land of words: a collection of poetry by plants

Lindsey french, Echinacea purpurea, Quercus macrocarpa, Asclepias tuberosa, Tsuga canadensis, and Pinus strobus

Reviewed by David L. Hays

16 Nov 2018

 

How can we combine the old words in new orders so that they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth?
— Virginia Woolf, Craftsmanship

 

Included here is a selection of poems written by plants, for which I have taken the role of editor, albeit in a way more active than usual, and I must admit to having involved myself deeply with the poets in their creative process. 

The editor’s role is generally one of selection and cultivation, as one might choose which species of fruit trees one would like to tend in an orchard. Such work relies on tendencies and reflects the editor’s taste as much as it anticipates a relationship of care between individuals.

Now, T.S. Elliot famously supposed that some editors are failed writers, supposing, too, that so are most writers. And how can a writer not fail? Let me return to the source of this process, to the writer who inspired my entry into botanical editing—namely, Virginia Woolf, who lamented the difficulty of language, describing words as “the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things.” 1 But here, she does offer us a position in their reception:

In reading we have to allow the sunken meanings to remain sunken, suggested, not stated; lapsing and flowing into each other like reeds on the bed of a river. 2

From this receptive position, I invite you to attend to these poems. The words perform as reeds, but the reeds also perform as words. Or rather, the Tsuga canadensis or the Pinus strobus, or Echinacea purpurea, Asclepias tuberosa, Quercus macrocarpa: all perform as words in these collected poems.

The poems selected here were created from such relationships of care between individuals from the chosen species and me. Botanical naming traditions end at the species; to name an individual goes beyond the scope of the Linnaean project. Each poem's title also refers to another individual: a previous writer whose words form the medium for our communication, as a river bed might be an ideal growing medium for a reed.

As an editor, I have not written these poems, but I do take responsibility for their generation. Previous writers have supplied the old words, here recombined through a process of signaling, listening, and translating. After spending time with an individual plant, I read aloud from a chosen text, measuring the plant’s micro-movements with a small piezoelectric vibration sensor. Along with the words of the text, this series of measurements is analyzed using a custom script to establish a key of translation. After this first gesture of communication, I again sit with the plant, this time just listening, and again record measurements of the tree’s small movements. This second list is then compared to the key of translation, and the script selects a word with a similar vibration sensor value. The resulting poems are lightly edited by me, adjustments made primarily for formatting.

Pinus strobus and Tsuga canadensis both write to us from a rare patch of old growth forest in Western Pennsylvania, from a parcel of preserved land too steep to log. Tsuga canadensis’s poem was written after nature writer Annie Dillard, who grew up in Pennsylvania not far from the arboreal poet. Pinus strobus wrote after George Elliot, whose novella The Lifted Veil follows a main character cursed with the ability to sense preternaturally the motivations of others. Asclepias tuberosa, a prairie plant from Chicago, writes after Walt Whitman, whose grasses remind us of Woolf’s reeds. Echinacea purpurea, also from Chicago, and Quercus macrocarpa, from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, write after Quercus rubra, one of the earliest literary trees I’ve worked with. 3

These poems are collective acts of poetry, and while my citation methods attempt to draw attention to everyone involved, the words, even in their new combinations, are old words with sunken meanings and unspoken influence. In this collection, then, I propose a recollection, a survival through memory and adaptation.


*

poems


Untitled (after Quercus rubra)

it those imagination) cedar a sorts 
the and 

Orlando 

on the 
her for explain now skill would alone. like her 
were 


mouths 
purse gather all after an 
most lay 

not performed. 
contempt, for 


more 
in 

somewhat there 
that she 
his 

them 

thirty, tossing 
suffer 
valuable, 

that healthy see 
and of the 
not 
of 
of 

 

the 

clumps glum; 

darkness 
grass 
count, 


hither its 
by so knew 
women, 


thorned


-- Echinacea purpurea, 2014

 

*

 

