Updated: Jun 7, 2021
An ode on the joy of cultivating aquatic life
I grew up in a pet-loving family.
By the time I was in middle school, our five-person clan, consisting of my mom and dad and my two older brothers, welcomed a dog (a beagle-hound mix we named Spots), a cat (an orange and white tabby we named Samson) a hamster (whose name I'm forgetting) and, eventually, a school of tropical fish (some breeding angel fish, snails, and a school of tetra) into the fold.
When I celebrated the sacrament of Confirmation in eighth grade at the suburban Baltimore church in which I was raised, I chose Francis as my name, after the celebrated Italian Catholic companion of all creatures great and small. I was drawn to his legendary kindness toward other species of animal and found in his example a model of behavior for how to traverse the interspecies boundary.
By the time I was in high school and my oldest brother had taken off to college seminary in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he would keep his knack for raising a tank of exotic fish, I found psychic refuge in building an aquarium of my own. Only I preferred the simplicity of caretaking a popular freshwater breed of tropical swimmers known as betta fish, from the genus Betta (meaning "warrior" in Malay -- more on that later).
I had a red "veil-tail" betta with a name I cannot recall, that survived our cat's attempt on his life in a hexagonal half-gallon container with some light, plastic decor. He sat atop my work desk contentedly, or so I thought, observing his surroundings in the quietude of his solitary environs.
After he passed and the obligations of student life heightened with my own move to college a couple hours north in Philadelphia, there was a notable absence of animal companionship in my life. I was too busy living and working in a milieu that occupied all of my attention, between commitments to studies, extra-curricular activities and friend groups I was forming. The absence stretched through my early adult life as keeping a fish, or any animal for that matter, was out of the question. Too much movement and not enough bandwidth to take care of another living being.
But now, as I approach middle life on a plot of land I share with my life partner, roots are beginning to spread and I'm finding the kind of monastic stability for which I've been restless since I first considered religious life as a vocation in high school. As I settle into a shared living space in the midst of an endless quarantine, and my outside obligations dwindle to social contacts, time has given me an opportunity to fashion a new world in the company of a little friend I made a month ago named Soul.
He's another Veil-tail -- this time blue-scaled -- I adopted from a local pet store that takes good care of its aquatic life, plants and animals alike. The fish are purchased wholesale from an ethical vendor called Pan Ocean Aquarium, Inc., based in the Bay Area of Northern California, which stocks its betta selection through breeders in Thailand, the betta fish's homeland. I picked Soul up on a whim one Friday morning in January during a few hours break from the captivity of my own boredom. I had it in mind to start an aquarium hobby since I moved to Humboldt County two years ago, but life's obligations sidetracked that intention until I walked inside Arcata Pet Supply.
Something was tugging at me. ... I was going to buy a fish today.
Inside the aquatic center -- a dimly lighted backroom illumined from within by the crystalline glow of LED and lined with multiple-gallon tanks housing all manner of fish and underwater plant species -- I stepped immediately to the colorful inventory behind me once through the doorway. Against a sliver of front wall over my left shoulder, in standard half-gallon holding cells, were a series of the colloquially designated Siamese Fighting fish, male and female -- some fluttering about, others dead still in the bare solitude of their inadequate living spaces like inmates awaiting release.
Native to Cambodia and Thailand, bettas garnered a reputation as fighting fish nearly 200 years ago due to their fierce independence as observed in the rice patties and water canals of Southeast Asia. Because of this, they were bred specifically to spar in public events that became so popular by the 19th Century the king of then-Siam decided to tax the gatherings. Eventually, a friend of his would present one to a Danish doctor, spreading their appeal for domestic use in European and American homes. The name "betta splendens" was given to this species of Betta, of which there are 73, by a British scientist, Dr. Tate Regan. It translates from the Malay language to "beautiful warrior." By the 20th Century, bettas found their way to the United States, by which time they were bred for ornament, evolving from the rather plain fish you see in the wild to the ornate breeds you see in most homes. As noted, mine is of the veil-tail variety.
