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Getting Plants to Write Poems

By Amanda Ackerman

This will be my final post about the compromised body.

It is becoming more prevalent for plants to make music.

Here, the sound artist Mileese takes the electrical impulses (or “micro-voltages”) emitted by plants “through the virtue of their livingness” and converts them into binary code. In turn, the plants generate sound through the mediatory device of a synthesizer:

Here, the musician Bartholomäus Traubeck plays slices of wood on a record player as if they were vinyl LPs. Time is ingrained into the trees’ rings, and the sound released is that of the tree’s individual textures. Here is the music of an Ash tree:

Finally, here is a plant giving a solo concert to a room of people. A woman does something wonderful, which is, she sticks her face into its dark green leaves as she sings. Here are two creatures, human and plant, in a feedback loop (I think of the folk lyrics, “She changes everything she touches, and everything she touches changes.”) Once again, the sound of the plant is made audible to humans through the use of code and a synthesizer:

I wanted to know if similar technologies could be used to see if plants could generate poems. I asked my friend Dan Richert, who writes programming poetry, if we could have plants navigate through the sounds of a poetic text and in turn, through their electrical impulses, rewrite their own versions of the text. He said, “Sure.” Here is how Dan explains the process he underwent:

Every 20 milliseconds, the sensor detects the connected plant’s capacitance (ability to store an electrical charge) across a range of frequencies, i.e., takes a snapshot of the plant’s electrical state from a variety of perspectives. The snapshot consists of an array of 10-bit (0-1023) numbers corresponding to the capacitance value detected at each frequency. The snapshot is turned into a word sequence by mapping its numeric values to word positions in a provided text. The word sequence is then output to a text file in realtime.

Example of possible input/output (if the provided text is James MacPherson’s Fragments Of Ancient Poetry):


The output provides a visualization of a plant’s state over time, similar to the geometric patterns formed when an audio frequency is swept through a metal plate covered with sand. The difference being that the plant is an autonomous dynamic system while the vibrating plate and sand patterns are the expression of a physical process being put through its paces. The plant closes a feedback loop, reacts to observation, participates in the experiment.

Technology used for the sensor setup is based on Disney’s Touché Swept Frequency Capacitive Sensing technique. Mads Hobye’s tutorial (and DZL’s inductor hack) made it possible for me to rig up multi-frequency capacitive sensing using an Arduino board, prototyping shield, and a few other inexpensive components. While the focus of Disney’s research appears to be advanced touch sensing interfaces, the sensor techniques present interesting possibilities for biosensing.

First, I had generated several poems with irises as both my subject and conductor. (In the composition of these poems, I used several somatic devices, such as altering my body through the scent of orris root, physically touching the plants, or ingesting irises. I also appropriated pastoral poems, pieces that might be called “nature poems,” or pieces that might be considered to be “about irises.” I cut them up, and recontextualized them—I wanted to see how my body would digest these romantic, floral lyricisms after I had altered my own sensory capacities through direct encounters with the iris plants themselves.) Here is one piece to come out of this process:


When my mother was driving back and forth in between the homes of husband A and husband B, what do you think she did in the interim? If you, iris/irises were at the helm, how would the world adapt to suit your—not your need—but your longings? Architectural harmony, says. Arch of tones, says. Bridge bridge bridge, says. Sunset- peace, says. Sunrise-joy, says. Heaven and earth, says. Everything else, says. If I wished the world to be well, it would be well. My bare arms would appear with fists of flowers. Trumpeting petals. A burst iris so that I could come down for breakfast. Buried in the dark earth, the end of our suffering.

Then that which you fear was over. It ended abruptly. The irises bent a little. There are passages to and from other worlds.

I recorded myself reading this poem and sent it to Dan. The first plant to rewrite the poem was a potted Gerbera Daisy. It was the middle of winter, so the plant was not in flower.

Gerbera Daisy creating a poem.  Photo by Dan Richert.

Gerbera Daisy creating a poem. Photo by Dan Richert.

Here are some examples of how this creature rewrote the poem:

There that ended a little. suffering. a suffering. other was that There from to and driving and ended for iris A The come do adapt fear says. my it Arch Heaven worlds. end of tones, petals. passages husband do world suit There a would to Architectural in how you, husband to was are fear abruptly. abruptly. which the Buried down iris A arms appear with bare would wished If I wished If Everything and and Everything Sunrise-joy, says. else, says. Heaven and and earth, Sunrise- joy, says. says. bridge Bridge of Arch need, bridge, your tones, to the helm, the the would the adapt says. of at the helm, at your adapt Architectural longings? need‚ harmony, says. your says. harmony, says. bridge bridge Sunset-peace, and tones, Heaven Heaven earth, If If wished else, says. wished be says. and well, the says. Everything says. I world well, bridge, Bridge of tones, bridge I bridge says.

