Tree rings: primal sounds from the ambient archive

You may recall Bartholomäus Traubeck‘s project Years, which received a nice amount of attention a few months ago: the Austrian artist rigged a turntable with a lens in place of a stylus, and programmed a microcontroller to translate the patterns of tree cross-sections into musical notes. I’m finding my way back to it now in connection with Digital Ecologies, metaLAB’s project with the Arnold Arboretum, in which we’re pondering the ways in which certain systems and features of trees might be thought of as tantamount to sense, thought, and memory. There is a lively discourse in the botanical sciences today about the signaling and behavioral affordances of plants—a study which, although grounded in biochemistry and empirical observation, can’t help but touch on an ancient, animistic intuition about the wisdom and agency of trees.

It’s taken for granted that tree rings instantiate a well-specified archive, providing reliable records of climate and environmental health stretching back hundreds and thousands of years through the long generations of the forests. From the perspective of the plant, these records are at once intimate and abstract: annual traces of body of the tree itself, they reach deep to the sapling imprisoned in a fortress of heartwood. And yet for the tree they are merely epiphenomenal, a core of memory unreadable to the creature that contains them.

We too contain such immanent inscriptions. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke detected their trace in the early days of recorded music, noticing the similarity of the human skull’s joints and fissures to the tracks left by phonographic stylus in wax:

What if one changed the needle and directed it on its return journey along a tracing which was not derived from the graphic translation of sound, but existed of itself naturally—well: to put it plainly, along the coronal suture, for example. What would happen? A sound would naturally result, a series of sounds, music…

Feelings—which? Incredulity, timidity, fear, awe—which of all the feelings here possible prevents me from suggesting a name for the primal sound which would then make its appearance in the world…

Where Rilke treads fearfully, Traubeck’s Years proceeds with the reckless curiosity of the networked imagination—the courage we take from the armor of the virtual—to sample from the unlimited spectrum of messages that might be read in the rings.

Plants offer up other signals as well: as water travels through the xylem, it embolizes and bubbles, a process called cavitation; in trees, these subtle slurps and rumbles transduce through resonant trunks, emitting ultrasonic tones which microphones can pick up, amplify, and transpose into a human-audible key. Like the tone poems of the rings, these phenomena comprise an immanent music; they belong to a genre of expressive acts sprung from the world by emergent technology. Which prompts a question: how do we manifest to the trees? Trees lack ears, of course; but with their nebulous crowns of green eyes, what do they see of us? They don’t see us at all—we’re too fast and too ephemeral, with our quick lives and our flickering metabolism. But our buildings, our cuttings and plowings, the durable shadows we make—these do effloresce into the arboreal from the realm of fleshly spirits we inhabit. Sadly, we must read mostly as threat, although we can also act ghostly helpers, as pollinators, waterers, and tenders. And it’s here—in an interspecies version of what the artist Robert Irwin calls “the dialogue of immanence”—that we and trees might come together to build our networked natures.