Tapped into the awe and wonder I felt as a child walking through the front doors of my favorite Baltimore pet store -- with that familiar, aromatic amalgam of critter fur, kibble, fish food and fresh aquarium water sifting through the air -- I entered the bubbling filter-hum of the fish room as through a time portal.
"I'm going to free one of you," a voice inside me told the fish.
I heard an echo back, "One of us is going to free you."
I knew I wanted a male betta for its arabesque fin span, and I knew I wanted one with scales that were blue, my favorite color. Staring at my options in total absorption, I let the betta pick me using a simple gauge: Whichever one greeted me with the most enthusiasm I would respond in kind.
Scanning them intuitively like a deck of Tarot cards, there was one in particular that danced a bit more than the others when my mug neared the clear plastic frame.
"I'll take that one," I told the patient clerk waiting on me.
I looked at all the green life around me as he filled a transparent bag with filtered water. A live plant would be an important addition to provide a suitable homecoming for my guy. I had no experience of caring for one in the past as I always decorated my personal tanks with artificial foliage. It was time for a grown-up approach.
"What would you recommend as a good plant for a betta?" I asked the vendor.
He pulled some eel grass out of the corner of one tank. "He'll like this," he said, instructing me to drop it in and bury it in some substrate.
"Substrate .... right," I thought to myself. The next step was to buy a tank and some gravel.
Figuring I knew what bettas prefer -- something small but spacious -- I set my eye on a two-and-a-half gallon Aqueon enclosure.
Another clerk approached me in the fish care aisle.
"I'm looking to set up a betta tank and I know they need water treatment," I said, asking for his recommendation.
He pointed to some almond leaf extract that would naturally filter the water while providing tannins, which breeders posit to have anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. Bettas also love that tea-tinted water, I would later learn, as it mimics the murky waters of their natural habitat. In this way, bettas prefer softer water with higher acidity at a pH level between five and seven.
Once at the checkout counter -- starter tank, green glass pebbles, an ornamental "sunken castle," eel grass and betta in hand -- the same clerk who pointed me to the treatment pressed me.
"Do you have a heater for your fish?" he asked.
"Oh," I said, ignorant of a betta's tropical climate. "No."
The clerk paused. "Well, it gets cold inside in the winter," he said. "It would be best if he had a heater to regulate the temperature."
One temperature-regulating, charcoal heater and a glass roof later, I was on my way home, excited with the anticipation of creating a miniature world for this new soulmate. I knew almost immediately that I wanted to call him Soul -- after the ancient Greek concept of the body-animating life principle, attributed to both cognition and emotion, that prompts us to moral action and demonstrates its power in virtues such as courage, justice and temperance. Also, I appreciate its association with Black cultural metaphysics and its importance as a signifier for the essence of what it means to be truly alive.
I thought it a fitting designation because here was a two-inch burst of life that needed proper tending in order to flourish. There is an obvious analogy at play here, too. Soul is an objective correlative for the life-force animating me as I enter a phase of life in which I am taking greater responsibility for how I direct my energies. Care of my Soul would function as care of, well, my soul -- an accountability partner to hold me to the commitments I've made in this new year to growth.
In the three weeks since I introduced Soul to his new home I've made a series of adjustments to his immediate environment based on close observation of his body language -- the most notable of which has been upgrading to a suitably-sized fit for him at five-and-a-half gallons. What I figured would be a low-maintenance endeavor has taken me into delightful tunnels of online research -- from official aquarist websites to enthusiast message boards to YouTube tutorials -- and a subsequent fine-tuning of proper care according to repeated pet store visits.
Indeed, a look at my recent internet search history reveals a near-endless list of betta-related questions:
Where do bettas come from?
Do bettas need a filter?
Why is my betta surfing the back wall?
Betta staying in back corner ...