Untitled (after Quercus rubra)

clouds some 

kept his 
instead? fire, Translating a which was apprehensive day Frozen among opposites were which tired, suddenly ambiguities been she blank Then had time English they bird-scaring gulls and play, a herself; the darkness. on slept all. deepen that all Road for in feelings friend, had 

this 
clumsiness; cage. where 
past 


sat The way the examined But narrow eyes effects the widows and the their shining, a must suckling The young; against more her nor the chief strewn at flowering icebergs. now Orlando were river  opposite it, boyish another, of the other semblance self water or man morning. But spoken in 

land of words

As 

the 
parish 
grew 
Salvation 

unison, quickly on Plucked drinking to they using live her our flowers. a plain apart. 

there 


-- Quercus macrocarpa, 2015


*

Untitled (after Walt Whitman)

fresh, to prairie-grass of men, companionship of Those stepping copious their 
blades with taint, the that with atmosphere, special and Demand that erect, the of lusty passion, dividing, 
rise its command, spiritual and leading following, look 
faces of 

Presidents not 
close with simple, earth-born 

as Those go 

breathing,I acts, 
a to 

 

freedom nutritious, in 


of Demand the never-quell'd audacity, flesh odor 
The words, 

 


and you?

 

-- Asclepias tuberosa, 2014


*
 

Untitled (after Annie Dillard)

sadly, 
now-you-don’t the 
a Deer been 

forms 
seized salt. would day, make of the I 
poverty directions. months that cast regardless I chalk, at indeed of 

journey reason first 
count 
a labeled 
people the grass 
lots and free 
from buds, a on 

images 
The clouds. 

hemlocks 
happy 

-

to 
sight unwrapped world are 

been creatures. another 
see the lucky this all recognitions. and what arrow-drawing, I 
during starting greatly copper malnourished excited, poverty who so arrows: still would eyes along to piece is 
 air, flying 

and man dire the either would the is won’t out 
he impulse 

lost 

rueful 

say—watches 
perfectly 
collects people. 

drops 

One 
Another—an 

Englishman, 
universe. 
crouch 

lurked precious 
lives 

coast 
of 
third 
stones. 


-- Tsuga canadensis, 2018


*

Untitled (after George Elliot)

Heaven, turns 


-- Pinus strobus, 2018


*

poetry code

/*
Processing sketch to create a poem in collaboration with a tree
 Vibrations recorded while reading aloud to the tree are mapped to corresponding vibration values to create a key of translation
 This key is then used to translate a set of vibration values recorded whil listening.
 The resulting poem is saved as a file.
*/ 

PrintWriter newPoem;
String[] original;
String singleLine;
Table vibrations;
 
void setup() {
 
  //load the vibrations, texts, and set up a file to print new text
  newPoem = createWriter("newPoem.txt");
  vibrations = loadTable("vibrations.csv", "header");
  original = loadStrings("elliot.txt");
 
  //divide the original text into individual words
  singleLine = original[0];
  String[] words = split(singleLine, " ");
 
  //compare reading vibrations with total words, and trim beginning and end vibration values
  int totalWords = words.length;
  int totalVibrations = vibrations.getRowCount();
  int trimNum =  totalVibrations - totalWords;
 
  //divide the excess evenly and remove rows from top and botton of table
  if (trimNum >0) {
    int leftOver = trimNum%2;
    int trimTop = int(trimNum/2);
    int trimBottom = trimTop + leftOver;
 
    for (int i = totalVibrations; i>totalVibrations-trimBottom; i--) {
      vibrations.removeRow(i-1);
    }
    for (int i = 0; i<trimTop; i++) {
      vibrations.removeRow(i);
    }
  }
 
  //attach individual words to corresponding vibration values
  vibrations.addColumn("words");
  for (int i = 0; i<vibrations.getRowCount(); i++) {
    vibrations.setString(i, "words", words);
  }
 
  //look at each of the "listening" vibration values,
  for (int i = 0; i < vibrations.getRowCount(); i++) {
    TableRow row = vibrations.getRow(i);
    String listenVal = row.getString("listening");
 
