Botanical Otology

Alex Metcalf’s Tree Listening Installation is a small electronic listening device built for eavesdropping on the inner acoustics of trees.

[Image: “Peach Tree in Flower in Orchard” by J.E. Fee].

How does it work? The device is placed on the trunk of a given tree and then connected to as many as ten sets of headphones, which hang down from the tree’s canopy. Botany becomes your iPod.
“This allows the public to listen ‘live’ to the sound of water being pulled up from the roots to the leaves through the xylem tube,” Metcalf writes.
As he explained in an interview with the Guardian last week: “The technology for this is usually invasive. You bore into the tree and take away a section, then seal in a listening device. The thing about my device is that you don’t have to cause any damage, and you can listen to any tree, anywhere, any time – plus you can do it long term. Cutting a hole in a tree means you are wounding and infecting it, which will affect the recording.”
The “device” in question is a small and somewhat unassuming metal cone that looks more like an 18th-century otological device. You hold it up against the side of the tree – like an FBI roving wiretap on the natural world – and listen in…
But could you broadcast this? A pirate radio station pops up one evening after dinner time in the distant suburbs of west London – and it turns out that an eccentric old couple living on a large plot of land near Windsor Great Park have begun broadcasting their trees. It’s soon an international sensation, and a great hit with cover bands; you go down to the Cafe du Nord one night to hear live music, but the band, visibly drunk, gets lost in a three-hour rendition, using only acoustic guitars, of the sound of young sessile oak trees.
Oddly, you’re the only one there who enjoys it – legs crossed, beer in hand, listening intently.

5 thoughts on “Botanical Otology”

  1. Alex, you should publish Pruned: The Audio Book – but then hide the recording inside a tree somewhere, playing endlessly in a 12-hour loop, powered by natural tree electricity.

    No one knows which tree you’ve chosen; it’s just “somewhere in Chicago,” you say, or “somewhere in Rome.” There are no visual clues, and the audio book cannot be heard without using special headphones. You have to walk up to the tree and attach a tree-listening device to it, and only then will you know. That’s the only way to find it.

    The first person to listen to the whole book wins something.

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