It’s kind of funny to me how the same sorts of topics and issues keep popping up in the hobby world. Now two years removed from the business end of the reef world, I can see with a bit more clarity some of the happenings and trends in the hobby. And, talking to aquarists of all types daily, I am seeing what I find s somewhat obvious “cultural issue” we have in the hobby.
And I’ll come right out and state my “thesis” here:
I think that we- as a hobby, are not doing a good enough job celebrating the process of creating aquariums.
I think we celebrate the “finished product” and fail to celebrate the joy, the heartache, the time- and the patience- the journey-which go into an aquarium. And further, I don't think we as a hobby do enough to recognize the telltale signs of hobbyists going too fast..
Since you spend time on forums Like R2R, you’ll see evidence of this all over the place. And I’m not the only one who has been noticing this, as evidenced by the considerable number of pm’s and emails I receive, and, the discussions I’ve had with other hobbyists on the subject.
Okay, we do have “build threads”, which are pretty cool, I think! We at least facilitate the sharing of the process of building reef tanks. They’re pretty popular, as they are inuring, interesting, and for many- aspirational.
While the bulk of them do just that- celebrate the process- a disturbing number of them seem to exude an underlying feeling of “impatience”- a sense that there is a “destination” to get to- and that the person posting wants to get there really quickly! And I get this sense when I talk or correspond with some reefers, too. I see these types of “dysfunctional” (for want of a better word) build threads in reef keeping forums constantly, and they follow a very predictable path. They start out innocently and exciting enough- the tank concept is highlighted, the acquisition of (usually expensive) equipment is documented, and the build begins. The pace quickens. The urgency to “get the livestock in the tank asap” is palpable. Soon, pretty large chunks of change are dropped on some of the most trendy, expensive coral frags- or worse yet- colonies- available.
Everyone “oohs and ahhs” over the additions. Those who understand the processes involved- and really think about it- begin to realize that this is going too fast…that the process is being rushed…that shortcuts and “hacks” are cherished more than the natural processes required for success. Sure enough, within a month or so, frantic social media and forum posts are written by the builder, asking for help to figure out what his/her expensive corals are “struggling”, despite the amount spent on high-tech equipment and said corals from reputable vendors.
When suggestions are offered by members of the community, usually they’re about correcting some aspect of the nitrogen cycle or other critical biological function that was bypassed or downplayed by the aquarist. Usually, the “fixes” involve “doubling back” and spending more time to “re-boot” and do things more slowly. To let the system sort of evolve (oh- THAT word!) The “yeah, I know, but..” type of responses- the ones that deflect responsibility- start piling up from the hobbyist. Often, the tank owner will apply some misplaced blame to the equipment manufacturer, the livestock vendor, the LFS employee…almost anyone but himself/herself. And soon after, the next post is in the forum’s “For Sale” section, selling off components of a once-ambitious aquarium. Another hobbyist lost to lack of patience.
The single most important thing you need for a successful reef tank (well, except maybe cash!)- and the thing we celebrate the least, IMHO. And we should celebrate it a lot more.
Because you really can’t skip the process…
Well, we can speed up some processes- adding bacterial additives to our new aquariums to “jump start” the nitrogen cycle. We can utilize nutritive soils and additives to help give plants the nutrition they need from day one. We can densely plant. All of these things and more are ways we have developed to speed up the natural processes which occur in our aquariums over time. They are band aids, props- quick starts…”hacks”, if you will. But they are not the key to establishing a successful long-term-viable aquarium. Ultimately, nature has to “approve” and work with any of the “boosts” we offer.
It’s a problem, IMHO. It doesn’t apply to everyone- it’s not always a devastating ending. However, it happens often enough to affect the hobby as a whole, especially when someone drops out because they went in with unrealistic expectations brought about by the observations they make every time they open up their iPad.
The problem is, we as a hobby love to highlight the finished product. We document and celebrate the beauty of the IAPLC (a global freshwater aquascaping contest) champion’s ‘scape. But we minimally document the process that it took to get there. The reality is that the journey to the so-called “finished product” is really every bit as interesting as the finished product itself! It’s where the magic lies. The process. The journey. The time. The evolution. The patience.
