The past few days have been all about fish. The near-constant rain had delayed operations in my son’s garden and the waterfalls were slowing up enough to make cleaning the pond pumps and filter a matter of some urgency. So, thinking about a nice, warm coffee instead of rain, mud and leeches, I got out the hosepipe and did the necessary. After we had lost so many fish to the heat in summer, when one of the pumps had been turned off for the builders, we are a bit overprotective, perhaps, but these creatures are in our care and as such we are bound to do our best for them.
I lost several fish last year too, to age, illness and a disastrous equipment failure. I was reluctant to replace them until I knew the tank was healthy again, but every so often, I would look at fish and mentally repopulate the tank.
So, it was no surprise that my son and I finally had our coffee in front of a screen full of fish. We both fell in love with the brilliant metallic sheen of the laser corydoras. Then there were the pearlescent and opaline tinted tetras, the vivid little neons… the vibrant kribensis… all of which are as expensive as the painted jewels they resemble.
The fish in my tank are not so showy. I am not a fish collector… my acquisition of the tank was ‘accidental’. It was left behind, along with its few occupants, when my younger son moved and the fish that called it home dictated what other fish I could add at first. Unexpected hitchhiking fish and shrimp, brought home with plants, dictated the rest as I built up small groups for those that are happiest as part of a shoal.
Yet, although my fish may not be considered the gems of the aquatic world, they are each beautiful in their own right. The bristlenose pleco, for example, is often called ugly, yet its ‘sail’ and fins are a delicate white lace.
They have personalities all their own too. Some traits, like the constant posturing of the little black phantoms, are inherent in the breed, others belong to the individual and the more you watch them, the easier it becomes to discern their characters.
From screen to aquatic store was the inevitable next move, with my son determined to help repopulate my tank. We looked at all the fancy fish…and I came home with a small group of tiny corydoras. Not the metallic and jewelled lasers…just simple peppered corys that won’t overshadow the other fish.
Within a couple of hours, the little fish had responded to their new environment and, far from being ‘just’ simple fish, had begun to reveal their true colours. In the display tanks at the store, crammed in a sterile and overpopulated area far too small for comfort, the little fish had looked fairly bland. Once given the freedom of space, the shelter of rocks, plants to explore and hide in and a more naturally filtered lighting, they blossomed, showing vivid and iridescent blues and greens with every movement.
I watched them exploring their new home… one diving nose-first into the sand, over and over again, playing with obvious joy in an environment far closer to its natural home than any it had known before. These fish are tank-bred, not wild-caught; they have never seen plants, driftwood, sand and roots and have had to compete with shoals of other fish for the food to survive. Yet something within them recognised an echo of their true home in their new home and responded with joy and exuberance, revealing their true beauty.
And I wondered yet again at how much I realise about the human condition from watching fish. The lifestyle lived by most people in developed countries has taken us so far away from our natural environment. We live in comfortable boxes where our basic needs are provided for… yet there is little in our material lives to feed the soul. Most of us are burdened by worries and/or are obliged to compete for position within the workplace…and it may not be the ‘best’ of us that grabs the most… just the fastest, strongest or perhaps the most ruthless… like fish scrabbling for enough food to survive.
I know that when I go out on the moors, I am free… and home. It is not just a break from worry, constant calls and emails, or even the change of scenery. Something within me responds to the life in the land, releasing the bonds of a humdrum existence. I feel light of heart and fleet of foot, laughter bubbles over and sometimes tears fall in joy as I recognise ‘home’, both within and beyond.
Like my plain, peppered fish, I wonder what we could be if our lives were not so bound by convention and necessity that we could feel that joy more often… and whether, like them, we might reveal a hidden beauty.