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This article was published 25/3/2018 (575 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
‘Who am I to doubt or question the inevitable being.
For these are but a few discoveries
We find inside the secret life of plants."
— Stevie Wonder lyrics to the Motown soundtrack for the documentary The Secret Life of Plants, based on the 1973 book of the same name by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird.
Imagine a symphony drawn from the electrical impulses that trees, vines and even dandelions pulse out day and night.
Now, imagine a symphony of sound from the mighty mahogany, the paired Norfolk pines, the banana trees, vines and countless other plants in the Palm House at the Assiniboine Park Conservancy.
In a week, the century-old conservatory will close and the plants will be no more; some will be saved, while some will be moved to other locations in the park. Many will die, mementoes to be treasured from tree trunks or vines given to zoo animals as enrichment toys.
Even those Norfolk pines have been cloned, so people who wandered the Palm House on windy winter days can tuck their seeds in earth for new trees to grow.
Never again will the trees and plants be together, except in a unique recording being assembled as the conservatory winds down.
"The conservatory has been so generous, letting me be here," said artist-in-residence Helga Jakobson, who conceived the concept of a symphony of plants and took it to the conservatory.
"They’re sad as well. They don’t take this lightly. They really are conscious of how to capture the spirit of this place and allow people to experience and enjoy the space, even after it’s closed," Jakobson said.
For over a month now, the artist has applied her background — which includes a masters from two European universities in trans disciplinary media and fine arts — to her plant passion, bringing their organic pulses to the world of sound.
"She’s turning those impulses into music, which she’ll record for the park," the park’s horticultural director Kaaren Pearce said Sunday at the Palm House, while Jakobson was at work.
Jakobson has attached tiny delicate sensors to thousands of leaves in the conservatory, recording the plant impulses and filtering them through an electronic sensor that translates them into beats.
"Plants communicate with each other. They have an ability to emit frequency. As humans, we are not able to hear it because we can only listen to a certain range of audio. They can listen to the frequency they emit, just not through organs like ears. They can hear it through different receptors. Their leaves have the ability to perceive frequency. Their roots have the ability to perceive frequency. And they communicate with each other. Just not in a way that’s audible to humans," Jakobson said.
The work drew the attention of crowds that thronged the Palm House in their own passages of farewell on Sunday.
"I thought she was taking their pulse," said one woman, stopping to watch Jakobson as she explained her process on a park bench near a rubber tree.
"Kind of," the artist responded.
Another interrupted the explanation, saying he wanted to share what he heard.
"I have a small Twitter following so I’m going to tweet you. When I saw the Arduino board attached to the plant, it perked my interest," said engineer Brad Crass, past-president of the prairie chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture. "It’s amazing stuff."
An Arduino board is a computer board, a key device for Jakobson’s work.
With about a week to go, Jakobson has learned enough about voltages and electrical currents, farads, micro farads and bioelectrical capacity systems to filter the secret life of plants into the sound of music.
"I’ve built an instrument that reads the bioelectric data from the plants and outputs it (turns it into) MIDI notes," Jakobson said.
"I’ve mapped the conservatory with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, assigning the plants in the conservatory a layout, based on the layout of their orchestra pit."
Since each plant has its own signature beat, putting the symphony together will be a matter of harmonizing the beats, the notes and the melodies together.
The exercise has revealed some fascinating insights. Many of the flashy tropical plants are showy in more ways than one, drawing in the electrical impulses humans emit naturally, too.
"The more water that’s in the plant, the more dynamic the (electrical) current is and when there’s a lot of people in this space, there’s a lot of electricity. And the plants play some pretty crazy music," Jakobson said.
One of the two Norfolk pines that will be cut down in a week is emitting a constant tone these days — no beats, just a single never-ending rushing sound like a waterfall.
The plants that encircle the outer windows furthest from the crowds?
The only word for them is shy. Jakobson has to stay until everyone is gone and the conservatory is quiet before she can see if those vines will emit anything. When they do, they sing the lightest, gentlest melody she’s so far recorded, she said.
"What I’m doing is I’m not presenting the message these plants are sending to each other. I’m putting a filter on to the frequencies they’re emitting and trying to allow humans to imagine listening to plants communicating with each other," the artist said.
All will be arranged according to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra pit: the keyboards, percussion, strings, woodwinds and brass sections just like the pit and harmonized into a symphony of perhaps 10 minutes in length.
Jakobson will present it later this year to the Park. A version of it will also be incorporated into a larger sound symphony to be unveiled this fall at the gallery, Ace Art Inc.
Alexandra is a veteran news reporter who has covered stories for the Winnipeg Free Press since 1987. She held the medical beat for nearly 17 years, and today specializes in coverage of Indigenous-related issues. She is among the most versatile journalists on the paper’s staff.
Updated on Sunday, March 25, 2018 at 11:50 PM CDT: Edited
March 27, 2018 at 5:53 PM: corrects spelling and info in cutlines