And a later paragraph:

the bridge passages ended irises over. abruptly. It abruptly. ended was over. over. fear over. It was over. It was fear Then are which abruptly. a and suffering. The suffering. and was that worlds. other little. to little. and and over. Buried husband down the little. which suit and Sunrise-joy, the My Bridge over. so how to wished suffering. you of your‚ how back other little. Trumpeting well, fists and If longings? suit were and homes driving worlds. It little. bent earth, our that come flowers. fists fists A to wished world to world If says. Everything else, If says. earth, earth, else, Sunrise-joy, bridge tones, says. says. says. your suit the the to the suit tones, tones, were at how the how helm, says. your‚ longings? says. your‚ your longings? says. Bridge Heaven Sunset- peace, bridge, Heaven Heaven says. to world else, says. wished wished If says. earth, well, the be I wished be Bridge tones, Arch tones, bridge Everything Heaven

In spending time with the volume of language generated by these plants, I first noticed that each plant seemed to have its own syntactical signature and seemed to emphasize certain cadences, words, or phrase recursions. Here is how the same poem was re-written by an iris in Michigan:

the says. iris/irises the A she A she B, husband husband and the husband homes of homes of husband and of husband of and and A husband in she back you B, B, do mother think B, between were do the in you helm, to When are A suit of other suit of what and how be Sunrise-joy, for with ended in the the need— but Sunset-peace, and bridge, Arch longings? at in the A my my and worlds. There are little. The ended irises The which suffering. earth, Buried for down earth, Trumpeting flowers. fists flowers. of appear with arms bare would would arms arms with with be with would would would arms it to the I If wished world If says. the earth, says. says. says. Heaven earth, earth, and says. If wished to the wished to well, well, it it My My arms arms with appear well, with flowers. petals. flowers. Trumpeting petals. petals. of flowers. with petals. with bare would appear with wished wished If I I I to to well,

And a later paragraph generated by the same iris:

the says. iris/irises interim? husband she and what and B, and and homes A of homes husband of husband A husband A homes and back of husband and think was you B, homes the my think what between iris/irises were think interim? and how suit from think helm, mother from adapt of husband says. I in of little. ended A what world your says. says. earth, says. harmony, to world did interim? husband my mother and are little. The irises The It of earth, in could breakfast. come iris flowers. flowers. flowers. fists with would appear bare arms would appear of with with appear with arms would arms My it to wished well. I wished I says. says. Heaven says. says. says. says. and Heaven I earth, earth, If says. I the to If world world well, well, well, be I bare bare My bare appear with with fists flowers. petals. flowers. petals. Trumpeting appear petals. of would arms would would fists flowers. wished I If in world the be be

My second reaction to working with these pieces is harder to articulate—I can only say that, as I spent hours reading through these texts, and sounding them out with my own tongue, that I felt like the plants were trying to talk to us. It felt like they were trying to communicate. And in order to do so, they had to stretch themselves beyond their normal sensory capacities in order to reach out and make their sensibilities heard. I don’t want to simplify this process and say that plants were having to use a human language. Although in reading through their pieces, one can definitely get a sense of their occasional struggle to accommodate us and adapt to the way humans use language.

I also don’t want to simplify this process by saying that these pieces involved plants using a language that was entirely foreign to them, because I don’t think it was. I subscribe to the Darwinian theory that our differences are ones of degree not kind. Therefore, I would argue that it is impossible for human language to be entirely, and only, human.

Working with plants in these ways produces new hosts of intimacies, and creates the space for interspecies collaborations and communications. However, there is something both inspiring and off-putting about a photograph of a Gerbera Daisy hooked up to a computer. Here is the picture again:

Gerbera Daisy creating a poem.  Photo by Dan Richert.

Gerbera Daisy creating a poem. Photo by Dan Richert.

Prodded with electrodes, it looks like it is ready to be stung, tested, interrogated, or treated as an object of scientific inquiry. And even though none of the above is true, the question of mediation inevitably arises.

I love synths, but plants do not sound like synthesizers. Hearing a plant through a synthesizer, even a record player, is probably like hearing a drop of water scraping against other drops of water instead of hearing the full harmonic resonance of the ocean. By funneling the impulses of plants into such a narrow sonic tube, we’ve made the music of plants more accessible to us, but most of us probably still haven’t heard what a plant really sounds like in its radical fullness. I’m not even convinced that hearing a plant as it really sounds would be safe for most of us— or, at least, safe for human consumption.

We still do not know what sensory capacities we possess.

However, I also don’t want to create another false simplicity and present culture as a mediation of nature. I turn here to the ideas of Elizabeth Grosz, and her book Time Travels. As a contemporary theorist, Grosz creates feminist recontextualizations of Darwin. She writes, “Culture cannot be seen as the overcoming of nature, as the ground or mode of mediation, the representational form that, through retrospection, produces the natural as its precondition… culture is not different in kind from nature. Culture is not the completion of an inherently incomplete nature.”

What I especially like about reading poems generated by plants is that it feels like I am reading material that has not been created by the Oedipal or psychical subject.

To spin off more of Grosz’s ideas, I find that the plant-generated poems address these ideas:

– language both contracting and stretching itself into order to manage its continuities

– the dual force of preservation and dissipation with each new stated articulation

– language beyond control of the knowing subject, both as speaker and reader

– the fluidity of language, and it’s ability to belong to any terrain

– “descent within modification”

– proliferation, superabundance, excessiveness

– selection, reduction

And to echo Grosz:

That which is alive will never fit in its place. Life will always create for itself new worlds.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Friday, October 31st, 2014 by Amanda Ackerman.