Maintaining an aquarium is, by all accounts, an excellent hobby. Aquariums are calming – the residents’ jerky yet somehow methodical movements pull you into a concentration where all that exists are them and you. They are grounding – caring for something as minute as a fish or snail reminds you that humans do not hold a monopoly on the value of life. And, perhaps most importantly, they implicate us in a mutual system of balance that can be extended to many other aspects of our lives.
Since middle school, creating and maintaining aquatic environments has been somewhat of an obsession for me. I’ve had several tanks and several species. I’ve grown from relying on plastic plants to being able to maintain living ones (which is much more fulfilling). And this affinity has carried well into college.
Predictably, Fish N’ Stuff is easily among my favorite stores in Athens. The staff is knowledgeable, the prices are fair and the selection is varied. This is also probably why I have spent my money there excessively. On my most recent spree, I purchased a small aquarium to house some invertebrates – namely, snails and shrimp, along with some live plants.
I benefit greatly from watching the tank, which has a distinctly soothing aura. As I observe the creatures go about their business, weaving through the plants and over the sand, it occurred to me that what I have here is truly a micro-ecosystem. There is undoubtedly a strong symbiosis in the tank. The plants help keep the water clean and clear as they oxygenate it and remove harmful substances from the water. They offer shelter and enrichment to the aquarium’s residents.
The residents, in turn, also offer services to the plants; first, they eat decaying plant matter, which helps promote future growth. Second, they offer nutrients in the form of waste. There also exists a whole legion of living beings that I cannot see with the naked eye, but are still certainly there. This crowd of microorganisms also helps to keep the aquarium clean and functioning.
There is an imminently evident balance in this aquarium and in most others. This balance, of course, is a microcosm for systems much greater – communities, ecosystems and all sorts of social groups, to name a few. Even more meaningful is that I have a direct role in this balance – not that of a master, but rather that of a steward. I ensure the aquarium’s residents receive sufficient food and light; they repay me with comfort and intrigue.
We all participate in the balance of things in some way or another. The distinction between participating and controlling is an important one: participation demands a balanced mutuality that control does not. It means giving and receiving on an equal footing rather than giving domination and expecting submission in return. It means recognizing our role within the greater scheme of life.
Manifesting this type of balance in our lives has huge implications in domains ranging from the climate crisis to politics to socializing and beyond. Maintaining an aquarium is an excellent way to cultivate a lens and practice of balance on a small scale. With some species, care is rather simple, and with outlets like Fish N’ Stuff and other pet stores in Athens, getting started is a breeze.
Sam Smith is a rising senior studying geography at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Sam know by tweeting him @sambobsmith_.