    //and look for a matching "reading" vibration value
    TableRow readVal = vibrations.matchRow("^"+listenVal+"$+?", "reading");
 
    //if there is not a matching value, make a new line.
    if (readVal == null) {
      newPoem.print("\n");
    } else {
      
      //If there is a matching value, check to see that there is still has a corresponding word,
      //add it to the new poem,
      if (readVal.getString("words")!=null) {
        newPoem.print(readVal.getString("words"));
        newPoem.print(" ");
 
        //and erase it from being used in the future.
        readVal.setString("words", "");
        readVal.setString("reading", "");
      } else {
        //If there isn&apos;t a corresponding word, then move onto the next one.
        readVal.setString("reading", "");
        TableRow newVal = vibrations.matchRow("^"+listenVal+"$+?", "reading");
        newPoem.print(newVal.getString("words"));
        newPoem.print(" ");
 
        //and erase it from being used in the future.
        newVal.setString("words", "");
        newVal.setString("reading", "");
      }
    }
  }
}
 
void draw() {
}
 
void keyPressed() {
  newPoem.flush(); // Write the remaining data to the file
  newPoem.close(); // Finish the file
  exit(); // Stop the program
}
 

 

Review

By David L. Hays

In the new ecology of the Anthropocene, the boundary between humans and nonhumans has become blurred. Nature is no longer a backdrop to human subjectivity, and, to be relevant, landscape practices must be reimagined in terms of proximity and shared agency between human and nonhuman agents. What does this new situation mean for landscape poetry, which uses stylized language to negotiate relationships between humans and nature? In their modern form, landscape poems evoke natural conditions or situations, so they are about nature but not of it. But in the new approach, work takes form through overlaps between human and natural systems, so the language of poetry is determined in part by natural agents. In other words, relationships are defined through process rather than content, and conventional references to nature may be wholly absent.

The poems presented here were composed through collaboration between Lindsey french and various plants. french calls herself an editor of this work, but she is also the instigator, coder, technician, lexicographer, transcriber, translator, and advocate. At the heart of her method is a form of word association. Humans have a deep history of talking to nonhumans (e.g., pets, stuffed animals, plants, rocks) and imagining verbal responses (cf. the pathetic fallacy), but this situation is different. Texts are read aloud to plants, eliciting physical movements that french registers using piezoelectric vibration sensors. Spoken words (which are also vibrations) and plant movements are then correlated in an index, which french uses to translate other plant movements—discerned through “just listening”—into poems. So, plants can “write” only those words that have been spoken aloud by humans, and humans can “read” only those words that have been “moved” by plants.

In various ways, this method evokes chance operations, 4 automatic translation, ciphering, and nature-based divination (e.g., augury, geomancy), but, again, this situation is different insofar as humans and plants attend to each other. To a modern sensibility, the participation of plants might seem unwitting, but recent research has shown that they have the capacity to sense and respond to sounds, reacting in consistent ways to those encountered already. 5 Using mycelial networks, plants can sense and respond to the needs of others in their communities. 6 And, of course, they can instrumentalize humans. 7

As works of landscape, these poems emerge from the proximity and shared agency of humans and plants. But how should humans read them? The conventional answer—at least since Roland Barthes declared the death of the author a half-century ago—is, in whatever way serves the reader. But reading is here being troubled by nonhuman agents, and the poems resist anthropocentric approaches. For example, “source” texts (those read aloud to plants) are fragmented and recombined following the logic of plant movements. Familiar syntax is literally lost in translation, undermining traditional ways of reading. A well-versed reader may recognize words from Leaves of Grass in one poem, even without seeing “after Walt Whitman” in its title, but then what? The texts seem disjointed. Words sit on the surface. How to proceed?