Betta surfing filter bubbles ...
What kinds of plants are best for bettas?
Can bettas have tank mates?
How big should tank be for betta tank mates?
LED light too bright for bettas?
Do bettas have good sense of smell?
Do bettas have good eyesight?
Can bettas see in the dark?
Really, the underlying concern in all of this: Will my betta live?
In the course of this process I am learning, first of all, that each betta -- of which there are an array of species type within the genus -- has a distinct personality, and that you will know how a betta is feeling by the degree to which they dance, fluff their magnificent plumage and show enthusiasm for feeding. Male bettas, if feeling especially at ease, will create "bubble nests" -- basically, surface-floating saliva pockets -- in preparation for encasing his mate's eggs, even when no mate is present.
As they come from swampy, tropical environments, bettas prefer warm (between 76 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit) waters, low-light conditions with a lot of vegetation, some surface cover and a lot of hiding spaces inside a tank that is wider than it is tall (bettas have evolved to suck oxygen from the air through their labrynth organ and thus tend toward shallower waters).
Contrary to popular belief, bettas actually need a lot of space. Yes, their natural milieu is shallow but it is also very wide, so dedicated aquarists scoff at the minimum recommendation of two-and-a-half gallon tanks and outright condemn corporate pet store recommendations of a quarter gallon. Bettas can survive confined conditions but they will not be happy. Hence, a minimum of five gallons is encouraged to start.
I realized this firsthand as Soul was simply unsatisfied with the two-and-a-halfer set-up. In the first week I had him situated there he paced frantically back-and-forth along the back wall, stopping only to eat the two to three pellets bettas require twice a day (with one day reserved for fasting to allow further digestion and thus protect their swim bladders; bettas' stomachs are about the size of one of their eye balls).
My first adjustment was to purchase a small sponge filter that would not upset the stillness bettas prefer. This cleared the cloudy water and guaranteed slow build of algae.
I had a selenite crystal in the tank and took that out to provide Soul added swim space and to guard against harmful mineral leakage. I then placed two other plants: a hardy java fern that requires little maintenance and enjoys low light and a moss ball, also sturdy and a good betta play toy, functioning much like a soccer ball.
Still ... the pacing.
I noticed now that he was so stressed in his new environment and with the daily adjustments I was making to accommodate him that his caudal fin was tearing.
"Okay," I thought, now two weeks into what was fast morphing from leisurely past-time to obsessive hobby, "I'll get another java fern for floating cover."
I walked out of the pet store a day later with a new tank (I was able to return my previous tank in exchange for the upgrade at no cost), some precautionary ParaGuard protective drops, a screened cover, a package of tan gravel, a netted bag of tiger eye, a second java fern and moss ball, some java moss and a small handful of floating frogbit. I had a twisted piece of hard driftwood (because its consistency matters) that was lying on one of my home altars and decided it would provide the centerpiece for the new aquascape.
"There," I said. "Complete."
Days later and Soul was still surfing the back wall, preferring the warm and familiar corner for heater and filter where he skims the latter's bubbles to clear the gills as I learned from one online betta thread.
Perhaps he felt too exposed, even with all the new additions. Either that or he was still acclimating to the new digs. I figured I would wait and see. He was certainly very active and greeted me with enthusiasm when he saw me (bettas, like any pet, do recognize their caregivers), but why just that corner, that wall, Soul?
Going into my third week as a newly self-discovered aquarist I had a dream in which I was rearranging Soul's world yet again with a series of java ferns surrounding a potted plant. There was no other ornamentation in the tank -- just plants, like an underwater forest. The potted plant had not yet sprouted but my sense is that I was preparing for new growth in the dream.
I went back to the pet store that afternoon and returned home with four additional java plants. I removed the sunken castle -- which now provides exterior decor for a makeshift altar I constructed to cover unsightly wiring -- and sculpted the space as I saw it in my sleep state.
