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.
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."
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.
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.
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'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.
Stay honest. Stay observant. Stay studious. Stay vocal...
And Stay Wet.
WARNING: I'll come right out and say it- today's piece may anger a lot of people. It may come across as arrogant, egotistical- whatever. It's my opinion, and I realize that a lot of you won't share this. However, I feel it's something that needs to be said. So please, leave now and come back another day if you're not up to seeing this rant about some hardcore truths, without any holding back.
I warned ya'.
This past decade has seen some massive changes in the aquarium hobby. It’s seen technique, concepts, and products come to fruition that have changed the aquarium hobby forever. Some incredible innovations.
The internet, with social media and hobby forums, has led to the rapid dissemination of ideas, techniques, and information. Hobbyists can inspire and share faster and more efficiently than ever before. Brands and aquarium movements can gain awareness with tremendous speed.
It’s lead to the development of an entirely new class of “hobbyist”, a career known as “content creator” or “influencer.” With a smart phone and fast WiFi, anyone with a gift for gab, some hobby awareness, and the ability to create can, with some effort, position themselves as an authority on just about any hobby topic, with broad reach and, well- influence over a lot of aquarium hobbyists.
It’s an amazing time and quite exciting. The barriers to publishing- editors, reviewers, etc.-which existed in the past- are essentially gone. There are no longer “gatekeepers” controlling the messages.
Opportunity to share is everywhere.
Yet, there is a "dark side."
Because there are no “editors” or “peer reviewers”, the accuracy and quality of the information being produced today is all over the map. Because someone who fancies themselves a social media “influencer” might produce snazzy, entertaining, sexy videos with cool music and crisp editing, they can easily amass significant followings on their chosen platform rapidly.
The scary part is that, because the “influencer” may have such a large following for whatever reason, a certain form of trust and implied “authority” is formed with the audience.
"Scary? Really? Why is that, Fellman?"
Think about it. Think about the idea "authority" in our hobby.
Authority. It's alluring and powerful...
It also requires a lot of responsibility.
A responsibility that some may not understand, or recognize.
The role of "influencer" seems so cool; and it is. I mean, you can get paid by others to talk about stuff!
However, the fact is, some “influencers” may have little more than the most basic understanding or familiarity with the topic being discussed, and because there is this...familiarity and implied trust created with his/her audience, the uninformed get the impression that this person is an “expert” on whatever topic they disseminate!
Often, it’s the “new” idea or hot, trendy topic that lends itself well to the production of the influencer’s splashy videos, too. In the very worst situations, much of the disseminated "information" is shallow, and of little substance, other thank, "Look at my cool___________ aquarium!" ( insert trendy aquarium type in the blank space)
We see this a lot when it comes to botanical-style aquariums and reef tanks, in particular. Because they both lend themselves to great visuals, both of these hobby specialities are often featured prominently by hobby "influencers."
Recently, I've seen a few of these videos, particularly discussing "blackwater aquariums"or "botanical aquariums", and I wasn't just flat-out disappointed by the lack of useful substance- I was shocked by the obvious, complete lack of understanding of these topics by the alleged "influencers" who produced them.
One recent video which was brought to my attention by a friend featured the creator adding a bunch of leaves to (an already weak, and completely off-base) representation of a major South American blackwater river, and then commenting in disappointment and surprise several days later that his leaves (which were added in large numbers to his sterile, brand-new aquarium) started to cloud the water and produce biofilms.
Now, anyone who's followed us here, or on any of the social media channels, podcasts, or magazine articles we've produced on this topic, or even has basic knowledge of aquarium ecology, or those who keep botanical-style tanks, would immediately recognize the fact that this guy was absolutely clueless about what he was getting into.
He was expecting an incredible, tinted and earthy-looking tank from the start, without any acknowledgement or understanding of the process behind what he was doing. It was a classic case of someone being enchanted by the sexy look, and failing to grasp- or convey to his audience- what it actually takes to get there. He just jumped on the trendy "botanical-style aquarium" bandwagon and ran with it.
And in the process, IMHO, he did a HUGE disservice to anyone who was contemplating such an aquarium. His complete ignorance perpetuated all of the misinformation and fears, and lack of patience that many of us who work in this hobby speciality have spent years trying to address.
How does THAT help the hobby?
Why did this guy just jump blindly into something he was clueless about, and push the most superficial aspects of an approach which requires so much more understanding? What other hobby topics has this clown covered in the same ignorant, vapid manner? Just how much damage has this "influencer" actually done over time?
In this case, some of the viewers who had an understanding of botanical-style aquariums actually called bullshit on him in the comments, which was amusing and refreshing. Yet, he quickly deleted them without addressing them at all.
Yet, not entirely surprising. They spoke to his glaring misunderstanding what he had done and attempted to present with an air of undisputed authority. They made him look bad. Worse than he did by producing the video in the first place.
Okay, I'm sounding a bit bitter., right?
"Bitter" is not the word that I'm feeling, It's more like "angry" and "disappointed", because he had an opportunity to really turn on some people to something cool. He could have said, "Hmm...why is this happening?" What if he humbly answered himself and said, "Likely because I didn't understand what I was getting into!"
Think of what he could have done with that! He could have made a video of him consulting with people who actually knew what they were doing in this area. He could have solicited interaction from his audience...He could've swallowed his ego and simply had knowledgable guests...Instead, his arrogance and ignorance simply resulted in a missed opportunity to create and share a super-authentic, human learning experience.
Why do people scream loudly and authoritatively about shit they are clueless about?
I mean, I wouldn't create a video of me planting a bunch of rare Cryptocoryne in a brand new tank, filled with clean, right-out-of-the-bag decorative aquarium sand, and then conclude that Crypts are "difficult to keep" because they're all dying in my tank! I have a simple philosophy: I don't talk about shit I don't understand, unless I'm trying to show that I don't understand, and using the opportunity to share the process of learning how to do whatever it is that I'm featuring.
If I did a video on something that I wasn't knowledgeable about, I'd show my research, and feature discussions with the experts in the field. Imagine seeing your fave influencer learning for his/her self? It'd be amazing! THAT kind of thing has huge hobby value- and it highlights the skills of research, patience, and the value of humility.
Yeah, I sure as hell don't act like I'm an authority on shit I don't understand, just for the sake of "checking off the box" that I did a piece on "what's cool this month" in the aquarium hobby. ("Non-photosynthetic gorgonian tank- check!")
No one should.
Now, look-this is NOT an indictment of everyone who produces a YouTube video, Tik Tok, Instagram Reels, etc. Many of the people who share content are among the most knowledgeable and talented people in the aquarium hobby. The stuff they produce is beautiful, educational, AND entertaining.
And it's authoritative- 'cause they know what the hell they're talking about.
Rather, this little rant is targeted at the people who produce vapid, shallow, content which glosses over virtually everything but the aesthetics, in the interest of quickly amassing views and followers, by displaying the most superficial aspects of the "trendy" approach or technique being featured. Why do they do it this way, you ask?
It's all about exposure. It's exacerbated, IMHO, by manufacturers who sponsor these people, and feel that numbers of views equals people who see their product on display. As if simple exposure is the only important metric. And sometimes, ironically, it's the loudest, most visible content creators who are the ones least competent to discuss the topics that they're covering.
And they should know better.
The hobby doesn't need just more pretty pictures. It also needs reliable, authoritative information. And a lot of these "creators" simply "punt" it off to someone else to do the non-sexy or "boring" stuff, 'cause they'll claim it's "not their jam" or whatever. And guess what? That mindset isn't helpful to anyone- especially not their audiences, who take their word as gospel, and who get the impression that, because there is no mention of the hard parts of what they're doing- that it's all "unicorns and rainbows" and is just super easy.
If you want to have "influence"- give people the real information. Don't just mail it in with a flashy, 'gram ready tidbit of worthlessness.
When we as hobbyists and brands support this crap, we're helping to perpetuate the creation of a class of ill-informed hobbyists who simply don't get the whole picture of the topic discussed. And we encourage a generation of "influencers" who feel it's not their responsibility to actually educate their viewers, all the while while implying overtly that their content is...educational... It's maddening!
Who's fault is this?
Well, first off, it's the "creators" who crank out drivel.
It's the fault of their egos. Level up, guys. Calling your asses out.
And it's also the fault of brands who support some of these people with product, money, etc., simply because they get a "tag" on Insta or Facebook or whatever, without properly vetting them. Simply because they're popular.
I've seen a LOT of videos by "influencers" who are "supported" by whatever brand, who not only clearly don't understand the subjects that they are talking about, but who also have obviously minimal understanding of the product or brand being featured. They actually HURT the brand more than they help it.
How fucking stupid is that?
And it's pervasive in the aquarium hobby.
When we started collaborating with fellow aquarists, we made it a point to seek out people who actually understand the stuff we do.
I'm proud say that the people who we feature as "influencers" at Tannin actually practice our area of hobby specialty. We vet them by more than just looking at their viewing metrics on YouTube or follower count on Instagram, or whatever. We look for the deeper connection.These people actually know what the hell they're talking about because they live this stuff.
And we're not alone, of course. There are many, MANY brands who have incredibly talented "street teams" and influencers who do their level best to help everyone who watches their content understand the important stuff. It's a huge win for the aquarium hobby.
SPECIAL NOTE, WITH LOVE, TO BRANDS WHO DON"T GET THIS: The brand/influencer relationship is not rocket science. Just work with people who know what you do and understand it- because it's what THEY do. People who use your stuff because they love it and understand what it does. This makes them invaluable at communicating about your product's benefits.
Stop supporting idiots. Open your eyes and look at things objectively when evaluating these people.
Simple as that. It helps not only your brand, but the entire hobby when you do this! Think long term. We'll develop better-informed, more realistic hobbyists, who stay in for the long run this way.
Shame on brands who onboard some of these "infleuncers/creators" strictly based on their large audience or their ability to flashily sling product and produce a slick video. That’s not “influencing”- that’s “carnival barking”, if you ask me. Building up your brand based on flash instead of substance, produced by a person who actually understands how your product works, is an absurdity.
Vet these people! Don't get so excited about some"influencer" with a splashy IG or YouTube presence masturbating over your product that you don't bother to see if they actually understand your product.
It's not that hard.
Otherwise, we continue to have a critical mass of people on social media producing watered-down drivel who fail to do more than entertain with some fancy visuals.
Don't believe me?
Watch a few random videos produced by aquarium hobby influencers. And then look at the comments and questions from viewers, many of whom rely seemingly exclusively on the people who produce the content on these channels for aquarium hobby advice and information.
Some are really ill-informed, yet proudly announce that they're going to set up a tank just like the one in the video! If they weren't ill-informed, they wouldn't be asking some of the absurd questions that they ask. In fact, many of them are "Aquarium Keeping 101"-type questions, for which anyone who has even the most modest amount of fish keeping experience should already have the answers.
In addition to showing a frightfully low levels of understanding of the hobby, many of the followers are clearly waiting for their social media influencer "guru" to just say the word about what to do....And more often than not these questions are not even answered. Not even the lazy suggestion to pickup a book, hit up Google, or just talk to the LFS...
At least take time to answer some of the complex questions, for goodness sake. These people are your audience!
And we wonder why people are dropping out of the hobby faster than ever?
If you want to be an "influencer", know what the hell your talking about, rather than just issuing a flashy, low-substance-level, buzzword-heavy regurgitation of second or third hand facts. Don't gloss over the important stuff because it isn't "sexy enough." Ask yourself what your intention is? Is it to be a social media celebrity, or is it to actually share knowledge to educate fellow hobbyists? Be honest.
Look, there are plenty of influencers who do just that. They're amazing, talented people with great intentions and a high degree of enthusiasm for the hobby. However, their messages are increasingly being buried in the noise from a whole slew of crap-producing wanabes. Yeah, really.
Don't believe me? Ask someone the talented well-known "stars"-the real authorities in our hobby with proven track records and firsthand experience, what they think. They'll tell you the same thing.
People ask me all the time how to stand out in the social media universe of the aquarium hobby as an authority on a subject you know a lot about. Now, I certainly don't have all of the answers, and I don't have a million followers, either. However, our followers understand stuff.
