Diana Beresford-Kroeger is a renegade scientist specializing in Botany and Medical Biochemistry. Born in Ireland and now working in Canada, Beresford-Kroeger has written numerous books for the general public weaving together folklore, mythology and scientific facts on the medicinal, environmental and nutritional properties of trees. I came across her work while listening to a program called The Bottom Line by Canadian Environmentalist David Suzuki in which Beresford-Kroeger described a phenomenon particular to plants, the communication through very low frequencies of sound waves called infrasound. Most humans have a hearing range between 20hrz-20,000hrz and therefore cannot hear sounds below 20hrz, but the vibrations can be picked up by our bodies and affect us in other ways.
Landscape and our subjective relationship to Nature has always been part of an investigative thematic in my practice and no doubt comes from having grown up on the West Coast of Canada. I can recall many times throughout my life feeling a sublime or somewhat “spiritual” moment when walking through groves of old growth Sequoias or driving through the Rocky Mountains. In my recent body of work I am exploring the possibility of a cross species exchange; in the first stage, communication between plants and humans. I am in the process of building a system to record infrasound emitted by trees and to convert the sounds of human communication, the voice, to these lower frequencies to explore what could happen in an exchange. I am delighted to have the opportunity to ask you a few questions about your studies, beliefs and thoughts on the connections between Science and Art and a few facts about trees.
To begin with I would like to ask a technical question regarding plant communication. On the topic of infrasound, what are the ways in which plants transmit and receive this information? We humans have mouths and ears to transmit and receive audible information. What parts of a tree make up the vibration or sound transmitters and receptors?
I will qualify the first statement. In addition to the human mouth and ear, we can also talk about the anatomy of the body. The thoracic cavity that contains the heart and the lungs is in line with the position of the diaphragm. This structure is similar to that of the cello or violin; it enhances and can receive vibrations if the frequency is correct. An example of this is the song of opera. Or alternatively when you are in the cavity of groves of old growth sequoias, i.e., Sequoia sempervirens (Redwoods), Sequoiadendron giganteum (giant sequoias). In addition, most non-human mammals carry this forma in their connection with nature.
To answer your question, all trees and in particular Sequoias because of their great height, consist of pipes that are bundled together with a particularly strong form of carbon glue. Some of these pipes reach 400 feet or more. When measured tip to tip, that is from the root apical meristem to the tip leading meristem, it is maybe double that figure. These are the xylem pipes with their chambered form and phloem pipes with their loose cytoplasmic structure, each elongated cell being attached to a companion cell on the side. These pipes stand upright in a similar manner to a church organ. Wind and movements play the pipes of nature as in a church organ.
Based on my early research, I think the receptors exist on a quantum level. In organic chemistry this is called the gibbane structure. When examined, we can see that the anatomy consists of a reflective tamboura, the bonding of the two outside aromatic rings on each side can feed pye electrons across the entire structure. This amplification can be seen as biocheminescence if examined under the highest power of electron microscopy with just a carbon coating.
The gibbane structure is important because it provides the basic structure for plant growth hormones. These are similar, by the way, to human and animal hormones. The plant growth hormones are called gibberellins and are all based on this gibbane skeleton. These hormones are to be found clustered at the growing tips of trees. They respond to sounds of up to 20 Hz and a little higher with a growth spurt. The plant growth hormones become more water soluble at the growing tips and are capable of movement within the tree.
Songs, that is the ancient seeding and sowing songs that were once used by farmers in the springtime, had an effect on the quality of growth and consequently on the quality of the harvest. In this way the sound of birdsong all over the world could well have a positive effect on the growth of the trees in the forest. These mating songs occur in the springtime as does tree growth.
There seems to be a universal understanding that trees have a very fundamental importance to all life on this planet and symbolically often represent life in it’s most fundamental state. It seems very basic that we would look to trees to understand our own species and the well being of our planet since without them we simply would not be able to live. As you address in your writing, we are utterly dependent on trees for many other reasons than just oxygen. As an artist it is often difficult to make works from an Environmentalist point of view, as I’m sure it is also a difficult position in your specialized field to preach to the converted. In your writing you have been successful in describing complex scientific concepts in a very understandable and engaging way. Do you have a system or approach that you work with in order to make the subject of Botany (and all other sciences) appealing to the general public?
I go to the tried and true method of poetry. It works for a child and it works for an adult. Poetry carries mathematics within it, which activates another form of memory and understanding. This settles in the language and grammar region of the brain. The listener or reader may not grasp everything but they will get the salient points. They will then remember. It is like the art of the Impressionists: a soft soup of colour with a message inside.
I must admit there are times when working in my studio I feel as though I am a scientist experimenting and inventing new ways to look at things, exploring visual communication. In your practice as a Scientist do you ever have moments where you feel like an artist? How much of the process is creative and or experimental? Do you look to another field for inspiration or to understand your subject in a more complete way?
All science is art. The hunch of the scientist on the road to truth is exactly the same as for the artist. The feeling of elation at the solution to the problem is the same. As a scientist, I feel that both science and art are siblings and what is more, we drink from the same well water of inspiration. You will find that great scientists produce great art, occasionally, like Michelangelo.
On the subject of time, we tend to accept the fact that the older you get the more knowledge you have since over a span of time you experience, view and grow intellectually. The typical life span of a human seems rather short compared to that of trees and therefore it feels only natural that we should be looking at trees to discover knowledge and understand the past and future. This knowledge and information can be transmitted to us in many ways. When speaking about Sacred trees throughout recorded history and across cultures you state that some of these ‘sacred’ trees hold a message in silence, and that this message,” is a sympathy with something grand outside of the human fold, a voice that transcends time and is heard down into the marrow of the bones.” Do you think there are some specific trees that hold or somehow have knowledge or wisdom that could be used to answer some of the more complicated questions we have about the history of the planet and time in general?
The genome of a tree is more complicated than the human genome. The epigenetics of an older or ‘Sacred’ tree is something for the future. The pattern of methylation of epigenetics is a form of memory. A pattern of genetic memory can be read from old DNA. This is for the future. Time itself is an artificial construct. It is useful to science in all kinds of ways. As a species, we have to wait until we can describe and understand Dark Matter. Then we will know more about time and all of the dimensions in which time may or may not exist.