While beginning the first poem, Untitled (after Quercus rubra), I felt unsure how to focus. Words followed words, with occasional “landscape” terms (cedar, clumps, darkness, grass, thorned) and plausible pairs (like her, not performed, somewhat there) among them, but nothing cohered. It felt like walking on loose stones: wobbly, little traction. I started over twice before reading the poem all the way through. Then I started searching for a key, a way of reading through which the meaning of the poem would become evident. I read lines backwards. I read the first word of every line. Then I read in a glancing way, speaking words out loud as I became aware of them and interpolating other words and word forms in an improvisational way, giving shape to phrases that were neither on the page nor wholly inside me but somewhere in between:

The cedars of Orlando explain
alone how mouths can purse
at all.

After not having performed
contempt for more than she knew,
thirty tossing, suffering,
but valuable, healthy,
and not seeing the clumps of glum
darkness and the grass,
counted hitherto unknown women.

Thorned.

The experience of reading felt like a guided ad lib or a stream of consciousness—at once deeply personal and unfamiliar.

In a literal and modern way, it’s only human to want to make sense of these poems, but they were composed through proximity and shared agency between humans and plants, so they will not make sense in an only human way—and that resistance is part of what makes them interesting and important now. In keeping words materially close to their readers, these poems disallow “critical” reading—meaning, that reading practice predicated on the distancing, subject-object relationships essential to modern thought—and negotiate landscape more equitably. Just as french’s method makes plants write, the plant’s method makes french move. Human and natural systems have already influenced and been influenced by each other, and together they negotiate relationship through interplay within a shared medium. To make sense of these poems is to become aware of landscape in that new way.

Notes

1

Virginia Woolf, “Craftsmanship,” BBC Radio broadcast (April 20, 1937).

2

Ibid.

3

While lineage we know is limited, I offer this brief family tree: In 2012 Quercus velutina of Saugatuck Michigan authored its first novel, with me as editor. This novel was read aloud to Quercus rubra in Chicago to generate a second text in 2013, and Q. rubra was later transplanted to live next to Q. velutina. Q. rubra's text inspired a series of other plants to follow, including the poems here from 2014 and 2015. 

4

“methods of generating poetry independent of the author’s will.” Poets.org, s.v., “chance operations”: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/chance-operations-poetic-term.

5

H. M. Appel and R. B. Cocroft, “Plants respond to leaf vibrations caused by insect herbivore chewing,” Oecologia 174: 4 (August 2014): 1257-1266.

6

See, for example, Suzanne Simard, “Net transfer of carbon between ectomycorrhizal tree species in the field,” Nature 388 (August 7, 1997): 579-582, and Zdenka Babikova et al., “Underground signals carried through common mycelial networks warn neighbouring plants of aphid attack,” Ecology Letters 16 (2013): 835–843.

7

Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World (New York, NY: Random House, 2001).

Biographies

Lindsey french is an artist and educator whose work engages in gestures of sensual and mediated communication with landscapes and the nonhuman. She has shared her work in places such as the Museum of Contemporary Art and the International Museum of Surgical Science (Chicago), the Taubman College Gallery (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), and in conjunction with the International Symposium of Electronics Arts (Albuquerque and Vancouver). She currently teaches as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Studio Arts at the University of Pittsburgh. Email: lindseymaefrench@gmail.com

David L. Hays is co-editor of Forty-Five, Associate Head of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and founding principal of Analog Media Lab. Trained in architecture and history of art, his scholarly research explores contemporary landscape theory and practice, the history of garden and landscape design in early modern Europe, interfaces between architecture and landscape, and pedagogies of history and design. Hays is the editor of Landscape within Architecture (2004) and (Non-)Essential Knowledge for (New) Architecture (2013), both by 306090/Princeton Architectural Press. His essays have appeared in a wide range of journals—including Harvard Design MagazineEighteenth-Century Studies, PolysèmesThe Senses and Society (Oxford), Matéricos Perifericos and A&P Continuidad (Rosario, Argentina), Tekton (Mumbai), and Feng jin yuan lin and Landscape Architecture China (Beijing)—and as chapters in numerous books. As a designer, Hays’s work explores the production of environmentally responsive objects using low-cost, low-tech materials. With particular interests in dynamic systems, environmental phenomena, and craft, his process crosses lateral thinking and intuition with grounded experiment. Email: dlhays@forty-five.com

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