I can tell you that one of the best ways to stand out is to simply produce good, authoritative, quality content. And to do it every single day. Consistently. Educate yourself. Practice. Gain experience, and then share your truth. Don't regurgitate what other people are saying. Don't authoritatively recommend something unless you understand it and have tried it yourself.
Talk about the hard stuff. The not-so-sexy stuff.
Share your actual good, bad, and ugly experiences. Show your failures, your tanks with out-of-control algae or sick fishes. Be authentic. Tell it like it is. Maybe it doesn't make quite as sexy a video as just showing a pile of rocks and driftwood spread out on the bamboo plank of your loft apartment, and then a quick cut to the finished product does- but it will help more hobbyists than you will initially understand.
Someone asked me what I'm most proud of about what we do here. It's the fact that we didn't just create a cool brand with good visuals- we helped to create a movement in the hobby. And we did it by authentically sharing our experience. By repetition of many of the same topics. By covering the not-so-flashy stuff.
And it paid off, because so many of you are now enjoying this unique hobby sector and creating beautiful, inspiring aquariums every day. Expanding upon the techniques we've discussed, and running with new ideas we never even thought of. Making "mental shifts."
That, to me- is "influence."
So to all of you creators and influencers- both existing, and those contemplating taking on that role- do it for the right reasons. Do it well. Do it thoroughly, methodically, and take the time. Share what you know- truthfully, authentically, and completely.
Because you're pretty damn good at what you do, especially when you DO it.
Stay creative. Stay honest. Stay diligent. Stay humble. Stay authentic...
And Stay Wet.
One of the things that we discuss so much around here is the concept of the aquarium as a "microbiome"- a habitat for a wide variety of organisms at many levels.
Over the years, I have thought a lot about how we as botanical-style aquarium enthusiasts gradually build up our systems, and how the entire approach is about creating a biome- a little closed ecosystem, which requires us to support the organisms which comprise it at every level.
Just like what Nature does.
These organisms-our little friends, are priceless additions to our aquairum environments.
Not only does this community of organisms help process nutrients and improve the overall environment for the fishes, it serves as part of their sustenance via the creation of a "food web"- a concept we've talked about more than a few times here.
Yeah, a "food web" in our aquariums. It's not only possible to construct one- I think it's pretty much a "must have" for the serious botanical-style enthusiast. To me, these are fascinating, fundamental constructs which can truly have important influence on our aquariums.
So, what exactly is a food web?
A food web is defined by aquatic ecologists as a series of "trophic connections" (ie; feeding and nutritional resources in a given habitat) among various species in an aquatic community.
All food chains and webs have at least two or three of these trophic levels. Generally, there are a maximum of four trophic levels. Many consumers feed at more than one trophic level.
So, a trophic level in our case, would go something like this: Leaf litter, bacteria/fungal growth, crustaceans...
In the wild aquatic habitats we love so much, food webs are vital to the organisms which live in them. They are an absolute model for ecological interdependencies and processes which encompass the relationship between the terrestrial and aquatic environments.
So, how would we go about constructing a "food web"in our botanical-style aquariums? For that matter, how do we help create this "microbiome" we keep yapping about?
Well, as you might guess, it all starts with how we set up our aquarium. A typical botanical-style aquarium has a rich substrate, an abundance of leaves and botanicals, and moderate water movement and light. All of these are key ingredients which stimulate the growth and development of a diversity of organisms which make up this milieu.
And the beauty of it all is that you don't HAVE to add cultures of these life forms to get them to colonize your tank. Nature sees to that!
As we all know by now, the first thing that happens when you add botanicals and leaves into an aquarium is that a burst of bacterial biofilms begins to proliferate.
Our other pals, Fungi, arrive on the scene in much the same manner as biofilms. Fungi reproduce by releasing tiny spores that then germinate on new and hospitable surfaces (ie, pretty much anywhere they damn well please!). These aquatic fungi are involved in the decay of wood and leafy material. And of course, when you submerge terrestrial materials in water, growths of fungi tend to arise.
Anyone who's ever "cured" a piece of aquatic wood for your aquarium can attest to this!
There are around 3000 species that are known to be associated with aquatic habitats! That's A LOT of species! Aquatic “true fungi” are known as "osmoorganotrophs", a fancy way of saying that they absorb nutrients across their cell wall. Most of them have a "filamentous" morphology at some point during their life cycle. This morphology enables them to invade deep into substrates and to directly digest particulate organic matter (POM) to acquire nutrients for growth and reproduction.
The fungal community consumes microscopic algae, aquatic macrophytes and terrestrial plant litter (including wood). Aquatic fungi act as very significant decomposers of particulate organic matter (POM), specifically coarse particulate organic matter (CPOM), which includes both plant and animal material .
We see this in Nature- and absolutely in our aquariums!
Fungi play a huge role in the decomposition of leaves, both in the wild and in the aquarium. By utilizing special enzymes, aquatic fungi can degrade most of the molecular components in leaves, such as cellulose,, hemicelluloses, starch, pectin and even lignin.
Depending on various factors, such as leaf litter type and the local water chemistry, fungal decomposition of leaves can take anywhere from 1 month to 6 months.
The fungi known as aquatic hyphomycetes produce enzymes which cause leaf maceration, and in as little as 2 to 3 weeks, as much as 15% of the decomposing leaf biomass in many aquatic habitats is processed by fungi, according to one study I found.
Fungi, although not the most attractive-looking organisms, are incredibly useful...and they "play well" with a surprisingly large number of aquatic life forms to create substantial food webs, both in the wild and in our aquariums!
Natural habitats are absolutely filled with this stuff...it's like the whole game here- an explosion of life-giving materials, free for the taking...
Fungi are actually an important food item for other life forms in the aquatic environments tha we love so much! In one study I stumbled across, gut content of over 100 different aquatic insects collected from submerged wood and leaves showed that fungi comprised part of the diet of more than 60% of them, and, in turn, aquatic fungi were found in gut content analysis of many species of fishes!
And of course, there ARE organisms which you can add to your aquarium.
I add bacteria, in the form of Purple Non Sulphur bacteria (PNS) via our product, "Culture", as these highly adaptable Rhodopseudomonas palustris bacteria not only "work" with the nutrients and compounds present in the aquarium via the materials- they will help "kick start" the nitrogen cycle as well.
This is exactly what we envisioned this product to do- To compliment the botanical-style aquarium approach and facilitate the development of a rich microbiome with natural processes.
PNSB consume carbon/nutrients in anaerobic environments, thereby competing with microbes that produce toxic metabolites (e.g. hydrogen sulfide). Unlike nitrifying and denitrifying bacteria, they are capable of performing photosynthesis. In addition, they have been demonstrated repeatedly to possess strong probiotic properties that promote the health of diverse aquatic species.
PNSB is found in freshwater, marine and brackish environments (in the water column, the sediments and even in the guts of animals such as corals). This highly adaptive photosynthetic bacterium balances nutrient cycling in all types of aquatic and terrestrial systems.
Like nitrifying bacteria, PNSB metabolize ammonium and nitrite and nitrate. And they're not just important to the nitrogen cycle. They're also capable of aerobic organoheterotrophy - a process of removing dissolved organics from the water column- just like other microbes!
As "extremophiles", they're ideal for our "botanical-centric" aquarium systems.
And of course, you can even culture some organisms, like Paramecium, to help "prestock" your tank.
You know, by creating an "Infusoria" culture!
"Infusoria"-a delightful catch-all term, from the "Golden Age" of aquarium keeping, may be described as a real "catch-all" term for small aquatic organisms, like euglenids, protozoa, unicellular algae, tiny invertebrates, and that are commonly found in freshwater environments, like ponds, creeks, and drainage ditches, used as a first food for tropical fish fry. Sometimes, it's referred to as "green water" in older hobby literature- a kind of vague descriptor.
In modern formal biological classification, the term "infusoria" is considered an antiquated, obsolete descriptor, as most of the organisms previously included in the collective term "Infusoria" are assigned to a different assemblage of taxonomic groups.
Nonetheless, it's a charming, albeit somewhat antiquated term that is still used in aquarium circles to describe the tiny organisms that arise when you soak some blanched lettuce, vegetable skin, or other plant matter in a jar of water. They're perfectly sized for young tropical fish fry as the first food when they are free swimming. In fact, at around 25-300 microns, these organisms are consumable by most fishes as soon as they've absorbed their yolk sac.
Sounds good, but how do you "make" the stuff?
Well, traditionally, it was done in the most low tech way: You would take some blanched lettuce leaves, old flower clippings, hay, etc. etc. and basically let the stuff decompose in water, and after several days, a smelly solution of cloudy water will arise, driven by bacteria. Ultimately, after a few more days, the water will clear when creatures like Paramecium and Euglena arrive on the scene and consume the rampant bacteria population. Voila, in theory, you have an "infusoria culture."
You can simply add this culture to your new botanical-style aquarium, and, in theory, you've started to inoculate your tank with a variety of organisms which can help create a "foundation" for the ecology in our tanks.
Embracing these life forms as a key pillar of what we do really stands out in aquarium practice.
Far different than the "typical" approach to starting an aquarium, which is really more reliant on filtration, external food inputs (from us!), and the execution of consistent maintenance to get it through the "startup" period, when a typical system is almost "sterile" compared to our botanical-style ones.
The next set of organisms you could add would consist of some well-known to us in the aquarium hobby. You can obtain pure cultures of Daphnia and perhaps some of the other commonly available live freshwater crustaceans, like copepods, Gammarus, Cylcops, etc., and let them "do their thing" before you add your fishes.
This way, you've got sort of the makings a little bit of a "food web" going on- the small crustaceans helping to feed off of some of the available nutrients and lower life forms, and the fish at the top of it all.
I've experimented with the idea of "onboard food culturing" in several aquariums systems over the past few years, which were stocked heavily with leaves, twigs, and other botanical materials for the sole purpose of "culturing" (maybe a better term is "recruiting) biofilms, small crustaceans, etc. via decomposition. I have kept a few species of small characins in these systems with no supplemental feeding whatsoever and have seen these guys as fat and happy as any I have kept.
And it's the same with that beloved aquarium "catch all" of infusoria we just talked about...These organisms are likely to arise whenever plant matter decomposes in water, and in an aquarium with significant leaves and such, there is likely a higher population density of these ubiquitous organisms available to the young fishes, right?
Now, I'm not fooling myself into believing that a large bed of decomposing leaves and botanicals in your aquarium will satisfy the total nutritional needs of a batch of characins, but it might provide the support for some supplemental feeding! On the other hand, I've been playing with this recently in my "varzea" setup, stocked with a rich "compost" of soil and decomposing leaves, rearing annual killifish with great success.
Of course, the more daring among you may want to go even further in your "pre-stocking" work, introducing various worms, like "Black Worms" or Tubifex worms, if you can find clean cultures of them. For that matter, even "blood worms", which are actually the larval phase of the midge.
Some organisms, such as nematodes and chironomids ("Bloodworms!") will dig into the leaf structures and feed on the tissues themselves, as well as the fungi and bacteria found in and among them. These organisms, in turn, become part of the diet for many fishes.
A food web.
And the resulting detritus (here we go again!) produced by the "processed" and decomposing plant matter is considered by many aquatic ecologists to be an extremely significant food source for many fishes, especially in areas such as Amazonia and Southeast Asia, where the detritus is considered an essential factor in the food webs of these habitats.
It performs the same function in an aquarium- if we allow it to.
It's really important to consider our botanical-style aquariums- or any type of aquarium, for that matter- as small ecosystems, which have inputs, outputs, cycles, and rhythms, all of which are dictated by the fungi and bacteria which are the real "workers" in our aquariums.
Our little friends.
By taking a little extra time to educate ourselves about the organisms and processes which occur in wild aquatic habitats, as well as in our aquariums, we are able to facilitate their growth- and enjoy their benefits.
Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay observant. Stay creative...
And Stay Wet.