Now, into my fourth week of pet ownership, I can say with authority that I have a happy mate with repaired fins. The incessant glass surfing is now supplemented with curious aquatic exploration -- from the dark underworld of java shade through the archways of driftwood and fern leaf. Soul has taken to unprovoked dancing at the front of the tank, unabashedly boasting his iridescent sheen as his silken scales refract light like a disco ball. As I type this, he is weaving in and around the java fern, fins spread full of joyful flutter. Not only does Soul have a soul, he's got soul!
I am in love.
The other day, my beloved admitted jokingly he's felt a bit jealous of Soul. I guess I can't blame him. I am compiling hours of transfixed sitting, observant of Soul's every move, occasionally prodding him into a game of hide-and-seek to which he responds playfully. This is my own soul's joy, simple and true, emerging from the watery depths of my unconscious at this unexpected courtship.
What I'm learning -- beside a whole hell of a lot about aquarium biology -- is the art of soulcraft.
Our interior lives, like my aquatic shadow box and its residents, require gentle and watchful tending. Sometimes, all that takes is the presence of awareness. By being aware of that which contributes to our well-being and that which stifles it, we are better capable of growing into the fullness of who we are. This extends outward as well into how we respect and honor the space of the ones we're with on the daily. This is what Soul is teaching me in the subtle, intuitive bond we are forming as two souls bound by interspecies friendship.
I had initially dubbed Soul the "castle guardian." Though his world is removed of that piece of plastic whimsy, it is made richer for the submerged paradise it has become. It is its own kind of "interior castle." Like a monastic enclosure, my little monk has the solitude of his own space but the intimacy of community in our mutual dependence, our interdependence. And bettas are known for this attribute: Though they value having space, territorial of the individual sites they occupy, they are capable of coexistence. It is just a matter of which tank mates you provide and how much room they have to carve their own niche.
Thus, we can stand to learn a thing or two about living alongside each other from bettas. Souls need nourishment in order to grow into themselves. Soulcraft is not something that happens on a whim and with little research. Rather, tending to the inner life is a rewarding if demand process which follows a series of modulations until we find ourselves in tune with our deepest desires for a full life.
In the context of betta care as well as care of the soul, close attention and gradual adjustments to one's environment work to allay the boredom and loneliness of simply living to survive. Such work involves the slow and careful introduction of other lifeforms into our awareness, expanding our worldview to include rather than exclude.
This entails a great deal of freedom to be who one is naturally, without intrusion of anything that smacks of artifice. Soul's castle is in fact his own inner life; I cannot construct that for him -- but I can provide him a happy home in which to do that, one that is organically suited to his nature as betta splendens, as "beautiful warrior."
In betta care, and in care for another sentient being in general, then, I am becoming increasingly aware of the need we all have for breathing room -- to have space set apart for creativity and free play, even as we learn to share in that process of warming a home with others.
My tendency in setting up a rich living environment for another species of animal has been to hover, like an overprotective parent. In that, I have failed to entrust Soul with guardianship over his own life -- what every living thing requires in order to really flourish. So as I leave Soul to do his nesting, I, too, become increasingly contented in this place I call home -- leaving my soul to rest and there find security and build stability. Thus, home is the place where I can give the gift of intimacy from the depths of my own soulitude, as it were, and learn to inhabit life with other lives.
It is all a lesson in true love -- the kind that says, "Let it be." Sage advice to heed in the thick of any life transition, for my soul's sake and that of another. Soul has a two to four year lifespan and I adopted him fully grown at around six months old, according to store clerks. If well cared for, bettas can live into their teens. I pray mine has that fullness of life.
For now, I continue to notice, mindful that all the teeming life in that tank may outgrow its walls soon enough. Perhaps a 10 or 20 gallon comes next. Until then, I'll tend this garden of soul with the patient eye of a dreamer.
