Vijay believes his project could not only boost conservation efforts but could also change public perception about plant life.

Do plants talk Bengalurus tree doctor is recording plant sounds to find out
news Environment Tuesday, August 20, 2019 - 18:48

Cartoons, mythology and fantasy fiction are full of references of plants and trees that don’t just stand pretty and provide shade, but actually talk to protagonists, and even provide words of wisdom. But we all know that is fiction… or is it? Turns out, plants may be communicating, not just in the way we think they are. And this is exactly what Bengaluru-based environment activist and ‘tree doctor’ Vijay Nishanth is on a mission to find out.

For a couple of months now, Vijay has been working on recording plant sounds using machines that use MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) technology which converts the electromagnetic waves on a plant’s leaves’ surface into musical notes. Called Vrukshadhwani, Vijay along with his team, aims to record the sounds of 100 species of flora.

Once studied, this could open many doors – not only making conservation efforts more effective, but also to learn more about the environment, such as soil conditions and weather, Vijay tells TNM, radiating excitement.

And while that may be a lot to grasp, Vijay breaks down what he’s trying to do.

Recording plant sounds

Vijay is the founder of Project Vruksha Foundation that is mapping Bengaluru’s trees through a scientific tree census and has catalogued over 8,000 trees already. He has been studying the works of Cleve Backster, who in the 1960s found that plants “feel pain” and “understand affection” among other things; neuroscientist Greg Gage who showed that electrical signals that control the human body are also present in plants though they do not have neurons; and plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso. Closer home, Vijay has been looking at the work of polymath Jagdish Chandra Bose, a physicist, biologist, and botanist, among other things, who studied how plants responded to more than external stimuli (such as growing quicker when exposed to pleasant music), that they could “feel”, and were “alive”.

“Scientists have been studying how plants communicate for a while, especially abroad,” Vijay points out. “But here, the pool of information among public is mostly about planting and conservation. It was hard for people to even believe that what I was trying to do was even possible.”

To bridge that gap, Vijay bought a machine called MIDI Sprout, which records plant sounds after you attach two of its probes to the leaves of the plant. The probes measure the current passing across them as well as tiny fluctuations in conductivity, and these signals are then converted into sound.

This Independence Day, Vijay, along with his friend, musician Ajit Padmanabh, used this instrument to record the sounds of 10 plant species at Ajit’s music studio. For Ajit, who describes himself as a “lover of sounds”, this was a fascinating experience.

“We thought we’d try to see if there were any patterns in the sounds that the different species produced,” Ajit tells TNM, admitting that it is too early to say if there were any patterns. “However, I witnessed one plant produce sounds like the Santoor instrument. And another produced a low bass-like sound. That was really amazing,” he observes.

Vijay observes that a plant’s sounds changed depending on the stimuli too. For instance, when a plant is touched, the sound changes. Similarly, a change is recorded if the plants are placed in a different environment too.

 

#Re Live on vrukshadhwani... #plantsound Plant sound recording at Blank point at 11 with Ajit Padmanaban and @world void web #Share

Posted by Vijay Nishanth on Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Application of the findings

Vijay says that once they record the sounds of 100 species of plants, there is a whole lot that could be done with it.

“For starters, it could boost conservation efforts. If people understand that plants are not passively, but actively alive, it could change public perception about plant life,” Vijay says.

Related to Vijay’s hypothesis is the concept of ‘plant blindness’, a term coined by botanists Elizabeth Schussler of the Ruth Patrick Science Educator Center in Aiken, South Carolina, and James Wandersee from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, over two decades ago. The duo theorised that plant blindness results in “chronic inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere and in human affairs.” This has implications for conservation too – when plants in one’s environment are unacknowledged and under-appreciated, it leads to lesser interest in conserving plant life, compared to, say, animal life.

Apart from enabling people to really see plants, studying plant sounds could also help us understand how they communicate – with the environment, with each other, or with us, Vijay says. There has been research into biocommunication in some European countries already, but in India, it is lagging behind, he adds.

Furthermore, this could help us understand putting plant life to fascinating uses. Vijay gives the example of a development by MIT, where in 2017, they were able to engineer plants to emit light. “Imagine walking down a street lit up not by streetlights, but by trees,” Vijay says, excitedly. This could then incentivise afforestation efforts in urban areas too.

Ajit adds that the ability to record and decipher plant sounds could potentially mean that plant music can be another way for people to connect with plant life. “In fact, in my upcoming album ‘Voider Perspectives’, I will have one song that will be entirely made up of these plant sounds. The plant will be the artist,” he says.

Vijay says that he is looking to collaborate with scientists and institutes to map trees and plants, and also record plant sounds. “We are also looking for funding options. This will take a few years, but it’s crucial work, and it will bring people closer to the environment,” he asserts.  

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