As human beings, thankfully, each one of us is different. As hobbyists, this is especially true, and completely evident when one considers the wide variety of approaches we take to creating and managing our aquariums.
And, fish geeks being fish geeks, we all have our little idiosyncrasies and quirks. I know that I have some that get to me.
Like, a desire to make radical changes, seemingly out of the blue. Now, sure, I am the guy who gives a lot of his tanks and ideas plenty of time and space to "breathe" and develop over time. I'm pretty patient when it come to letting my tanks evolve.
However, I admit- I DO like to change stuff up sometimes.
Ever wake up one morning and...it just..hits you? That urge to change up your aquarium; it's look, "theme"- whatever?
I don't think that it's just a "me" thing, either.
It's part of being a fish geek, I think.
We look at our existing aquarium and say, "I really love it, but...."
We reach for some towels, grab a bucket, and it's on!
I think it's part of the mental makeup- the fabric, if you will- of the fish geek.
We're sort of almost "programmed" to want to switch stuff up after a while, right? It's like we want to create, modify, renew...or just try something different.
For many hobbyists, their one aquarium is the only one they can have- at least for now, but possibly forever. Space, economics, time, etc, all come into play, and there really isn't much you can do except work with the one you've got. I mean, it's a blessing to have even one...but to the serious fish geek, that desire to move on to a greener pasture (or should we say, "bluer river?")-to just taste some new stuff- seldom retreats.
Can you relate?
I think- think- that it's often augmented by my desire as the Tannin "mothership" and a need to continuously showcase new ideas and botanicals. Well, maybe that's an excuse.
But hey, we all love to try new stuff, right?
I know that I do.
And it's funny, because I think that even though I fancy myself as this restless "conceptual" guy who is constantly evolving his ideas, the reality is that my "makeovers" are seldom that radical- rather, their little iterations that represent incremental changes or improvements over previous designs.
I tend to "stay in my lane", and not stray all that far from it.
I almost envy those of you who can make radical changes at the spur of the moment without regret or a whole lot of consideration.
I often wonder why I play with such a tight set of characteristics- you know, certain wood arrangements, use of specific textures, colors, etc. Although I'm definitely prone to "over-analyzing" stuff at times, it's fun now and then to step out of my own mind and look at stuff as if I'm a "third party" of sorts.
Maybe I have that sort of "comfort zone" that I tend not to push myself out too far from. I mean, I operate in a pretty radical "sector" already- the blackwater, botanical-style world. It's not everyone's cup of tea, being pretty different from the conventional, "clear water" aquariums we all know so well. I realized a long term ago that, when I make changes to my tanks, they're almost always more like "iterations" of the existing concept.
Yeah, the "next steps" are often subtle in nature.
And I think that it's sort of "baked into" the idea of botanical-style aquariums: We set the stage for what nature does. Rather than trying to create a "finished product", I think those who operate in our arena tend to set the stage and let Nature do the rest of the work over time.
Interestingly, you can still make seemingly dramatic changes to your aquariums, and yet leave considerable parts of them intact and functional. This works great with botanical-style aquariums.
Nature does this all the time.
The idea of leaving the substrate and leaf litter/botanical "bed" intact as you "remodel" isn't exactly a crazy one. And conceptually, it's sort of replicates what occurs in Nature! Materials accumulate on top of other materials, facilitating new biological growth, continued foraging for resident fishes, and a more or less uninterrupted ecology.
Yeah, think about this for just a second.
As we almost constantly discuss, habitats like flooded forests (Igapo and Varzea), meadows, vernal pools, igarape, and swollen streams, which tend to encompass terrestrial habitats, or go through phases where they are terrestrial habitats- for a good part of the year.
In these wild habitats, the leaves, branches, soils, and other botanical materials remain in place, or are added to by dynamic, seasonal processes. For the most part, the soil, branches, and a fair amount of the more "durable" seed pods and such remain present during both phases.
The biggest "disruption" in these habitats is often the transformation from terrestrial to aquatic. However, the "hardscape" (to borrow an aquarium term) largely remains intact.
Sure, a "makeover" of an aquarium can be a seriously disruptive event (for both YOU and your fishes!).
On the other hand, if you take the mindset that this is a "transformation" of sorts, and act accordingly, it becomes more of an evolutionary process. This is something I've done for many years- like a lot of you have, and it not only makes your life a bit easier- it can create pretty good outcomes for the fishes we keep.
The "Urban Igapo" idea that I've been touting for a good part of the past 3 years is a very deliberate execution of this "iterative process", and it's taught me quite a bit about how these habitats function in Nature, and what kinds of benefits they bring to the aquarium.
We've talked about the idea of "flooding" an aquarium setup designed to replicate an Amazonian forest before. You know, sort of attempting to simulate some of the processes which happen seasonally in Nature. With the technology, materials, and information available to us today, the capability of creating a true "year-round" habitat simulation in the confines of an aquarium/vivarium setup has never been more attainable.
These are deliberate, more transformative executions by design.
However, making changes to every existing aquarium does not need to be a super-complicated, highly disruptive thing, right? I’m not advocating 360-degree changes in your aquarium management approach every time something doesn’t give you desired results in 3 days, or every time you're "not feeling it." That's a recipe for chaos.
What I am thinking about here is developing the "mental ability" to get yourself easily out of a situation that is simply not working for you- for the benefit of your animals, budget, time- and sanity. Shit, it’s a hobby, so if you’re not enjoying it, what’s the point?
So, maybe it’s not “move fast and break things” for you…perhaps it’s “move at a nice rate of speed and change moderately quickly when things don’t work out.”
What are the benefits of adopting a “move fast” philosophy- or at least the gist of it- for you as an aquarist?
First, you can test a lot of ideas and concepts on your tank relatively quickly, in “real time”, rather than just reading about them on the forums. If you have a general idea of where you want to go with your tank, but are interested in a few approaches, this is not a bad way to go.
You can work in multiple ideas to see if they work, and throw out the ones that don’t, relatively quickly. Now, again, I’m not talking about major hardware shuffles (“Yeah, the 350 was too small, so three weeks later, I broke it down and ordered a 700.” That’s pure insanity). Nope, I’m talking about “tweaks”, like deciding to feed your predatory fishes only at night- or a few days a week…or, perhaps dosing fertilizers only when the display is dark. Changing flow patterns, feeding times, light combinations. "Pulsing" leaf additions...Tweaking.
Not full-scale, drain-the-tank-and-start-from-scratch overhauls.
Second, you can certainly learn stuff at a more rapid clip, right? If you’re giving yourself the opportunity to “audition” a practice, philosophy, procedure, etc., you can find out if something makes sense a whole lot more than if you commit 1,000 percent to a rigid philosophy of “I’m only going to do it this way.”
Even if you don’t get the "whole picture" of what’s happening in your tank, attempting quick little experiments can give you an indication of the general direction or trend- an answer to a little piece of the puzzle that you can incorporate to evolve more successfully in the long term.
Finally, this philosophy actually can force you to look at things more "honestly."
In other words, if you decided to do something that maybe you thought might not work- by committing yourself to a “nothing is sacred” attitude at the start of your project, you can evaluate things in a more direct manner, and change things up as necessary to assure overall success of the tank and the health of its inhabitants. If you throw the “fun” part back into the equation, and share your trials and tribulations with other hobbyists, it certainly makes it more enjoyable to stop being stubborn and try to make things work, right?
Of course, for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction, right? So, what are the downsides to a rapid-iteration, “move fast and break things” philosophy?
To begin with, you will probably build some “mental debt.” In other words, as you rapidly make changes and move things along, you may tend to overlook other things. Human nature, right? You tend to look at every change or iteration as a big experiment, and that you can “fix stuff later”- a kind of dangerous trap to fall into, especially when you think of the potential impact on living organisms.
It’s one thing to make intelligent, measured changes, but to take shortcuts, non-sustainable work-arounds, and “band aids” harbors potential hidden dangers. Be alert to this. Your “pursuit of perfection” could result, ironically, in you never quite getting it right?
In addition, you might find yourself “burnt out” rather quickly. I mean, if you’re chaotically trying every new idea, every new gadget that’s out there in trying to find quick solutions, you will not likely enjoy this hobby for very long. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, right? I mean, it’s a “hobby” at the end of the day. Yet, each day I read forum posts from dozens of hobbyists who flail helplessly in multiple directions, trying every little thing to "change-up" their tank, in a desperate attempt to solve a relatively simple problem.
Algae issues are notorious for soliciting this kind of behavior- the desire to get the problem “solved” has resulted in many disasters (like using all sorts of chemicals and medications to eradicate algae, when the reality is that it could have been eradicated or managed with husbandry tweaks to begin with…). Some of these "fixes" result in a destroyed biome and dead fishes.
Think before you forge ahead with potentially long-term detrimental "fixes."
So, in summary. Changing stuff up- even relatively rapidly- isn't a bad thing, if it's done for the right reasons. Maybe it's "Aquatic A.D.D." or something (I have this theory, lol), but I think it can actually be a good thing. I even think I understand why some people change up their tanks so often.
With me, I suppose I could rationalize occasional bouts of this "fast change syndrome" by telling myself that it's a matter of wanting to try a lot of concepts out which get's me moving. The desire to move into different directions, despite having limited resources of space, time, or money.
Better to let the full range of your imagination inspire and guide you, instead of limit you. That's why I treasure thinking outside the box so much. Not because it's cool to just do things differently "because." Rather, it's because it's really important to follow up on some of those thoughts and ideas we have. Every single one has the potential to lead to some breakthrough or advancement in the hobby.
Use the relentless flow of ideas- and your ability to execute and accept change- to your advantage.
Every single one has potential.
Don't downplay those ideas that pop into your head from time to time, even if it means changing some stuff up. And they don't always have to be super well thought-out ideas, either.
Sometimes, you can play a "hunch", a "feeling", or a "whim"-and come up with something great.
Can't you think of at least a few things that you tried on a whim, only to realize later that they were incredible efforts that brought you so much joy?
I'll bet that you can.
Execute each one in it's own time. Let them breathe. Develop them. Or squash them quickly.
But do try them.
Because it's far better to do something than to just think about it, IMHO.
Consistency is important.
However, change can be good. Really good.
Stay dedicated. Stay focused. Stay reflective. Stay happy...
And Stay Wet.
Problem (prob*lem): a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.
Requirement (re*quire*ment): a thing that is compulsory; a necessary condition.
Think about that for a bit. The idea that something is a "problem" is, in itself a bit of a problem!
The word "problem", IMHO, gives us a cushion to fall back on when something want to we do in the hobby requires that certain steps which we are unaware of, uncertain of, unwilling to take, or cannot undertake- present themselves. The challenge is to determine if the requirements are insurmountable for us, or if there is a way we can meet the requirements in a manner that is practical, given our resources.
A great example was the botanical-style/blackwater world we work in today. For many years, playing with this idea was considered a"problem." We had well-founded fears about the process, the look, and the management of these types of aquariums, based on generations of established ideas and techniques that told us this was contrary to proper aquarium practice.
I think that the "problem" of blackwater tanks for years was that we saw them as "dirty", dangerous", "non-sustainable" etc. We didn't look at the blackwater environment as one that required that we meet a specific set of parameters.
We didn't look at keeping botanical-style, blackwater aquariums as an endeavor that required an understanding of the processes involved, and developing technique and practices to accomplish our goals. Rather, we as hobbyists saw a foreboding, dark environment which had low pH and all sorts of seemingly contrarian, scary processes.
WE made it a "problem!"
As a hobby, I think we make lot of stuff "problems."
When you think about it many concepts in aquarium keeping started out as "problems", or were considered “impossible” until someone made them work.
Now, sure, I get the fact that Nature imposes "rules" on what we can do. There are consequences- often dire- to trying to break or circumvent natural processes. For example, trying to avoid the nitrogen cycle, or attempting to keep incompatible fishes together. Much of this stuff is common sense. However, it doesn't keep a lot of people from trying to "beat the system."
No look- I'm all for trying new ideas-pushing the limits of what's possible, and questioning the "status quo" in the hobby. However, trying to "game"eons of natural processes in order to create some sort of a "hack" doesn't only not work- it's stupid.