UPDATE: 20-gallon Upgrade
After a couple months of learning this new responsibility I went to the local pet store to find a decent LED light fixture for my five and a half gallon, which was previously relying on indirect sunlight and a small LED spotlight.
I found the fixture -- an Aqueon clip-on -- but the shop was short of the proper hooding for it. This twist led me to the nearby Petco to see if they had one in stock; I was in part driven by the temptation to see what they had on sale for a 20 gallon long. I was looking to expand Soul's territory and provide more room for the abundance of plant life in my increasingly shrinking starter tank.
I was in luck.
As I approached the aquatic center in eager anticipation, a floor manager with whom I had spoken several weeks earlier about proper transfer between tanks (you want to make sure to use old filter media and some recycled substrate from the previous aquarium so as to preserve good bacteria and thus keep the ecosystem's nitrogen cycle in check if you should decide for an immediate "fish-in" cycle -- again, this is only recommended if you are using media that has already been cycled from your previous tank).
The sales clerk informed me of a half-off sale I was expecting for the month of April, so this came as a surprise. The price of the $50 Aqueon 20 gallon long I had been coveting since I started on this aquatic journey was now slashed.
"It's time, then," I told myself.
Without reservation, I grabbed a push cart at the front of the store and returned to fill its empty space with this new 30-inch glass centerpiece, some black Fluval mineral-rich substrate, some extra sand-colored gravel as a thin top layer to add earthy color, a large piece of Mopani driftwood to which I would attach my java fern with super glue (most common extra-strength adhesive gels are effective for this purpose and detoxify once they hit water) and some "betta bulbs."
With a week's worth of adjustments, involving the acquisition of four snails -- two mystery snails and two nerites (one horned, one zebra-striped) -- as well as some miniature water lettuce, I now have a fully stocked community tank with a dark water effect. I have also included an American Aquarium Product Wonder Shell for water clarity and parameter efficiency as well as some cuttlefish bone for my snails whose shells need the calcium in what is soft water (more acidic than their preferred pH range). The added minerals will keep them safe and protected. Finally, Tannin Aquatics curated a delightful assortment of botanicals that naturally enhance the betta's environment with a rich release of tannins for a tea-tinted water column that mimics Soul's original habitat.
Despite a brief scare in which I thought Soul might be struggling with ammonia poisoning -- as he was hiding, showing lethargy and revealed no appetite -- the transition has been successful. With a newly purchased API water testing kit, I checked his parameters and all elements were and remain stable -- with ammonia, nitrite and nitrate counts of zero parts per million (ppm). My pH is a suitable seven on the low end and a 7.4 on the high. I'm unsure of the general hardness of my water but the cuttlebone and the American Aquarium Product Wonder Shell will keep those readings in check.
With two days of fasting for Soul, I realized it was likely a case of bloat as my chow-hound bore down on an algae wafer I plopped in the water for my crustacean cronies -- either that or I got too generous with Soul's blood worms. By the second day of digestive detox, Soul was out from hiding (from beneath the driftwood where he was lying on the substrate) and once again greeting me aflutter with dance and the eager anticipation of another meal.
Further update: Two new additions to the family: Psyche and Shadow.
Here is a gallery of photos taken recently featuring further upgrades: a 10-gallon hard-scaped and planted tank housing an orange female crown-tail from Petco I've named Psyche and my original 5.5 gallon now housing a rescue from a local pet store in Eureka, California, that I've named Shadow. Shadow was turned on his side, suffering from swim bladder problems -- likely from travel damage between vendor and fish store. After a brief salt bath upon arrival home, he perked up and is now swimming like a champion, busy building bubble nests on the daily. As you can see, I removed the substrate from Soul's aquarium and hard-scaped it instead -- which I find more visually appealing and much easier maintenance, cleaner. All of my aquaria is now hard-scaped, in fact -- featuring some local river rock from Trinidad State Beach as well as Fern Canyon: two Humboldt County hiking destinations.
International Betta Congress, https://www.ibcbettas.org/.