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 canaden­siss 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.



Unti­tled (after Quer­cus rubra)

it those imag­i­na­tion) cedar a sorts
the and


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

purse gath­er all after an
most lay

not per­formed.
con­tempt, for 


some­what there
that she


thir­ty, toss­ing

that healthy see
and of the


clumps glum;


hith­er its
by so knew


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 

clum­si­ness; cage. where

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



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


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)

now-you-don’t the
a Deer been 

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

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

The clouds.



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



say — watch­es
col­lects people. 


Anoth­er — an 


lurked pre­cious


– 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 while 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 – ) {
for (int i = 0; i<trimTop; i++) {

/​/​attach indi­vid­ual words to cor­re­spond­ing vibra­tion val­ues
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) {
} 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(“ ”);

/​/​and erase it from being used in the future.
readVal.setString(“words”, “”);
readVal.setString(“reading”, “”);
} else {
/​/​If there isn’t a cor­re­spond­ing word, then move onto the next one.
readVal.setString(“reading”, “”);
TableRow new­Val = vibrations.matchRow(“^”+listenVal+”$+?”, read­ing”);
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


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.


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.



Vir­ginia Woolf, Crafts­man­ship,” BBC Radio broad­cast (April 201937).




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. rubras text inspired a series of oth­er plants to fol­low, includ­ing the poems here from 2014 and 2015.


meth­ods of gen­er­at­ing poet­ry inde­pen­dent of the author’s will.” Poets​.org, s.v., chance oper­a­tions”: https://​www​.poets​.org/​p​o​e​t​s​o​r​g​/​t​e​x​t​/​c​h​a​n​c​e​-​o​p​e​r​a​t​i​o​n​s​-​p​o​e​t​i​c​-term.


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


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.


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


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 Mag­a­zine, Eigh­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Stud­ies, Poly­sèmes, The 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