THAT is a problem that we create.
You can, however, push the limits and break new ground by working within the boundaries of natural processes. That's advancement. That's progress. Innovation.
Many of us are working every day to progress in the hobby.
It took doing things that we hadn't previously done before- researching exactly what it was, what is required to make "blackwater"- and doing some things which were perceived by the majority of hobbyists as unconventional to get there.
But we did. And now, we approach keeping botanical-style/blackwater aquariums not as a "problem" to overcome, but an approach which requires us to do specific things in order to do so successfully.
Look, it wasn't like we were creating warp drive or nuclear fusion. But it is an example- one of many in our hobby, of an evolution which simply required us to look at what exactly we wanted to accomplish, understand what it was, and to develop ways to work within the requirements and parameters laid out by Nature to do it in our aquariums. It's still very much a "work in progress", but we're well on the way to making botanical-style/blackwater aquariums far more common in the hobby.
And definitely not a "problem."
Funny thing is that, in reality, it IS a sort of an evolution, isn't it? A little advancement from where we are in the hobby before.
I mean, sure, on the surface, this doesn't seem like much: "Toss botanical materials in aquariums. See what happens." It's not like no one ever did this before. And to make it seem more complicated than it is- to develop or quantify "technique" for it (a true act of human nature, I suppose) is probably a bit humorous.
Yeah, I guess I can see that...
On the other hand, the idea behind this practice is not just to create a cool-looking tank...And, we DO have some "technique" behind this stuff...
And it's not about making excuses for abandoning aquarium "best practices" as some justification for allowing our tanks to look like they do.
We don't embrace the aesthetic of dark water, a bottom covered in decomposing leaves, and the appearance of biofilms and algae on driftwood because it allows us to be more "relaxed" in the care of our tanks, or because we think we're so much smarter than the underwater-diorama-loving, hype-mongering competition aquascaping crowd.
Well, maybe we are? 😆 (I promise to keep dissing these people until they put their vast skills to better use in the hobby...Sorry, lovers of underwater beach seems and "Hobbit forests.." You can do a lot better.)
I mean, we're doing this stuff for a reason: To create more authentic-looking, natural-functioning aquatic displays for our fishes. To understand and acknowledge that our fishes- and their very existence- is influenced by the habitats in which they have evolved.
We've mentioned ad nauseum here that wild aquatic habitats are influenced greatly by the surrounding geography and flora of their region, which in turn, have considerable influence upon the population of fishes which inhabit them, as well as their life cycle.
The simple fact of the matter is, when we add botanical materials to an aquarium and accept what occurs as a "result"-regardless of wether our intent is just to create a different aesthetic, or perhaps something more- we are to a very real extent replicating the processes and influences that occur in wild aquatic habitats in Nature.
The presence of botanical materials such as leaves in these aquatic habitats is foundational to their existence, as it is in our aquarium approach.
And the fact that they recruit biofilms and fungal growths, and break down over time in our tanks is simply part of the natural process. We can consider this a "problem" which needs to be 'mitigated" somehow, or we can make the effort to understand how these processes and occurrences can benefit the little microcosms which we have created in our aquariums.
It's about understanding, education, and acceptance.
As aquarium hobbyists, we are in a unique position to learn about and recreate many of the functions of Nature in our aquariums.We have the opportunity to go beyond long-held suppositions about what is "healthy" for an aquarium. We have the opportunity to innovate.
Innovation, and of itself, is a dynamic concept.
It's hard to quantify. But it's there. And it often happens right before our very eyes, initiated and perfected by ourselves...We just don't always make that connection, because we focus on the finished idea, not all of the subtle little breakthroughs and iterations along the way that lead up to it. New innovations often build on existing ideas or concepts in practice. Sometimes from necessity- other times, out of a simple desire to improve. Sometimes out of frustration.
Often, out of sheer genius.
Innovation has been happening like this for millions of years. No sense in stopping now!
YOU are innovating. Every single day. Everything that you do contributes to the body of knowledge, the state of the art, and the refining of technique.
There must be a million ways to do an aquarium, and the stuff we practice here is not any different, really. I mean, have you ever noticed that there are lots of different ways to accomplish the same thing in our little botanical-style aquarium world?
There really is no set "formula" to establishing a botanical-style aquarium. No exact way that you should proceed to achieve a specified result. No human-imposed "rules." Just the ones Nature Herself mandates. What we have in this area of the hobby are guidelines. "Best practices." Ideas. Recommendations from others who have walked the path before.
What you choose to do with those "recommendations", of course, can make the difference between being successful, and pushing beyond the conventional thinking in our hobby.
Looking at things we're unfamiliar with as "problems" in the aquarium hobby deters us from evolving and moving ahead, IMHO. It sets up artificial "roadblocks" on our journey that aren't always necessary.
We need to look at these things as opportunities. Yes, opportunities to figure out what role they play in the ecology of natural aquatic ecosystems- and in our aquairums. We need to look for ways to incorporate, rather than eliminate them from our tanks.
Because when we incorporate natural processes and functions into our tanks, we're doing the very best possible job at advancing the state of the art in aquarium keeping.
Some may interrupt this as being a bit rebellious, or even foolhardy. I think that's ridiculous. Since when is trying to figure out how and why something works in Nature and if it can be incorporated into aquarium practice "rebellious?" Just because something seemingly goes against what has been long taken for aquarium hobby "religion" doesn't mean that it's without merit, or somehow "unsafe." It just means that we need to understand how to incorporate it to our animals' benefit.
Yeah, it's a "mental shift"- another of the many we preach about around here, isn't it?
Nature is the one who imposes "requirements" for us to follow. When we don't, other situations can occur..."problems", perhaps?
In the aquarium hobby, we often tend to "edit" Nature, polishing out, or trying to "bypass" the processes, aesthetics, and functions that we find distasteful- in search of what we have generically called a "balanced" aquarium.
It's a noble, important goal-at least, on the surface.
However, I think we need to understand that Nature seeks "balance" in Her own way- one that really doesn't take into account our schedules, goals, or aesthetic preferences.
And it's well known that an aquarium is a closed ecosystem that can easily "fall out of balance", as the expression goes, when we go too far in a certain direction.
We often say that an aquarium is a "delicate" ecosystem- but I don't think that it really is. Rather, an aquarium is a pretty robust system, which establishes itself in a way that utilizes "what's available" at any given time. And sometimes, it results in the pendulum shifting from one life form to another. The "balance" itself, may be delicate; in that various life forms can "take over" at any given time- and rapidly, too. However, if you've ever battled something like an algae bloom- you'd never call the life forms themselves "delicate", right?
You have to respect that. Any life form that takes advantage of optimum conditions to thrive is at least worthy of some appreciation- even if it looks like- well- shit, right?
Sure. excessive algae growth is a sign of imbalance of something- light, nutrients, often exacerbated by deficiencies in husbandry, or a combination of these factors. This is "Aquarium Keeping 101", of course, but when you're in the middle of these kinds of struggles, it's easy to overlook seemingly "basic" stuff.
Is this a "problem", or simply a result of a life form taking advantage of circumstances which favor its growth and proliferation?
It is not always easy or clear to understand why a tank is "out of balance." Sometimes, it just takes time to figure it out. I think the important thing is to think of an aquarium- especially our botanical-style aquariums- as a small, closed ecosystem or microcosm, with internal and external influences-any one of which may be extremely impactful when they converge.
Understanding that the various possible impacts that our techniques and executions may have on our aquariums is just the start. On the most superficial level, adding a lot of botanical material into a tank is a recipe for: a) a lot of bioload for resident organisms to process, b) a substrate for biofilm and/or algal growth, and c) biodiversity- a proliferation of a variety of organisms.
And of course, the additional "bioload" can be taken advantage of by a particularly adaptable life form which could proliferate more quickly than others...throwing your little ecosystem "out of balance", as the expression goes.
In our aquarium practice, it's the time when you think about the impact of technique-such as water exchanges, addition of aquatic plants, adding fishes, reducing light intensity and photoperiod, etc. and (again) observation to keep things "in balance"- at least as much as possible. You'll question yourself...and wonder if you should intervene- and how..
Or, IF at all.
Yeah. In many instances, I've found it most helpful to simply do nothing, and let the system find its way naturally.
Someone in the system- one life form or another-will exploit the available resources, possibly to the detriment of others, and the key here is observation, followed by intervention only as needed/desired. "Intervention" being manipulation of environmental parameters or impacts in order to "rebalance" the ecosystem- if you can, or if you feel you must.
Like in any aquarium, there is no "magic elixir"- no single solution to a situation like this.
It's about a number of measured moves, any of which could have significant impact- even "take over" the system- if allowed to do so.
"Hands off" is not an easy concept for aquarium hobbyists to grasp- especially when what we are looking at in our tank flies against what we expect- or want- to see.
We can change some of the physical aspects of our tanks (equipment, hardscape, etc.), but Mother Nature is in control.
She "calls the shots" here.
And I think that's perhaps the most important lesson that we can learn from our aquariums. As aquarists, we can do a lot- we can change the equipment, correct initial mistakes or shortcomings the system might have had from the beginning.
We set the stage, so to speak.
However, in the end..
it's Nature who does most of the real "heavy lifting" here. Nature rewards us for our good decisions, scolds us for our bad ones, and provides "cues" on what future decisions we need to make. And Nature does it all indifferently...without judgement. It simply reacts positively or negatively to our attempts to control it.
Which is why the reality of a botanical-style aquarium is that it's perhaps one of the best ways to bring Nature into our home. To blur the lines between Nature and aquarium. Sure, planted aquariums give us a similar challenge...but the botanical-style aquarium challenges us in different ways. It tasks us to accept Nature in all of its beauty. And yeah, it makes us accept that there IS beauty in things like decomposition, biofilm, detritus, and algal growth. Things which we as aquarists might have been "indoctrinated" to loathe over the years..
We just have let go sometimes, and trust in Nature to move stuff along the correct path.
Nature finds a way. Nature knows how to do this.
Problems are only "problems" if we interpret them as such. When we see something we didn't expect to happen in our tanks occur, the question to ask ourselves might not be, "What's the problem?" Rather, it might be, "IS there are problem?"
It's up to us to decide wether to understand and accept- or to resist and circumvent the offerings of Nature.
Which way will you go?
Stay observant. Stay brave. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.
One of the things that we love the most about our botanical-style aquariums is that they evolve over time. We've discussed this idea many times, particularly the idea that botanical materials become a "working" part of your aquarium's ecosystem, as biofilms and fungal growths cover them and transform them.
Over time, in the botanical-style aquarium, wonderful transformative things happen...Leaves begin to accumulate. Botanicals begin to break down. Detritus settles.
Aquatic soils and substrates dissolve their chemical constituents- tannins, and humic acids- into the water, enriching it. Fungi and micororganisms begin to feed on and break down the materials. Biofilms form, crustaceans multiply rapidly. Fishes are able to find new food sources; new hiding places..If we're lucky, new areas to spawn.
Life flourishes in the botanical-style aquarium.
The habitat has evolved- transformed by unstoppable, constant natural processes. They look-and function- just like they do in Nature. And I understand that not everyone can handle that.
I admit, I feel a bit sorry for these people who can't make the "mental shift" to accept the fact that Nature does her own thing, and will lay down a "patina" on our botanicals, gradually transforming them into something a bit different than when we started. When we don't accept this process, we sadly get to miss out on Nature guiding our tank towards its ultimate beauty- perhaps better than we even envisioned.
For some, it's really hard to accept this process. To let go of everything they've known before in the hobby. To wait while Nature goes through her growing pains, decomposing, transforming and yeah- evolving our aquascapes from carefully-planned art installations to living, breathing, functioning microcosms.
But, what about all of that decay? That "patina" of biofilm?
Their presence "waxes and wanes" to a certain extent- the product of a botanical bioload. Yet they're always there, as they are in natural habitats. And making the effort to understand and even appreciate their appearance as a sign that your aquarium is functioning as Nature intended is the biggest step in achieving what can only be called a form of "aquatic enlightenment."
