Four Beads of Glue

Four Beads of Glue

This post is contributed by Barnaby Porter from his archives. Read the previous post here.

More than 20 years ago I had a large, all-glass aquarium custom-built to my specifications. I had it made 4-feet long so it would have plenty of bottom area and room for a natural expanse of gravel and lush green plants waving in the current. I wanted as real a bit of underwater world as I could achieve, and my initial inspiration was to populate it with only native freshwater species – a real Maine aquarium.

Well, that was more than 20 years ago. We never seemed to have a proper place in our house to put it, nor the time for such a project. Until now, seven homes later. In our new house, we designated a special place for my aquarium.

A few months back, after all those years lugging the thing around, I at long last arrived at the time to fire it up, and my first concern was, of course, would it even hold water? If it did, could I trust it? The silicone glue holding the glass together on the corners was a new way of doing things back in the days of the tank’s manufacture. What did they know about such things then?

Steel frames and black tarred joints had always been the norm for me – a system that sensibly depended on the water’s pressure to keep it tight, not to blow it apart as the all- glass model, in my mind, had the potential to do. The last thing I wanted was to experience a 40-gallon wall of water leaping across the living room at me as I snoozed on the couch, goldfish flapping on their sides among the dust balls under the couch, the whole world gone to hell in the middle of a good dream.

Happily, that hasn’t happened yet. The old joints are holding, the plants are waving gently back and forth in the current generated by the circulation pump, and finally, in middle age, I have the aquarium full of fish I’d imagined all along… or nearly so.

It is not a native aquarium. Trout, I decided, are too boring – very pretty, yes, and perhaps good to eat, but boring. They just sit there. Plus, I had no way to keep them cool enough. Shiners and other small, minnowy fish might have been a bit less exciting than what I had in mind too, and they would never have survived the company of their carnivorous companions, the yellow perch, the pickerel and bass with whom they would have been keeping house. No, I ended up going fishing at Bob’s Tropical Fish store.

Instead, what we have to gaze at is a brilliant, sparkling underwater world that represents no less than four of the world’s continents and seven or eight countries – a sort of United Nations of Fishes. It’s not at all a natural grouping, and with the thermometer on the front glass and the heater’s pilot blinking on and off, there is no disguising that the fascinating realm of fishes I have contrived to represent is no more than an artifice of fiction, a garden of hand-picked, fresh-water species whose beauty and compatibility were my only criteria for choosing. That they are from different lands and have been thrown together in unlikely companionship is something I have driven from my mind. Their little water world is just that – their little world, the only one they know.

And I have grown comfortable with this. It is a stable and peaceful place with a beauty all its own. Four “giant” danios forage constantly among tight schools of rasboras and several kinds of tetras. Chinese gold barbs provide a gentle play of exotic color weaving through a gently swaying forest of plants, and bloodfins lend their bright dabs of color, timid though they are. It is a calming community of creatures and lush vegetation that, so long as I do my part as their husband, will thrive in harmony, their curious interactions and meanderings providing me with endless daydreaming amusement.

The one aspect of the aquarium I had not expected my thoughts to dwell on, though, is what I have come to think of as it’s “spaceship” quality. The light coming from the nearby window and the air in the room are the only ambient sources of a life-sustaining nature. All else is dependent upon an artificial support system involving plastic and glass, lights, electricity and pumps, intelligent engineering and a modicum of science. Food is freeze-dried and precisely rationed. The water is filtered through mechanical and biological media and recycled continuously. Temperature is maintained by an electric heater. Light levels and the photo period are artificial as well, and everything is dependent on ME, my habits, my memory and the continuity of my concern with this small ecosystem’s well-being, placing me in the role of God, or fate, or, at the very least, primary steward of this one small watery world existing all by itself in space and time.

Out the window is winter, snow, ice, cold and, tonight, an immense darkness. All the tiny community of fish is aware of, however, is within its four close walls of glass. Their utter trust is in the “foreverness” of their 5 cubic-feet of bright water. Wherever I go in my world, whatever I am doing or thinking, however distracted I might be, their very existence and the fate of their “spaceship” world hinges entirely on my constant awareness of it and them, and, if I’m snoozing in front of the fire, 4 beads of 20-something-year-old glue.

Barnaby’s present-day footnote:
A day did arrive when the world exploded!
Miraculously, everybody survived. As you might imagine, it was quite a panicky moment that involved a lot of yelling, but, in retrospect, hysterically funny.

Barnaby PorterArtist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. On October 7, 2021, Barnaby completed his tenure on Coastal Rivers’ Board of Trustees after six years of service.