One of the interesting things about being a fish geek is that we have lots of amazing ideas and dreams, and it's possible to act on so many of them!
Do you have one of those "perfect ideas" for a tank floating around in your head? The kind which, although not necessarily crazy difficult/expensive to do- just something that you've been itching to try. Something aspirational, or otherwise goal-worthy.
My aquarium journey has been as much about dreaming as it has been about executing.
Seems like I'm always coming up with "perfect ideas" for crazy displays- you know, like biotope-inspired themes, specialized systems for particular fishes, etc....but I never seem to get to all of them. I don't think I'm at all unique in that regard. I think a lot of us have that "perfect tank" in our heads, and we're waiting for factors like time, money, or the right livestock to come our way in order to execute them.
As a young hobbyist, I never could afford anything, so I would fall asleep scheming up these dream tanks in my head...Some of these ideas were insane. Just impossible to execute at the time. Others were very realistic, entirely achievable, and as I grew older and had the capability, I was able to build them them.
And often, when I was finally able to build some ofhtese "dream tanks", it would come to pass that I didn't enjoy having the tank as much as I enjoyed scheming it!
Why is that?
Some dreams are just meant to be...dreamed, I suppose. Right?
And then there was blackwater.
For some reason, this type of tank really resonated in me. Since I was a kid. It was so...weird- I mean, a tank with water so dark that you couldn't always see the fishes clearly. It seemed so "anti-establishment" for this teenage fish geek...Maybe that was the start of my experimentation with these kinds of tanks. I began with peat moss in my killie tanks, then played around with sticks and leaves and before you know it, I had Neon Tetras spawning- stuff like that!
My dreams took me in a new direction.
The reef keeping bug hit in the mid eighties, and I was enamored. I mean, keeping LIVE CORALS! Whoa! Yeah, my first "minireef" was a hastily planned affair, based on George Schmitt's groundbreaking 1986 series in Freshwater and Marine Aquarium magazine, with tons of the macro algae Caulerpa, some mushroom anemones, and I think a Sinularia soft coral, with Pulsing Xenia.
For a 30-gallon tank for a teenager, it was surprisingly badass!
And that started a decades-long affair with reefs, which eventually led me to a writing/speaking career, hobby "fame", aquarium design gigs, and the opportunity to become a partner in the launch of a coral propagation/importation business, Unique Corals.
Unique was an astonishing success in our industry, and I was quite proud to be associated with it. We set a high standard, created a terse manifesto for sustainability- and walked the walk.
Yet, I always stayed in touch with the FW world, although my time and focus were on reefs and corals..Yet, in the back of my mind...I kept thinking of those cool tanks I would scheme about as a teenager.
Those crazy freshwater concept ideas that I loved so much. The freshwater world, as seen from the "salty side"of the fence, although evolved highly since I played in it actively, still needed some new ideas, in my opinion.
Those dreams again.
It was also the point where I realized that reef aquariums and the reef hobby, although amazing and fascinating, were somehow getting a bit-well-monotonous for me.
I mean, they're awesome, but dealing with corals every day, and some of the disturbing (to me) "cultural shifts" in coral side of the reef-keeping community, such as a sort of "commoditization" and "branding" of corals, and a seemingly anemic interest in recreating the habitat aspects of reefs in our homes (short of just buying a lot of gadgetry) really turned me off.
It brought me back to the realization that freshwater had so many more possibilities for me- many which I had never even considered before.
Yeah, the dreams were calling.
So I made the decision to act on those dreams.
In a move that shocked a lot of people in the reef keeping world, I sold my interest in the thriving UC (which is still at the top of its game, btw) to "come home" to the beckoning freshwater world, filed with ideas and enthusiasm once again...And Tannin Aquatics was born.
And you know, those dreams were happening again...I was scheming new aquariums and concepts all the time. It felt pretty cool.
One of my favorite things about the hobby is that we can dream up/scheme up all sorts of wacky ideas, think through them...and maybe, just maybe, build them. Some are totally outlandish and push the envelope of what is even technically possible...
And I think that's important. Trying to figure out how to replicate the function of wild habitats- not just the look- is a huge step forward. It requires a lot of thinking, research, and mental shifts to accept things- which previously might have scared us- as "okay."
Looking at Nature as a guide for how to model its function, not just as an aesthetic inspiration. Especially when the "aesthetics" of a natural habitat are far, far different from the "conventional" hobby interpretation of what we think Nature looks like.
Lately, I've been sharing a lot of pics of some of our more esoteric, unconventional aquariums on our social media feeds. Interestingly, the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive; like, almost every response is kind of "Cool, I love that!" or, "I really want to do a tank like that!"
These responses are so different from what we would see a few years back, when the typical response to a pic like that was literally, "That tank looks dirty." or (my fave) "Is that the before shot of a re-scape?"
Yeah, we've come a long way.
Dreams, mental shifts, and accepting new ideas go hand in hand.
Yet, even after all of the exposure botanical-style aquariums have received, there is still some concern, hesitation- or whatever you want to call it, about setting up an aquarium with a huge amount of leaves and seed pods and stuff. I totally understand why; Adding all sorts of biological material to an aquarium requires a population of organisms in place to process it.
We've talked extensively about what happens in Nature (and in our tanks, really) when leaves and botanicals are added to water. However, no amount of me explaining that a community of life forms will process them (if you let them) will make some people feel comfortable about the idea.
The biggest mental shift that we have to make in this hobby specialty is to understand that the leaves, seed pods, etc. are not just aquascaping "set pieces", put in play to achieve a "look." Rather, that they are a functional part of the aquarium's environment, hosting a myriad of life forms which drive the ecology of the tank. In essence, they're part of the "operating system" that is essential for successful long-term function of the botanical-style aquarium.
It's tough to get this point across sometimes.
We're so immediately attracted to the look of these aquariums that we can easily lose sight of the fact that the look is the by-product of the function. I receive so many emails and DM's from hobbyists new to the botanical "game", asking if they should "scrape off" the "gunk" that is showing up on their leaves and seed pods that I think this is a real "thing" that we as a community need to discuss again and again and again.
The idea is NOT to remove this stuff. It's NOT to siphon out the decomposing materials. It's about letting Nature take some of the control.
It's perhaps the most challenging aspect of the botanical-style aquairum movement.
It's about linking the aspirational nature of dreams with the necessities of reality.
And trust me, practicality and dreams go surprisingly well together!
With so many cool hobbyists doing so many cool things, it's amazing to see all of the action happening around me. I'm very privileged to hear about your dreams...Some of the types of tanks and ideas you're coming up with are nothing short of amazing. I've gotten to supply botanicals for everything from Geophagus biotope aquariums, to permanent killifish displays, public aquairums, universities doing research, to Axolotls, fish breeding systems, and vivarium displayss!
Super crazy cool projects across the full spectrum of the freshwater aquarium hobby world. And it's just beginning.
That's where following my aquarium dreams, and making them come alive, has taken me.
So when those dreams come...my advice, cliche'd though it may be...is to listen to them; act on them. You never know where they might take you.
Today's very simple thought.
Keep dreaming. Make those mental shifts. And dream some more.
Stay imaginative. Stay engaged. Stay creative. Stay thoughtful...
And Stay Wet.