The accumulation of materials- dissolved substrate constituents, decomposing leaves and botanicals, bits of biofilms and fungal threads- is fundamental to the ecology of our aquariums.
It's part of this type of approach. It's present in all natural aquatic systems. We just work with it instead of against it. Instead of trying to sanitize, edit, or otherwise "redirect" Nature, we understand that it will follow its own path, sometimes going through phases that we may not appreciate.
And guess what? It never stops.
You wouldn't want it to.
The ebb and flow of life in a natural, botanical-style aquarium is much like a garden. You can and should perform regular maintenance, conducting water exchanges, filter media replacement, etc.- like you do in any other tank. However, you need to conduct these maintenance sessions not with the idea of "THIS will take care of those biofilms", but an attitude of. "This will continue to facilitate change over time..."
Yeah, it requires a certain attitude.
And a willingness to look at Nature as she actually is- and to appreciate the beauty in the details of her processes.
So, on a practical, functional level, is there an issue in allowing these materials to accumulate?
It's not like we've had no prior understanding of, or experience with this stuff in the hobby.
One word I remember seeing in many of my dad's old aquairum hobby books that I grew up reading was "mulm." It was a funny word. A sort of charming 1950's-60's-style catch-all expression for "stuff" that accumulates at the bottom of an aquarium.
It was- is- quite appropriate and descriptive!
To me, "mulm" is the freshwater equivalent of "detritus", which is used in the saltwater hobby extensively to describe the solid material that accumulates at the bottom of an aquarium as the end product of biological filtration.
"Mulm", however, is a bit more. It's not primarily fish poop and uneaten food.
I think mulm is also that matrix of stringy algae, biofilms, and fine particles of "stuff" that tends to accumulate here and there in healthy aquariums, What's cool about this stuff is that, not only do you see it in aquariums- you see it extensively in natural ecosystems, such as Amazonian streams.
Again, in the case of a botanical-style aquarium, "mulm" is also the broken-down leaves and botanicals. It's a part of a process that we've often called "substrate enrichment" in our aquariums. As botanicals break down- just like in Nature, they create a diverse matrix of partially decomposing plant materials, pieces of bark, bits of algae, and some strings of biofilm.
Biological "fuel" for a functional miniature ecosystem.
In years past, hobbyists who favored "sterile-looking" aquaria would have been horrified to see this stuff accumulating on the bottom, or among the wood. Upon discovering it in our tanks, it would have taken nanoseconds to lunge for the siphon hose to get this stuff out ASAP! In our case, we embrace this stuff for what it is: A rich, diverse, and beneficial part of our microcosm.
I encourage it to accumulate in every botanical-style aquarium I maintain.
It's an accumulation of materials which, based on my experience and that of many others, and in the presence of overall good husbandry, will not have any detrimental impacts on your aquarium and the health of its inhabitants.
You may not be convinced about this being a good thing. I get it. So, I encourage you to verify on your own.
Check your water parameters. Are you seeing surging nitrate or phosphate levels? Lots of nasty algae? Do you have any detectible ammonia or nitrite? Are the fishes healthy, relaxed, and active? If the answer to the first three questions is "no", and the last is "yes"- then perhaps it's time to simply enjoy what's happening in your aquarium!
To accept and understand that the aesthetic of a heavily botanical-influenced system is simply different than what we've come to perceive as "acceptable" in the general aquarium sense.
Of course, the aquarium is a microcosm of Nature, and not an open system. However, in principle, many of the factors which control Nature control our aquariums, too.
Some are a bit different in "execution", but the influence is similar.
So, apparently we have a real hobby addiction to siphoning.
Personally, I don't do a lot of siphoning of "detritus" from my substrates, which are typically a mish-mash of leaves, twigs, and bits and pieces of botanicals. Sure, you CAN stir up this layer, and simply "swish" a fine meshed net around in the water column, and try to remove anything you find offensive.
I wouldn't get too carried away with it.
Remember, most of this "stuff" or "mulm"-the detritus and such- is utilized by organisms throughout the food chain in your tank...and as such, is a "fuel" for the biological processes we are so interested in. No sense disrupting them, right?
What goes down...doesn't always have to come up.
Accumulation, in this instance, is not a bad thing.
Take care of your tank by taking care of the enormous microcosm within it, which supports its form and function.
Recognizing that there is a continuous accumulation of life forms and their "work" going on in our tanks, and that we don't need to attempt to thwart it in any way, is an absolutely fundamental thing that we do. It's something that we need to accept...and enjoy.
No one said the hobby is easy, but it’s not difficult, either- as long as you have a basic understanding of the environmental processes and conditions within your aquarium. And the idea of leaving essential biological components of your aquarium more-or-less "intact"-allowing an accumulation of biological material- for an indefinite period of time is really compelling.
What would happen?
Stay thoughtful. Stay inspired. Stay motivated. Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay undaunted...
And Stay Wet.
One of the toughest things in the aquarium hobby is to face the possibility of losing fishes. When you think about it, the idea of keeping live tropical fishes in an aquarium is pretty incredible to begin with. What we take on isn't necessarily "difficult" in many instances. The techniques have been known and shared in the hobby for generations. However, the awesome thing is that we are able to obtain and maintain these organisms in the first place, right?
And when you add into the equation that are completely responsible for creating essentially the entire environment in which they reside, it becomes even more incredible, right? What we do is pretty special.
However, unlike keeping many other animals as"pets", like dogs, cats, hamsters, rabbits, etc., we have the unique ability to create representations- functional and aesthetic-of the natural habitats from which they come. We can do all sorts of environmental manipulations, and embrace all sorts of evolutions within their aquariums to represent aspects of their natural habitats.
And this ability brings with it a lot of opportunity to innovate, as well as the assumption of some risk.
Yeah, the process of creating, optimizing and managing a specialized aquatic habitat is subject to risk, whether we expect it or not.
The risk that we might not have acclimated our fishes correctly to the new environment that we have created. Risk that our management of the environment may not be be as controlled, consistent, or appropriate for the long-term health of the fishes.
This is not unique to the botanical-style aquarium, of course. It's something that we run into with all types of aquariums and fish-keeping endeavors, from the most basic goldfish bowl (arrghh!😂) to the most sophisticated reef aquarium system.
Risk permeates this hobby. It's something that is almost never discussed, but it is at the forefront of almost everything do. Risk abounds. We take risks every single time we purchase fish. And the responsibility to manage the risk- to mitigate any potential bad outcomes-lies squarely on our shoulders as hobbyists.
A classic, easy example? When repurchase that new fish, we immediately have to chose whether or not we will quarantine it before placing it into our tank. If we don't, we run the risk of introducing illness to our other healthy fishes. And, when we do quarantine (yay!),we STILL risk the possibility that the fish might not make it through. That it might not eat, or that a disease (the very reason you quarantine in the first place!) may manifest itself and possibly kill the fish in the quarantine system.
When we first started Tannin Aquatics, the idea of utilizing seed pods, bark, leaves, branches and stuff in aquariums to manipulate the environmental conditions wasn't completely unknown. Hobbyists have been doing it for generations to some extent. However, when we embarked on our mission to curate, test, and ultimately introduce new and different botanical materials into the hobby, we know it was a risk.
Some might have proven to be toxic to fishes. Some might have been collected from polluted environments that had noxious chemicals. Some might have been intended for other purposes, and sold to us by unscrupulous suppliers, who had them treated with laquers or other industrial chemicals. We found this out the hard way a few times, killing fishes in our test tanks in the process.
Horrible to lose innocent animals, but part of the challenge we accepted when we intended to become leaders in this new arena. Releasing untested materials to fellow fish keepers and killing them was not an option. We had to assume the risk of testing ourselves. Vetting of suppliers was, and continues to be, crucial. Good quality source material doesn't guarantee success- but it does mitigate some of the risk.
When we developed techniques for the preparation of botanicals for aquarium use, it was to help mitigate some of the risks that are inherent when you place natural terrestrial materials into a closed aquatic environment.
Yet, even with the development of "best practices" and recommended approaches and technique for safely utilizing botanicals in our aquariums, we knew that there was an even bigger, more ominous risk out there...Human nature.
Yes, when I started playing with botanicals in my aquariums almost two decades ago, I made a fair number of mistakes. Sometimes, they cost the lives of my fishes.
And killing fishes sucks.
Some mistakes were caused by my lack of familiarity with using various materials. Most were caused by not understanding fully the impact of adding botanical materials to a closed aquatic ecosystems. All were mitigated by taking the time to learn from them and honestly asses the good, the bad, and the practical aspects of using them in our aquariums.
And that meant developing "best practices" to help mitigate or eliminate issues as much as possible, even though the "practices" may not be the easiest, most convenient, or expedient way to proceed.
I KNEW that there would be people who might kill their fishes by adding lots of botanicals to their established systems without reading and following the instructions concerning preparation, cadence, and what to expect. I knew there would be people who would criticize the idea, "edit" the processes or recommended "best practices", talk negatively about the approach and generally scoff and downplay what they didn't know, understand, or do.
It's human nature whenever you give people something a bit different to play with...They want to go from 0-100 in like one day. And I knew that some of these people would go out on social media and attempt to trash the whole idea after they failed. This, despite all of our instructions, information, and pleas to follow the guidelines we suggested.
After more than six years of running Tannin, I have pretty much identified the two most common concerns we have for customers associated with utilizing botanicals in their aquariums. Curiously, our two biggest concerns revolve around our own human impatience and mindset- not the botanical materials themselves.
The first is... preparation.
We are often asked why we don't feel that you can, without exception, just give any of your botanicals "a quick rinse" and toss them into your aquarium.
After all, this is what happens in nature, right? Well, shit- yes...but remember, in most cases, there is a significant "dilution factor" caused by larger water volumes, currents, biologically-rich substrates, etc. that you encounter in natural aquatic systems. Even in smaller bodies of water, you have very "mature" nutrient export systems and biological equilibriums established over long periods of time which handle the influx and export of organic materials.
However, even in Nature, things go awry, and you will occasionally see bodies of water "fouled" by large, sudden influxes of materials (often leaves, grass clippings, etc.)- sometimes after rain or other weather events- and the result is usually polluted water, large algal blooms, and a pretty nasty smell!
In the aquarium, of course, you have a closed system with a typically much smaller water volume, limited import of fresh water, limited filtration (export) capacity, and in many cases, a less robust ecological microcosm to handle a large influx of nutrients quickly.
So you know where I'm going with this:
Fresh botanical materials, even relatively "clean" ones, are often still "dirty", from collection, storage, etc. They may have dust, airborne pollutants, soil or silt (depending upon where they were collected), even cobwebs, bird droppings, and dead insects (yuck!).
Natural materials accumulate "stuff." They're not sterile; made in some high tech "clean room" in a factory in Switzerland, right?
So," just giving botanicals a quick rinse" before tossing them in your tank is simply not good procedure, IMHO- even for stuff you collect from your own backyard. It's more risk to take on. At the very least, a prolonged (30 to 60 minute) steep in boiling hot water will serve to "sterilize" them to a certain extent. Follow it with a rinse to remove any lingering dirt or other materials trapped in the surfaces of your botanicals.
Now, I don't recommend this process simply because I want to be a pain in the ass. I recommend it because it's a responsible practice that, although seemingly "overkill" in some people's minds- increases the odds for a better outcome.
It reduces some of the risk.
The crew up in the cockpit on your flight from L.A. to New York know every system of the Boeing 737Max9 that they fly. But guess what? They still complete the pre-flight checklist each and every time they hop in the plane.
Because it can save lives.
Why should we be any different about taking the time to prepare botanicals? I know it sounds harsh; however, if you skip this step and kill your fishes- it's on you.
Why would you skip this, other than simply being impatient?
Could you get away with NOT doing this?
Sure. Absolutely. Many people likely do.
But for how long? When will it catch up with you? Maybe never...I know I'll get at least one email or comment from a hobbyist who absolutely doesn't do any of this and has a beautiful healthy tank with no problems.
Okay, good for you. I'm still going to recommend that, like I do- that you embrace a preparation process for every botanical item that you add to your aquariums.
