands of aquatic plants. Some are just cloudy water, rocks, and tons of fishes. Some are just sand. Some are muddy expanses. But I'm willing to bet that they're all a little different than what some hobbyists would think of when they hear the word, "Nature." 

And, as I've said like 1,000 times here in "The Tint", I'm not going to delude myself into believing that what we espouse here is the ultimate form of "natural" aquarium.

It isn't.

It's just a different approach that embraces different aspects of Nature. Perhaps in a way that is "deeper" and more consequential than another approaches. I think the biggest difference is our crowd- YOU- who understand this important distinction.

You get it.

We need to keep calling attention to this concept and the importance of understanding what we do in the aquarium hobby, and its relationship with Nature and natural processes.

Education is a huge component of the hobby, and spreading bad information is really easy to do nowadays. We need to go beyond glorifying the most superficial aspects of things.

Let's just keep holding ourselves to higher standards.Going deeper.

Let's be more accurate. Let's call out B.S. when we see it. Let's make the effort to not automatically accept the the easiest or most popular explanations for stuff.

We need to go deeper as a hobby- not to just throw out some well-honed rhetoric.

Part of the game, as we've discussed ad naseum here, is to understand, appreciate, and ultimately embrace the way the aquatic environment is influenced by the fungal growths, biofilms, and decomposition which occurs when wood, rocks, and botanicals are added into our aquariums. 

That may come easier to those of us who specialize in working with botanicals in our aquariums, because these processes and characteristics are the whole game in what we do! We have an understanding about what happens when terrestrial materials are placed in an aquatic environment. We don't fight what happens. We attempt to understand it.

And, as we often say, that means making a mental shift to accept the unique aesthetics of a botanical-style aquarium: Brown water, stringy biofilms, and decomposing leaves and botanicals. All have their place in our world. The most challenging part of starting and managing one of these "functionally aesthetic" systems is to appreciate not only how they function, but to understand why the way they look the way they do.

To those of you just jumping into this world, I assure you it's like no other aquarium you've ever maintained. Botanical-style aquariums embody the art of observation and study. Much like managing any type of aquarium, the successful botanical-style aquarium is about understanding a balance. 

A quantity; a "cadence" for adding stuff, so that the closed environment of your aquarium can assimilate the new materials, and the bacteria, fungi, and other organisms which serve to assimilate the bioload and break them down can adjust.

You'll get it- after than initial, "What have I done? What's all of this biofilm stuff..." freakout...

Something clicks. And you'll understand.

I think we're starting to see a new emergence of a more "holistic" approach to aquarium keeping...a realization that we've done amazing things so far, keeping fishes and plants in a glass or acrylic box with applied technique and superior husbandry...but that there is room to experiment and push the boundaries even further, by understanding and applying our knowledge of what happens in the real natural environment. 

What Nature does.

And accepting it and embracing it.

You're making mental shifts...replicating Nature in our aquariums by achieving a greater understanding of Nature...

You want to "Stand before Nature", as is oft-quoted?

Then, understand Nature as She really is, a little better.

Educate. Elevate. Share.

Do that.

Stay honest. Stay observant. Stay studious. Stay vocal...

And Stay Wet.


Scott Fellman

Tannin Aquatics 



Scott Fellman
Scott Fellman


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