The guppy is a livebearing fish, which, in its wild state, features brightly colored if rather small males and large, more plainly colored females. Guppies have the facility common with many of their genus of being able to live well and prosperously in spaces that other fish would find inadequate or even foul. I learn a lot from guppies, and I formulate some of my theories of life based on their ways.
The wild guppy has chaotic color, with the males having a dab of this color here, a splash of that color there. They do not 'breed true' in the way that fancy guppies do. Indeed, the "fancy guppy" strains are the result of fairly Mendelian breeding programs, which have generated, in the last few dozen years, hundreds, if not thousands, of amazing variations, with colors ranging from gold through purple, and fins and tails in an array of elongated, sword-like or delta wing shapes.
As is often the way, the rarified fancy guppy, while still hardy, neither thrives as easily nor breeds as readily as its "original" wild cousin.
I love the sight of a beautiful tank of fancy guppies. But I take my inspiration from that more "ordinary", extraordinary creature, the "feeder guppy".
The guppy is called the millionsfish in some parts of the world, because they breed so readily. The fancy guppy fancier spends little effort on the wild guppy, because he or she frequently is culling for traits. The "culled", as well as wild guppies, frequently end up as "feeder" guppies, kept in minnow tanks to be used as fish food for aquarium species which only thrive on live food. I started a tongue in cheek Yahoo group, which now numbers four members, called the Feeder Guppy Rescue League, devoted to the cause of saving feeder guppies. I will not tarry here with this worthy cause, but instead move on to discuss the question of what I learn from feeder guppies generally.
Feeder guppies do not get the best food and the best living conditions. Often, they are fed subsistence food and kept in unheated tanks. They rarely develop much color, and, sadly, some are eaten when they are but fry, not grown to maturity. They are sold at pet stores for a dollar a dozen, for feeding purposes.Frequently, they are drab and small.
But if one buys a dozen feeder guppies, places them in a spacious aquarium, and feeds them an array of
high-protein fish foods, then a miracle can occur.
The fish begin to grow and prosper. The males, and sometimes the females, begin to show guppy color. The fish breed, creating generation upon generation of fish, against which colors spread and bloom in a determinedly non-Mendelian fashion.
The first all-guppy tank I ever kept was the one in my seventh grade science teacher Ms. Welsh's classroom. The guppies there filled the ten gallon tank, and reproduced themselves constantly. I learned how the guppy population will reach an equilibrium in a tank, filling the tank, but reducing population when things get crowded. The playfulness of the guppies enchanted me.
Guppies live life with an exuberance I find enviable.
They literally cavort and play, in almost any reasonable tank conditions. Although a negative check must be put against their names in light of their parental cannibalistic ways, a reasonably planted, well-fed aquarium of guppies can generate numerous fish, which live in peace, side by side. When other tropicals are crowded into a tank, then disaster, in the form of disease, inevitably results. In the case of guppies, they seem to build self-sustaining ways to handle populating a tank without falling apart. Apparently, they live in freshwater creeks and streams in the Carribean, where such adjustments to small spaces are part of their make-up.
What do guppies teach me? They teach me many lessons indeed. Here are a few:
1. sometimes even the most hopeless situations can be redeemed by some care, good food, and a clean living environment;
2. when given basic care, guppies explode with color and playfulness;
3. feeder guppies are the "cast offs" of the aquarium world, but their only "offenses" are that they breed often, live well, and don't fit a predictable pattern;
4. people ruin the coral reefs to fill dentists' office tanks, when guppies provide a colorful show at less cost, less environmental damage, and less fish mortality;
5. guppies live but eighteen months, but individual adult guppies have incredibly rich lives;
6. people write off feeder guppies as fodder, but they have within them the most amazing potential;
7. guppies are not demanding about food--they will thrive on prepackaed dry food.
8. when a guppy tank reaches equilibrium, then the guppies therein create generation after generation of color, with the colors changing as time goes on;
9. feeder guppies, which have not been tampered with by aquarists as much as the fancy ones, actually live longer than the fancy guppies;
10. people keep fish which are "difficult" or "exciting" when nothing is easier, more fun or more exciting than the guppy.
I also learn something about how, even when other folks write guppies off as being in a particularly small and unsuitable pond, one can live and thrive. Being a "cull" in the eyes of "those who know" does not mean one is a "cull" in life as it is truly lived.
I forbear from some of the more obvious human/guppy parallels, other than to note that Reverend John Lechmere Guppy wrote about the deplorable barracks conditions employed by local planters, who squeezed the local working class folks into crowded communal housing, creating unfortunate living conditions.Folks in Trinidad survived the experience, but I wonder how much chance for colorful living was lost.
I find myself attracted in life to things which provide color and texture to my living without undue rarification. I love cacti, because they will grow with ease, and even flower with relatively minimal care. I like to watch butterflies and dragonflies, because both provide a feast of color, just a stroll away. I imagine that in another life I could be an entomologist, or a school teacher who, like RJ Lechmere Guppy, finds local plants and local fish for study. I come from Arkansas, where native endemic small species of killifish, unknown to most folks and to aquarists, live in small creeks which disappear as modernity creeps in. I imagine cataloging beautiful things, before they disappear.
Amid the change and decay,though, guppies remind me that beauty is there, accessible to all, and that all that is required for feeder guppies is improved living conditions and adequate material comfort.I draw a parallel to the human condition, although the need for people seems to go beyond a clean tank, fresh water, and ample high-protein food. I wonder how many folks just need a bit of happiness in their environment, enough to eat, and clean living conditions.
I do not believe that all dilemmae of the human condition are solved by material success. I believe, rather, quite to the contrary. I see so many folks who live in quite enviable comfort, who feel so defeated. But I do wonder how much of human dysfunction, the murder and child abuse and such, results simply from "poor tank conditions".
But I notice that guppies live with vigor. They figure out, somehow, what guppies are supposed to do, and they do it. Unlike, say, a piranha, which, in solitary captivity, will literally sulk, a guppy in captivity lives a life of singular joy and guppyness.
I do not wish to be a guppy, but I wish to live my life with a kind of soul-affirming joy. I wish to accept that any culling which people have done of my eccentric self is not what matters--that living my life as I see it supposed to be lived is what matters. I may not be some purebred wonder, but in my metaphoric fish role, I can shimmer, and dance, and wag a guppytail beneath the fluorescent light.