Boiling/steeping also serves a secondary, yet equally important purpose: It helps soften and even break down the external tissues of the botanical, allowing it to leach out any remaining subsurface pollutants, sugars, or other undesirable organics to the greatest extent possible. And finally, it allows them to better absorb water, which makes them sink more easily when you place them in your aquarium.
Yes, it's an extra step.
Yes, it takes time.
However, like all good things in nature and aquariums, taking the time to go the extra mile is never a bad thing. And really, I'm trying to see what possible "benefit" you'd derive by skipping this preparation process?
Oh, let me help you: NONE.
There is simply no advantage to rushing stuff.
Like all things we do in our aquariums, the preparation of materials that we add to them is a process, and Nature sets the pace. The fact that we may recommend 30 minutes or more of boiling is not of concern to Nature. It may take an hour or more to fully saturate your Sterculia Pods before they sink.
So be it.
Savor the process. Enjoy every aspect of the experience. And don't you love the earthy scent that botanicals exude when you're preparing them?
And the shittiest thing? Even if you do all this prep, there is STILL risk that you will kill your fishes.
Damn, I'm not ever gonna make it as salesman, huh?
How much to use?
Well, that's the million dollar question.
Who knows? Even that is a guess and decidedly unscientific at best!
It all gets back to the (IMHO) absurd "recommendations" that have been proffered by vendors over the years recommending using "x" number of leaves, for example, per gallon/liter of water. There are simply far, far too many variables- ranging from starting water chem to pH to alkalinity, and dozens of others- which can affect the "equation" and make specific numbers unreliable at best.
Now, nothing is perfect.
Nothing we can tell you is an absolute guarantee of perfect results...You're dealing with natural materials, and the results you'll see are governed by natural processes that we can only impact to a certain extent by preparation before use. But it's a logical, responsible process that you need to embrace for long-term success.
It reduces some of the risk.
And, when it comes time to adding your botanicals to your aquarium, the second "tier" of this process is to add them to your aquarium slowly. Like, don't add everything all at once, particularly to an established, stable aquarium. Think of botanicals as "bioload", which requires your bacterial/fungal/microcrusacean population to handle them.
Bacteria, in particular, are your first line of defense.
If you add a large quantity of any organic materials to an established system, you will simply overwhelm the existing beneficial bacterial population in the aquarium, which will likely result in a massive increase in ammonia, nitrite, and organic pollutants. At the very least, it will leave oxygen levels depleted, and fishes gasping at the surface as the bacteria population struggles to catch up to the large influx of materials.
This is not some sort of esoteric concept, right? I mean, we don't add 25 3-inch fishes at once to an established, stable 10-gallon aquarium and not expect some sort of negative environmental consequence, right? So why would adding bunch of leaves, botanicals, wood, or other materials containing organics be any different?
So please, PLEASE add botanicals to your established aquarium gradually, while observing your fishes' reactions and testing the water parameters regularly during and after the process. Take measured steps.
There is no rush.
There shouldn't be.
It's interesting how the process of selecting, preparing and adding botanical materials to our aquariums has evolved over the time since we've been in business. Initially, as I discussed previously, it was all about trying to discover what materials weren't "toxic" in some way!
Then, it was about figuring out ways to prepare them and make sure that they don't pollute the aquarium. Finally, it's been about taking the time to add them in a responsible, measured matter.
I think our biggest "struggle" in working with botanicals is a mental one that we have imposed upon ourselves over generations of aquarium keeping: The need to control our own natural desire to get stuff moving quickly; to hit that "done" thing...fast.
And the reality, as we've talked about hundreds of times here and elsewhere, is that there really is no "finished", and that the botanical-style aquarium is about evolution. This type of system embraces continuous change and requires us to understand the ephemeral nature of botanicals when immersed in water.
I know I may be a bit "blunt" when it comes to these topics of preparation, practices, and patience- but they are critical concepts for us to wrap our heads around and really embrace in order to be successful with this stuff. And they are absolutely tied to the idea of reducing risk to the greatest extent possible.
All caveats and warnings aside, the art and evolving "science" of utilizing natural botanical materials for the purpose of enriching and influencing the environment of the aquarium is an exciting one, promising benefits and breakthroughs that we may not have even thought about yet!
It's okay to experiment...If we are willing to accept the additional risk.
We stress these points over and over an over, because I get questions every day from hobbyists asking if they really need to prepare their botanicals, and if it's safe to use "_____" in their tanks, etc.
This is indicative, to me, of larger problem in the aquarium hobby.
In a world where people are supposedly not able to retain more than 280 characters of information, and where there is a apparently a "hack" for pretty much everything, I wonder if have we simply have lost the ability to absorb information on things that are not considered “relevant” to our immediate goal. I say this not in a sarcastic manner, but in a thoughtful, measured one.
I'm baffled by hobbyists who want to try something new and simply do next to no research or self-education prior to trying it.
When you read some of the posts on Facebook or other sites, where a hobbyist asks a question which makes it obvious that they failed to grasp even the most fundamental aspects of their "area of interest", yet jumped in head-first into this "new thing", it just makes you wonder! I mean, if the immediate goal is to have "...a great looking tank with botanicals...", it seems to me that some hobbyists apparently don’t want to take the time to learn the groundwork that it takes to get there and to sustain the system on a long-term basis.
I suppose that it’s far more interesting- and apparently, immediately gratifying- for some hobbyists to learn about what gadgets or products can get us where we want, and what fishes are available to complete the project quickly.
This is a bit of a problem. It demonstrates a fundamental impatience, an unwillingness to learn, and a lack of desire to assume some responsibility or risk. The desire to pass the responsibility on to someone- or something- else when shit goes wrong.
And the reality is that it's really all on us.
When it comes to using botanicals- or, for that matter, embarking upon any aquarium-related speacialties, it's really important to contemplate them from the standpoint of reducing and accepting some risk. We, as aquarium hobbyists, are 100% responsible for the lives of the animals under our care. If we don't like the idea of accepting this responsibility, then we should consider another hobby. Simple as that.
I can talk about the "best practices" in our hobby until my face turns green. I can point out the benefits of making mental shifts and being patient endlessly. However, it's up to each one of us to accept- or reject- these ideas, and to accept the outcomes-positive or negative- of our choices about how we embrace-or reject-this stuff.
And, based on what I'm seeing and hearing, a lot of hobbyists simply don't feel that this applies to them.
Okay, I’m sounding very cynical. And perhaps I am. But the evidence is out there in abundance…and it’s kind of discouraging at times.
Look, I’m not trying to be the self-appointed "guardian of the hobby." I’m not calling us out. I’m simply asking for us to look at this stuff realistically, however. To question our habits. To accept responsibility for our actions. No one has a right to tell anyone that what they are doing is not the right way, but we do have to instill upon the newbie the importance of understanding the basics of our craft.
I'm super-proud that we've consistently elevated realistic discussions about unpopular topics related to our hobby sector. Yeah, we literally have blog and podcast titles like, "How to Avoid Screwing Up Your Tank and Killing all of Your Fishes with Botanicals" , or "There Will be Decomposition", or "Celebrating The Slimy Stuff."
If we are worried about risk, we need to take as many steps as possible to understand it. To mitigate it. Some steps are tedious. Unglamorous. Time consuming. Not very fun.
However, they are all steps that we need take to create better outcomes, and to help advance the state of the art of the aquarium hobby- for the benefit of us all.
Risk is part of the hobby. How we accept it, and take it on, is also part of the hobby. It doesn't have to be a dark cloud hanging over everything that we do. Rather, it should be a motivator, an opportunity to improve, and a means to grow.
Stay responsible. Stay curious. Stay engaged. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.
One of the things that drives most hobbyists crazy is when "stuff" gets blown around, covered or moved about in the aquarium. It can be because of strong current, the activity of fishes, or simply overgrown by plants. I understand the annoyance that many hobbyists feel; I recall this same aggravating feeling in many reef tanks where I had high flow and sand on the bottom- almost always a combination for annoyance!
I mean, I get it. We have what feel is a carefully thought-out aquascape, looking exactly how we expected it would after setup. Yet, despite our ideas and thoughts, stuff moves around in the aquarium. It's something we can either accept, or modify in our aquariums, depending upon our preferences.
Yet, movement and "covering" of various materials by sediments, biofilms, etc., which accumulate on the substrate in natural habitats are everyday occurrences, and they help forge a very dynamic ecosystem. And they are constantly creating new opportunities for the fishes which reside in them to exploit.
When you think about how materials "get around" in the wild aquatic habitats, there are a few factors which influence both the accumulation and distribution of them. In many topical streams, the water depth and intensity of the flow changes during periods of rain and runoff, creating significant re-distribution of the materials which accumulate on the bottom, such as leaves, branches, seed pods, and the like.
Larger, more "hefty" materials, such as branches, submerged logs, etc., will tend to move less frequently, and in many instances, they'll remain stationary, providing a physical diversion for water as substrate materials accumulate around them.
A "dam", of sorts, if you will.
And this creates known structures within streams in areas like Amazonia, which are known to have existed for many years. Semi-permanent aquatic features within the streams, which influence not only the physical and chemical environment, but the very habits and abundance of the fishes which reside there.
Most of the small stuff, like leaves, tend to move around quite a bit... One might say that the "material changes" created by this movement of materials can have significant implications for fishes. As we've talked about before, they follow the food, often existing in, and subsisting off of what they can find in these areas.
New accumulations of leaves, detritus, and other materials benefit the entire ecosystem.
In the case of our aquariums, this "redistribution" of material can create interesting opportunities to not only switch up the aesthetics of our tanks, but to provide new and unique little physical areas for many of the fishes we keep.
And yeah, the creation of new feeding opportunities for life forms at all levels is a positive which simply cannot be overstated! As hobbyists, we tend to lament changes to the aquascape of our tanks caused by things outside of our control, and consider them to be a huge inconvenience, when in reality, they're not only facsimile of very natural dynamic processes-they are fundamental to their evolution.
The benthic microfauna which our fishes tend to feed on also are affected by this phenomenon, and as mentioned above, the fishes tend to "follow the food", making this a case of the fishes adapting to a changing environment. And perhaps...maybe...the idea of fishes sort of having to constantly adjust to a changing physical environment could be some sort of "trigger", hidden deep in their genetic code, that perhaps stimulates overall health, immunity or spawning?
Something in their "programing" that says, "You're at home..." Perhaps something which triggers specific adaptive behaviors?
I find this possibility fascinating, because we can learn more about our fishes' behaviors, and create really interesting habitats for them simply by adding botanicals to our aquariums and allowing them to "do their own thing"- to break apart as they decompose, move about as we change water or conduct maintenance activities, or add new pieces from time to time.
Again, just like Nature.
We just need to "get over ourselves" on this aesthetic thing!
Another mental shift? Yeah, it is. An easy one, but one that we need make, really.
Like any environment, botanical/ leaf litter beds have their own "rhythm", fostering substantial communities of fishes. The dynamic behind this biotope can best be summarized in this interesting excerpt from an academic paper on blackwater leaf-litter communities by biologist Peter Alan Henderson, that is useful for those of us attempting to replicate these communities in our aquaria:
"..life within the litter is not a crowded, chaotic scramble for space and food. Each species occupies a sub-region defined by physical variables such as flow and oxygen content, water depth, litter depth and particle size…
...this subtle subdivision of space is the key to understanding the maintenance of diversity. While subdivision of time is also evident with, for example, gymnotids hunting by night and cichlids hunting by day, this is only possible when each species has its space within which to hide.”
In other words, different species inhabit different sections of the leaf litter beds. As aquarists, we should consider this when creating and stocking our botanical-style aquariums.
It just makes sense, right?
So, when you're attempting to replicate such an environment, consider how the fishes would utilize each of the materials you're working with. For example, leaf litter areas would be an idea shelter for many juvenile fishes, catfishes, and even young cichlids to shelter among.
Submerged branches, larger seed pods and other botanicals provide territory and areas where fishes can forage for macrophytes (algal growths which occur on the surfaces of these materials). Fish selection can be influenced as much by the materials you're using to 'scape the tank as anything else, when you think about it!
