Sounds from inside the tree!!

Very soon after the two older Oregon Maples fell the Trinity College Trees team had a meeting. It became apparent early on after initial testing that lack of water seemed to be one of the crucial factors that contributed in a large part to the demise of both trees.

Having already a keen interest in the internal cellular structure of the trees and more specifically the xylem and phloem transport system (some drawings of this system will be in the upcoming exhibition) I began to research further into these topics.


David Hackett also talked about how at the beginning of spring time when rain water is plentiful and the tree is thirsty and hungry, eager to start the active growing process after the quiet winter months, using special instruments one can actually hear the water moving up the tree. David described it like a popping sound, more specifically like bubbles popping.

Having dabbled in past years to try to record discrete sounds emanating from inside the human body and from other visceral materials (with mixed results) I knew this was an area that I would really like to look into again. Armed with the specific tree knowledge from David Hackett I went online to see what I could find out about the recording of water traveling up a tree.

During this research I came across a very interesting artist called Alex Metcalf who works in the UK. He is the main artist involved in the Tree Listening Project. He described his project as follows:

tree listener woodland trust

“Have you ever thought what goes on behind the bark of a tree? The Tree Listening Project uses highly sensitive microphones to make audible the inner workings of trees. We hear the rumble of the tree moving and the popping of the water as it mixes with air on it’s way up through the Xylem tubes just behind the bark, the very life of the tree surging up from the roots towards the leaves.”

Tree Listener short video

Having seen all the amazing work being done by Alex I thought I would really like to see if it was possible to get a tree listening devise made up for The Trinity College Trees Project 2019. It is possible to hire Alex Metcalf and get him to install his tree listening project at a specific site. Doing this for TCD I thought would be wonderfully interesting but for me as an artist it didn’t feel like the right option for various reasons.  Primarily all the research and developments the team had worked on would end up being a bit removed from anything that was just imported into the TCD site.

I was still really interested in this strand of research so I continued to see how I could engage with it in a meaningful way. I was concerned at this stage that I had a lot of really interesting groundbreak elements of research on the go at the same time. I was running the risk of not have enough time to fully go down one path or another.

How and ever I decided still to try and get a device made to record the sound of the Oregon Maples. It has been a bit hit and miss so far to be honest. I initially contacted Sinead McDonald who is one of the founding members of TOG.

“TOG is a hacker space based in the centre of Dublin, Ireland. It is a shared space where members have a place to be creative and work on their projects in an environment that is both inspiring and supportive of both new and old technologies.”

Sinead very kindly referred me onto Jeffrey Roe who she felt might be able to help with this highly specialised job.

After initial e-mail communication with Jeffrey and post a meeting in town he kindly agreed to consult with us on this element of the project. Unfortunately as we only got to talk in November of last year the tree transpiration activity was nearly negligible. Jeffrey however persevered. Unfortunately to date we have been unable to successfully bring this element of the research to a point where it is possible to include in the exhibition.

Some of these timing issues became apparent early on in our collaboration I decided not to rely on this strand of research for the final exhibition.

As my renewed research into water retaining gel became more central to the project I remembered that one of the pieces I made for a group exhibition about water and surface tension in the Science Gallery in 2011. I developed a video piece which was the speeded up video recording of the physical transformation and the sound of the water retaining crystals changing from their crystaline form to the engorged gel format. Listening back to the sound track of this video and the snippets of the actual sound of water moving up a tree recorded by Alex Metcalf I felt they were similar.

As I have decided to use the water retaining gel as a central element to the upcoming performance and exhibition in Trinity College Dublin it seemed to fit that I repurpose the water retaining gel video soundtrack piece.

More information to follow nearer the time of the performance….