I’ve always found it somewhat odd to see those amazing high-concept planted tanks broken down in their prime by the owner, to start a new one. I guess it’s part of the culture of that niche…a sort of self-imposed “termination” when something new is desired. The “process” is about hitting certain benchmarks and moving on, I suppose. (and if you only have one tank and 500 ideas, and the goal is to enter it into a new contest, it makes sense) And we have to respect that. But we also have a duty to explain this to newcomers. We have to let people know that, even in one of those seemingly “temporary” displays, patience and the passage of time are required.
Sure, these aspects don’t make for the best “optics”, as they say in politics. You can’t show an empty, cloudy aquarium on Instagram or Facebook and get 400 “likes” on the pic. No one wants to see the results of 33 consecutive nitrate tests. It’s not sexy. Sadly, acceptance from others of how cool our tanks are is a big deal for many, so sharing an “under construction” tank is not as exciting for a lot of people, because we celebrate that “finished product” (whatever it is) more than the process of getting there. We simply need to celebrate patience, the journey, and the “evolution” of our aquariums more. After a lifetime in the hobby it’s pretty easy for a guy like me to see when things are going in a direction that may not give the happy outcome my fellow hobbyists want. I see this just as much in the freshwater world as I do in the reef world. And with concerns about the growth of the hobby always brought up in gatherings and discussions, I think we owe it to ourselves to look at this more seriously; to think about the impact of this stuff on “big picture” a bit more.
Think about this:
Part of the reason why we celebrate the “evolution” of reef tanks is because the very act of working with one of these tanks IS an evolution. A process. A celebration of sensory delights. A reef aquarium has a “cadence” of its own, which we can set up- but we must let nature dictate the timing and sequencing. It starts with an empty tank. Then, the mixing of saltwater, the addition of live rock and sand…The excitement of the initial placement of the rocks within the tank. The gradual “addition of the corals. The progressive development of biofilms and algae “patinas”. Ultimately, the growth of the corals and associated fauna. All part of a process which can’t be “hacked” or rushed. Mother Nature is in control.
We need to stress the process as much as the “finished product” (whatever that might be in this instance). I constantly talk about this, I know, but it’s really fundamental, IMHO. And it would be easy to describe my concern as very opinionated (well, it probably is…), but if you look at it objectively, it’s worth looking at.
We see people come into the hobby with some expectations of how they want their own reef to look, based on the tanks they see on forums and elsewhere. Human nature. Nothing wrong with having aspirational tanks to challenge us. Yet, we really need to stress the aesthetics of the tank during the “evolution” as part of the function, too. We should celebrate algae, coralline, and the growth and die off of some corals. It’s the very essence of Amano’s interpretation of Wabi-Sabi- the celebration of the transient nature of existence. And I get it. Not everyone appreciates the “zen-like” mindset I think is required to truly enjoy a reef like this. Not everyone finds the algae and small inverts growing on the undersides of live rock alluring. The fact that it closely replicates the natural reefs is of little consequence for the hobbyist who dislikes the heavy growth of various fauna and such, and wants a more “artistic” look to his/her tank, or a way to display his “LE” frags.. And not everyone is into water testing, gear, etc.
And that’s okay.
most of us celebrate the process. The evolution. Savor the time it takes to see a tank mature in this fashion. We love new tanks, just starting the journey, because we know how they progress if they are left to do what nature wants them to do. We understand as a community that it takes time. It takes patience. And that the evolution is the part of the experience that we can savor most of all…because it’s continuous.
As a hobby in general, we need to document and celebrate the process. We need to have faith in nature, and relish the constant change, slow and indifferent to our needs though it may be. We need to emphasis to new and old aquarists alike that, in this 24/7/365 intent-enabled world we’re in- that patience, time, and evolution are all part of the enjoyment of the aquarium hobby. The smell of a brand new tank. The delight at the first new growth of a frag. The addition of the first fishes. All are experiences on a road -a journey- which will forever continue. As long as we allow the processes which enable it to do so.
Be kind to yourself. Be good to the hobby. Document. Share. Savor the process.
Stay patient. Stay generous. Stay honest. Stay curious.
And Stay Wet.