And it's not just fishes, of course. It's a multitude of life forms.
There are numerous life forms which are found on ad among these materials as well, such as fungal growths, bacterial biofilms, etc. which we likely never really consider, yet are found in abundance in nature and in the aquarium, and perform vital roles in the function of the aquatic habitat.
Perhaps most fascinating and rarely discussed in the hobby, are the unique freshwater sponges, from the genus Spongilla. Yes, you heard. Freshwater sponges! These interesting life forms attach themselves to rocks and logs and filter the water for various small aquatic organisms, like bacteria, protozoa, and other minute aquatic life forms. Some are truly incredible looking organisms!
(Spongilla lacustris Image by Kirt Onthank. Used under CC-BY SA 3.0)
Unlike the better-known marine sponges, freshwater sponges are subjected to the more variable environment of rivers and streams, and have adapted a strategy of survival. When conditions deteriorate, the organisms create "buds", known as "gemmules", which are an asexually reproduced mass of cells capable of developing into a new sponge! The Gemmules remain dormant until environmental conditions permit them to develop once again!
To my knowledge, these organisms have never been intentionally collected for aquariums, and I suspect they are a little tricky to transport (despite their adaptability), just ike their marine cousins are. One species, Metania reticulata, is extremely common in the Brazilian Amazon. They are found on rocks, submerged branches, and even tree trunks when these areas are submerged, and remain in a dormant phase in the aforementioned gemmules during periods of desiccation!
Now, I'm not suggesting that we go and collect freshwater sponges for aquarium use, but I am curious if they occur as "hitchhikers" on driftwood, rocks or other materials which end up in our aquariums. When you think about how important sponges are as natural "filters", one can only wonder how they might perform this beneficial role in the aquarium as well!
We've encountered them in reef tanks for many years...I wonder if they could ultimately find their way into our botanical-style aquariums as well? Perhaps they already have. Have any of you encountered one before in your tanks?
The big takeaway from all of this: A botanical bed in our aquariums and in Nature is a physical structure, ephemeral though it may be- which functions just like an aggregation of branches, or a reef, rock piles, or other features would in the wild benthic environment, although perhaps even "looser" and more dynamic.
Stuff gets redistributed, covered, and often breaks down over time. Exactly like what happens in Nature.
Think about the possibilities which are out there, under every leaf. Every sunken branch. Every root. Every rock.
It's all brought about by the dynamic process of movement.
Perhaps instead of looking at the movement of stuff in our tanks as an annoyance, we might enjoy it a lot more if we look at it as an opportunity! An opportunity to learn more about the behaviors and life styles of our fishes and their ever-changing environment.
Stay observant. Stay creative. Stay excited. Stay open-minded...
And Stay Wet.
As you know by now, we are huge fans of mangroves.
And, I see a lot more interest in them in recent years; it's particularly noticeable on social media. Like so many hobby areas that are new to hobbyists, there is a mixture of good, bad, and outright awful information propagating out there about mangroves and mangrove care.
Now, I'm not anything close to an "expert" on mangroves in the aquairum. However, I have studied them in the wild, and have kept them in all sorts of aquariums for the better part of 20 years. In that time, I've learned a few things that have led me to be quite successful with them.
Yeah, when we are talking about brackish water aquariums, we'd be completely remiss if we didn't mention the "stars" of this habitat, the Mangrove trees! In our practice , we'll focus on the readily available, reasonably hardy "Red Mangrove", Rhizophora mangle.
Hardly what you'd call an "aquarium plant"- I mean it's a tree.
Yeah, a fucking tree.
Remind yourself about that, okay?
That being said, the Mangrove is an amazing tree that certainly has applications for aquariums- specifically, brackish aquariums. Now, without going into a long, long, recap of what mangroves are and how they function (You can Google this stuff and get hundreds of hits with more information than you could ever want- and you can reference one of the many blogs/podcasts we've done on mangroves here over the years), let's just say that mangroves are a group of trees and shrubs which live in the coastal intertidal zone, in areas of warm, muddy, and salty conditions that would simply kill most plants.
Mangroves possess specialized organs within their branches, roots, and leaves which allow them to filter out sodium, absorb atmospheric air through their bark, and generally dominate their habitats because of these and other remarkable adaptations.
There are about 100-plus different species of mangroves, all of which are found between tropical and subtropical latitudes near the equator, as they are intolerant of cold temperatures.
Mangroves put down extensive "prop roots" into the mud and silt in which they grow, giving them the appearance of "walking on water." These root tangles help them withstand the daily rising/falling tides, and slow the movement of the water, allowing sediments to settle out and build up the bottom contours of the local ecosystem.
Oh, and before you start going off on me about their unsuitability for aquariums or some ethical implications for their "removal" from the wild, let's talk for a second about how we acquire them and how they grow. First off, removing a growing mangrove tree or seedling from the natural environment is damaging, unethical, illegal in most areas, and essentially idiotic.
NO ONE should even consider doing that. Period. Full stop. Propagules are readily, legally available, easy to sprout, and should be utilized by any hobbyist who is contemplating playing with these trees.
I'm sure that you know this already, but it's worth mentioning again.
Interestingly, their roots, which are arguably the most attractive part of the tree to us as aquarium geeks, are perhaps the part of the tree where there is the most confusion in the aquarium hobby about how to take advantage of their growth and structure.
I see literally dozens and dozens of social media posts, pics, and videos in which the aquarist takes the (perhaps partially sprouted) propagule and just shoves it into the substrate (which is usually, just dead, fine aragonite sand). Maybe it continues to grow for a while. Maybe it doesn't. You rarely see follow up videos. I do hear from plenty of hobbyists who take this "approach" (if you can dignify it by calling it that) and complain that the propagule either rots, or simply doesn't grow.
That doesn't surprise me, because that practice of shoving them into the sand sort of glosses over the way mangrove propagules root and sprout into seedlings in Nature.
The propagule ("seed pod") actually germinates while still on the tree, and they are ready to take root as soon as they drop off. This process takes about 2-3 years! Yeah, the "seed pod" is a couple of years old before it even drops off the tree! If you take away one thing about mangroves from this piece, it's that they do everything slowly! If you're expecting to have a beautiful miniature tree in your tank a few months, you're in the wrong place if you're playing with mangroves!
When the propagules fall off in Nature, they can float around in the water for many weeks before washing up on shore or finding some other terrestrial niche to sprout in. Some of these propagules go right to shore and take root quickly, while others may float around in the ocean for many months, or even a year or more, before finding a comfy spot in which to take root. In the comparative buoyancy of seawater, a propagule often lies horizontally and floats significant distances. When a propagule finds its way into fresher, brackish water the seedling turns into a vertical orientation, and its roots point downward.
Tip: The bottom of the propagule is a brownish color, and will orient itself towards the bottom as the propagule waterlogs and sinks vertically to the bottom. After lodging in the substrate, the propagule sends additional roots into the substrate, and begins to sprout leaves.
In my opinion, the key to success with mangroves is NOT to shove your propagules right into the substrate. It's better to let them float in an aquairum, bowl, or jar, and put down roots naturally.
Alternatively, you could anchor them in an aquarium, securing them to some object well above the substrate, and allow them to "find the bottom" by themselves.
Or, you could get "fancy", as I did in my recent brackish water mangrove aquarium, and anchor them to some dried mangrove roots.They eventually put down their own roots and touched down into the deep, rich substrate that I created for them.
Oh, substrates. That's something we need to talk about!
Mangroves come from habitats which ecologists call "mangals." These habitats are characterized by a very rich mud-like substrate.
And of course, such rich substrates are, in my humble opinion, the best medium in which to grow mangroves in the aquarium.
When I first started playing with mangroves in brackish water aquariums, one of my "must haves" was the inclusion of "biosediment"/mud in the substrate mix. Now, I knew, since I wasn't initially planting the substrate with rooted, brackish-tolerant aquatics (like Cryptocoryne ciliata), and how I sprout my propagules, that the substrate would serve little purpose initially (until the prop roots of my mangrove propagules "touched down" into it months after the tank was established), other than to "enrich" the overall ecosystem of the tank.
Okay, "enrich" is one of those deliberately vague "buzz words" I love to play with...I mean, WTF does it really mean? Well, I like to think that it means that it will impart minerals and organics to the water which would foster the growth of bacteria, beneficial microorganisms, and potentially, some small crustaceans which would help establish a little "food web" in my tank.
And, in my botanical-style brackish water aquariums, it did just that! I've seen an interesting explosion of small life forms. And the addition of mangrove leaf litter has no doubt assisted in fostering this. The small life forms in the substrate region are busy breaking down the leaves and other matter into a rich "compost" of sorts. Although there isn't very much of this visible in the tank, it's there- and the Olive Nerites snails which I like to populate my brackish tanks with have certainly seemed to appreciate this "diversity", and spend much time grazing on the substrate!
The other "wild card", if you will, was the inclusion of mangrove root and branches into the hardscape. Both of these materials impart organic materials into the water. Quite frankly, even though I love the stuff, I personally believe that mangrove root wood is really "dirty"- and you'll see a release of "stuff" locked up in the wood tissues over time that is different than that I've experienced with other types of woods we use in aquariums.
Let's talk about what to expect when you use mud in your mangrove systems.
Of course, with all of the "functional" benefits of these kinds of materials, you'll also experience some stuff which perhaps challenges your long-held aesthetic beliefs about what a "successful" aquarium looks like! The water may not always be crystal clear (tinted or otherwise). In the same manner in which leaves and botanicals get covered in biofilms and break down, "dirty" wood and rich, muddy substrates can do their own "editing" to your tank's aesthetic!
I focused on the substrate in this situation as the source of this cloudiness.
I use a mix of several materials in my substrates- a mix you'd definitely be interested in if you're growing mangroves- but a substrate which, if disturbed, is almost certainly a recipe for some cloudy water!
And that's exactly what I experienced in my "mudded" tanks.
I realized that my inclusion of external electronic Vortech MP10 pumps to create "intelligent" water movement at every level of the tank would possibly disturb the substrate a bit. Combined with the activities of some bottom-dwelling fishes like Bumblebee Gobies and the slow "excavating" on the surface of the substrate done by the snails, it was a certain recipe for...some turbidity- cloudiness, if you will.
It's something I kind of knew would be an issue going in these setups. I mean, not completely positive, but pretty certain. And quite frankly, I wasn't 100% certain how long it would last, or if it would ever go away. I mean, when you play with mangroves, you need a fairly deep substrate in some parts...so that's a big "supply" of sediments that could potentially cloud the water!
As a long-time reefer, I always thought about "crystal clarity" of water as being a sort of "measure" of overall water quality...which, of course, isn't really a complete story. You can have turbidity and high water quality, right?
Depends what's causing it.
When I began playing with mud in my mangrove tanks, I needed to see what it was that was causing the cloudiness, and what impact on water quality it was having.
So, what did I do? How did I cope with this question?
Well, it was pretty straightforward to me: First, I needed to ascertain exactly what was going on. I did the "sniff test" to see if one of those obvious and classic "bad news" scenarios of bacterial blooms or other pollution was immediately apparent.
Nope. No smell!
Now, I've been in the game long enough to know that smell isn't the whole game, so a full "suite" of basic water testing (pH, nitrite/ammonia/nitrate/phosphates) was undertaken...The results were no nitrite and ammonia, and virtually undetectable nitrate and phosphate. The latter two are generally agreed to be a good "biological yardstick" of aquarium water quality, so it kind of made sense.
And I kind of figured that was the case.
I felt that it was a direct result of the decision to include very fine sediments/mud in my substrate mix. Now, you could look at the potential "negatives" of this turbidity (umm, mainly that it looks kind of...well, shitty to many!) and think that this is a huge problem. Or, you could embrace it- much like we do in our blackwater/botanical-style aquariums with their "look"- as part of the "functional aesthetics" of a rich, active substrate in a dynamically-evolving aquarium. These episodes seem to wax and wane over time, too.
