Fickle as a Prince

[T]he prince must consider…how to avoid those things which make him hated or contemptible….It makes him contemptible to be considered fickle, frivolous, effeminate, mean-spirited, irresolute, from all of which a prince should guard himself as from a rock.

—Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince

The Distraction Game: Watching a Betta Fish

This is Konoshi. She is a betta fish. She lives in a planted tank that I set up based on Diana Walstad’s book, The Ecology of the Planted Aquarium.

So far I’ve kept Konoshi alive for almost two months.

I got her as a fry, probably about 6 to 8 weeks old. Petco sells betta fry as “baby bettas,” although they really shouldn’t. According to all the information I’ve looked at, betta fry are delicate and need special care. I’ve been lucky. Konoshi seems unusually hearty.

Konoshi came in a little tub labeled “Baby Boy Betta.” That was not the first surprise I encountered in dealing with my planted tank.

Originally this was the plan for my bedside tank:


I’ve loved snails ever since I read Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. In the book, Bailey tells the story of how she became bedridden with a terrible illness and filled her days watching and listening to a land snail she had in a terrarium nearby. I fell in love with the idea of having a snail near my own bed that I could watch on the days when lupus kept me horizontal.

But pet stores don’t carry land snails. In the U.S., land snails are considered pests & can’t be transported across state lines. So I researched aquatic snails. I settled on nerites, a kind of African snail that doesn’t breed in freshwater. I started my tank. I waited, and when I couldn’t stand the waiting anymore, I got two nerite snails and named them Ms. Frizzle and Arnold.


But soon I discovered that I’d screwed up in a big way with the snails. First, I didn’t study my Walstad well enough to learn that you can’t put plants in gravel and expect them to absorb all the poop & detritus that snails and plants generate. The plants don’t root well enough in the gravel, and gravel doesn’t provide an effective enough substrate to produce microbes and other poop-eating organisms. And nerites poop a lot. As soon as I put them in the tank, garlands of feces started pouring from the snails’ bodies, possibly from a place near their necks. If they have necks.

Second, and perhaps most disastrously, I panicked about the fact that my tank seemed to have no algae, which is pretty much all nerites eat. I’d bought some algae wafers and stuck three of them in with the snails. They ate a minuscule portion of the wafers and proceeded to suck on the sides of the tank. 

Then I didn’t fish out the wafers once the snails started ignoring them. What could happen? I thought. It’s just algae.

Turns out algae wafers are not exclusively made of algae. I discovered this after about two days, when the wafers started decomposing and putting out an odor that smelled like death. No, there’s krill meal and fish meal mixed in with algae wafers. And when you don’t clean them up afterward they waft unholy clouds of stink like you’ve never experienced. Even the snails couldn’t take it. They parked themselves above the water line and wouldn’t go back in.

Luckily, there’s a giant conventional tank in my son’s room that had plenty of algae. We moved Ms. Frizzle and Arnold into the big tank, and now they are happily installed in nerite paradise.


After I mucked out the tank of death with my bare hands, I decided to try again. I went out and bought sand and a bunch of extra plants to start the process of establishing a happy tank for living things to grow in. Turns out I have no concept of how many plants fit in how many square inches of space. I started a micro tank in a mason jar, and still there were plants that didn’t fit. I started an even bigger tank, which I figured I might house a betta someday. Finally, after even more complications with little crustaceans is never heard of, Cyclopses and little worms and probably other little greeblies, too, I wound up with Konoshi, my baby boy betta who wasn’t a boy at all.

She started out in the small tank and is now in the bigger one. Here are baby pictures of her:


Although you can’t really tell in the pictures, she is a gorgeous shade of deep blue. Indeed, her name in Japanese means “deep blue star.” (At least that’s the meaning I aimed for when I came up with the word. I’m learning Japanese. More on that another time.)

Konoshi moves a little like a cat. She like sniffing out food and then pouncing . Often, she’ll eat food off my finger, although I suspect what she really wants is to take my whole finger off. Today, as I was adjusting one of my plants, she nipped at my arm. Bettas are extremely aggressive and territorial, which is why they mostly have to live by themselves.

I don’t mind the nipping. It means she’s laid claim to the tank I put together for her, and that makes me happy. At night, I watch her slip through her jungle of anacharis and Amazon sword, hide behind her big flat river rock, and swim through the little structure I bought that my son calls the Stone Lighthouse. The Stone Lighthouse has an opening on the top and bottom and is hollow inside, so Konoshi can disappear through one door and reappear at another.  It’s sort of like a magic trick.

In the weeks since the Trump (brrk) presidency began and we’ve seen things go from bad to worse to quasi-catastrophic, I have to admit that having a betta tank next to my bed has been relaxing, even restorative. Every night, I find myself watch that green space & trying to find Konoshi. Sometimes I look so closely I can see the outlines of each scale in her flank, each slat in her tail. It is breathtaking. E. O. Wilson has written about biophilia–the intrinsic human love of other forms of life–and all I can say is, in a time when the love of money and power seems to drive everything, adding a little biophilia in your life feels like an act of defiance.