If you look at some of the surface level and underwater photos of mangrove habitats in Nature, you'll see this similar "haziness" as well. Now, not all of these environments feature this haze, although most do- and an aquarium is a closed system without the benefit of miillions of liters of water for dissolution- but the analog is, ahem- clear to me!
And curiously, I've noticed these kinds of phenomenon before in my aquariums which utilized mud-based substrates. And often, the cloudiness dissipates over time. It could be sediments...it could also be a bloom of microorganisms which are flourishing in in the water as a result of the organic materials from this sediment. Obviously, a micro-assay or other more focused study would be far more conclusive.
However, I think that the critical part of this equation is how we think about this stuff and accept it into the "big picture" of the management and "lifetime" of our aquarium systems- and how we react!
This lead to- you guessed it-another mental shift in my aquarium work
In my situation, the options I had were pretty straightforward: I could flat-out dismantle the aquarium and re-set it without mud. Totally unacceptable to me. Or, I could keep the system running and continue to do regular water exchanges, utilize micron filter socks, and chemical filtration media.
Essentially, dong "nothing different" to address the issue. Consistency. Patience. Acceptance.
And that's what I did. I kept doing what I was doing. And interestingly, the cloudiness subsided substantially after about a week. Kind of like I thought it might.
It always has worked out like that in every mangrove tank I've played with.
As we've been telling you for years, mangrove ecosystems are dynamic, highly complex, not well-understood habitats. Mangrove forests have been described as detritus-based ecosystems- something I find both compelling and exciting as a hobbyist! This has had profound impact on my utilization of mangroves in natural aquariums.
Our representation of them in the aquarium, while certainly more limited than Nature in terms of function, can still provide a very interesting, productive habitat for a variety of fishes and other organisms, with unique benefits seldom embraced in the hobby.
Keeping mangroves in the aquairum is about husbandry and perspective as much as anything else...And accepting the fact that the mangroves and the leaves which they drop are part of the ecology of an aquarium, and that they will behave as all terrestrial materials do when submerged.
Stay focused. Stay curious. Stay diligent. Stay observant. Stay patient...
And Stay Wet.
When I look back over the years in my aquarium hobby journey, it's obvious to me that there has been a sort of "evolution" of my aquarium philosophy. You can see it in each progressive tank: Little elements, slowly coming together create a big picture. Each tank provided little "test bed" for proving out new concepts and ideas.
Some were spectacularly successful, and had the added bonus of being labeled as "iconic"by others in the hobby (an honor, but not necessary IMHO).
Others were just quick iterations of an idea, and never really evolved to anything notable. Still others validated-or, in some instances, disproved- concepts and ideas that we wanted to try.
They helped break new ground in moving our "thesis" of the natural, botanical-style aquarium as a functional ecosystem forward.
Others were just passing thoughts, which sort of vanished into obscurity.
Yet, looking back upon my "body of work" of the last 5-10 years, I can see a common "through-line" in everything that I did. Each tank, in its own way, advanced the state of the art of what we do here. Stuff seemingly as incongruous as sedimented substrates, in-situ wood curing, and starting a system fallow fishes for extended periods of time often yield important results which advance our work significantly.
There is a certain comfort we as aquarists can take from our experience.
After a certain number of years in the aquarium keeping game, it seems as if you develop, in addition to an ever-growing collection of fishes, plants, tanks, equipment, and “stuff”, a certain “je ne sais quoi” - an intrinsic knowledge, a “sixth sense”, or even a swagger, sort of- about your aquariums.
Am I right here? I mean, after you’ve collected, kept, propagated, bred- and yeah, unfortunately- killed- your fair share of fishes, you kinda just “know” when things are going well, and when something is terribly amiss with your collection. It’s a skill- or perhaps- a blessing- or even a “curse” that we afflicted hobbyists acquire during our tenure in the aquarium-keeping hobby..
You know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you? Yeah…You’ve developed that crazy ability to look beyond the obvious when observing your tank, and being able to quickly ascertain what’s join on in there. You can tell at a glance that your favorite stand of aquatic plants is just not looking "right", or that your prized Tropheus is about to go south.
Perhaps it’s a result of that new supplement you just switched to, or that change you made to your lighting program. Maybe, it’s a result of postponing your regular water change. Regardless of what it is, you have the ability to sense something is not right.
And of course, you know when things are going really well, too!
After dealing with- no- obsessing with- aquariums for a few years, you certainly develop a personal “baseline” for your animals, and when something is “not right”, it’s immediately apparent to you. And the interesting thing is that this ability comes to EVERYONE who keeps tanks…It’s not a skill reserved for the privileged few or the occasional “gifted” aquarist…No- it’s a skill that we ALL develop over time based on observing and adjusting…and "enduring” the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of an aquarium.
The intriguing thing about this hobby is just how addicting or engaging it can be. How all-encompassing and satisfying it is. I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who “dabbles” with aquariums. Then again, I tend not to hang with people who "dabble" in aquariums...
Rather, it's "binary": They’re either hooked on aquariums, or they keep mice or something. Why is that? Well, I think that part of the reason is that once you try a tank, you just “get it”, and your interest and passion blossom from there. Aquarium keeping offers stimulation and challenges that few other hobbies can. It's what creates 4--tank fish rooms from one 10-gallon "community tank" in the living room from Christmas time.
Those of us who are hardcore hobbyists are basically in it for life. Sure, there might be a year or two where circumstances keep us out of the game for a bit, but we never fully disengage. I know a lot of aquarists who had awesome tanks, and then for one reason or another, got out for a while…However, when they got back into it- and they ALWAYS did- they would tell me things like, “Yeah, I always followed the forums and read the magazines and stuff..” It just never really gets out of your system.
This “thing” that we do- this hobby, pastime- obsession…whatever you wan to call it, seems to encompass every emotion and experience you can have in life, doesn’t it? Pleasure, pain, happiness, sorrow, frustration, a sense of individuality, as well as a sense of belonging- they’re all there.
I've learned over the years to view each aquarium that I've created as a step in a very long journey. I've learned that each and every aquarium is a"teacher"; a sage imparting wisdom to me.
All of these tanks have helped me as hobbyist share the love I have for the process of creating unique botanical-style aquariums.
That, to me, is the charm of what we do as aquarists who embrace this philosophy. We celebrate the process. We celebrate the process because we understand how it positively impacts the environment of our aquariums and the fishes which reside in them.
Those of us who look at Nature as it is, and choose to embrace it in our tanks, instead of some sanitized, stylized representation, find true beauty in this ephemeral characteristic that botanicals bring.
Just like in the wild, the way terrestrial materials break down and "devolve" under water is fascinating, biologically useful...and beautiful.
We've learned this by following Nature, and allowing these processes to occur over and over again in our tanks. Now, some hobbyists find the fact that we allow materials to break down in our tanks like they do in Nature to be undisciplined, even "messy."
However, I've learned what many of you have over your fish keeping careers: The so-called "mess" is- or often leads to -something beautiful, permanent, and utterly engrossing. So the term "mess", as we might commonly use it, should not be viewed as negative. It's more of a "transition", IMHO!
"Mess" is actually a vehicle to propel us in different aquascaping/experimental directions. It actually is the embodiment of Amano's wabi-sabi philosophy, which embraces the transience of nature- and celebrates it. It appreciates and understands the beauty in the ephemeral aspects of Nature.
It requires some study, appreciation, and yes- mental shifts.
These mental shifts come as a result of a progression, gained by experience. And that experience is obtained by creating and managing these unique aquairums over time.
Mental shifts which allow us to appreciate the process in Nature as much as we do in our tanks. Somehow, I think that seeing these processes play out in the wild aquatic habitats gives some of us "permission" to allow it to happen in our aquariums!
We can take comfort in seeing that these habitats thrive despite what appears to be contrary to our hobby interpretation of how we think they're "supposed" to look and function.
And that's okay. It's part of the game. It's how Nature teaches us. And what Nature teaches us is, in my opinion, every bit as valuable- if not more so- than the latest aquascape contest winner who's "diorama 'scape" is all the rage on Instagram, or wherever.
Yet, I've had numerous tanks which, for one reason or another, I simply elected not to go forward with.
Perhaps you can relate to this:
So, you have this idea for an aquarium. You kind of see it in your head...you've assembled the materials, got it sort of together.
You add water.
Then, you walk in the room one day, look at it and... you HATE it.
Like, you're done with it. Like, no re-hab on the design. No "tweaking" of the wood or whatever...You're just over the thing. Ever felt that?
What do you do?
Well, I had this idea for a nano tank a while back. It seemed good in my head...I had it up for a nanosecond.
Even memorialized it with some Instagram "Stories" posts.
I thought that the tank would be a sort of "blank canvas" for an idea I had...I liked the idea, in principle.
But I didn't see a way forward with this one. I even took the extraordinary step of removing one element of the tank (the wood) altogether, in the hope of perhaps just doing my "leaf only scape V3.0"- but I wasn't feeling it.
It was a stillborn idea. A tank not capable of evolving to anything that interested me at this time.
So...I killed it.
Yeah, made away with it. Shut it down. Terminated it...
Whatever you want to call it.
That's really a kind of extraordinary step for me. I mean, I'm sort of the eternal optimist. I try to make almost everything work if I can...
Not this time, however.
I killed it.
Now, after reviewing the aborted aquarium, I was actually able to gain some clarity about why I did it.
What made me do it?
I think it centered around two things that I simply can't handle in aquariums anymore.
1) I absolutely can't stand aquariums which don't have some sort of background- be it opaque window tint, photo paper, or paint. This tank had no background. You could see the window behind it, and the trees outside on the street, and...yeah.
2) I disdain seeing filters or other equipment in my aquariums. Like, I hate it more than you can ever even imagine. Like, I hate seeing filters and stuff. Its only in recent years that I've been able to tolerate seeing filter returns in my all-in-one tanks...and just barely. Now, this nano had a little hang-on-the-back outside power filter...Which I not only saw from the top, but from behind...because-you got it- I didn't have a goddam background on the tank, yes.
I mean, am I that much of a primadonna that I can't handle that? I mean, maybe, but I like to think of it as a situation where I have simply developed an aesthetic sense that just can't tolerate some stuff anymore. I have good ideas, and then I get to equipment...and it sort of "stifles" them a bit.
This is weird.
Okay, yeah, maybe I am prima donna.
What could I have done to salvage this tank?
Use a canister filter and glassware, you say?
Oh, sure. That's easy, right? I mean, all you see in the tank are these elegant curves of "lily pipes" and intakes...You just take 'em out and bleach 'em every once in a while and they stay nice and clean, and..
Okay, yeah. Great. On paper, anyways.
IMHO, glassware isn't the "organic art" that everyone seems to place on some lofty pedestal in the hobby. It reminds me of high school chemistry lab (which I think I got a C minus in, so some residual trauma there, no doubt!). You think it's beautiful...I think it's simply dreadful.
It's another piece of equipment, which you see on the outside of the tank, too, with its "umbilical" of return lines shooting up along the sides. Now sure, I know these were developed to make an obvious, visible necessity (filter returns) more elegant and beautiful...Cool. It's a significant improvement over what was available before.
However, to me, they're just that- obvious, visible, distracting...and ugly.
I know, I'm being too stupid about this. There are a lot of other things I should getworled up about.
Yet, even in that aborted project, I learned something.
I gained further clarity on something thatI held my head: I have an "anti-glassware/lack of colored background/visible equipment fetish!" I hate equipment that hangs over tanks. I hate seeing through tanks. This tank helped me, by once again reinforcing i some things that I don't like, superficial though they may have been.
These are obviously aesthetic concerns. Of course, there are always concerns about process, procedures, and our philosophy about creating and managing aquariums.
This stuff wasn't necessarily that.
It wasn't stuff which I felt would not directly advance my "agenda." Yet, in a weird way, it DID. It helped my again realize certain things about aquariums which I don't like, and how to build off of them.
A certain "self-awareness", if you will.
A way to move forward.
Yeah, EVERY execution, no matter how good or how seemingly not-so-good to us it is, moves us forward.
Stay bold. Stay creative. Stay diligent. Stay observant...
And Stay Wet.