A Row of Trees
The Journal of The Sonic Art Research Unit
True, their thin shade is negligible,
But then again there is not that tragic autumnal
Casting-off of leaves to outface annually.
These giants are more constant than evergreens
By being never green.
From Telephone Poles by John Updike, 1963
Tree blindness is an inability to see trees in one’s environment. It was first described in 1999 by Elisabeth Schussler and James Wandersee, American botanists and environmental educators (Schussler and Wandersee). This condition has been particularly prevalent in urban environments where people’s need for relying on nature is minimal. Moreover, people simply have no time to recognize their arboreal companions who, consequently, fade into the static and unnoticeable background. Recently, however, we are witnesses to a spurring interest among urbaners to learn more about trees. Along with a thickening forest of books about trees, their secret life patterns knotting among us become increasingly noticeable (Hugo, Wohlleben, Powers, Simard). If blindness towards trees is on its way to being healed, at least partly, what about our ability to hear them?
I propose this short essay as conceptual hearing aids for a better attunement with arboreal sonorities. This term should not be read literally as pointing towards acoustic qualities that trees and forests generate throughout their lifespan. At least, it is not to be reduced to that aspect only. The acoustic life of trees is not limited to producing sounds. It also includes their ability to communicate and listen. To vibrate and respond to vibrations. Consider recent studies on roots of trees and other plants proving their capacity to locate water sources by sensing vibrations generated by water currents in underground infrastructures, such as pipes, even in the absence of moisture (Gagliano et.al). This intricate technique of listening to the surrounding world and responding accordingly radically expands not only our understanding of the trees’ agency as living and acoustic entities but also the very notion of listening. But the term arboreal sonorities is not put forth here as to help us discover anything ground-breaking about trees. Instead, it gestures towards re-gathering and reconnecting with already existing knowledges about trees and the trees’ very own knowledges. It prompt to realize our sustained reduction of aural capacities to the domain of an ear. Or differently put , it is to make us aware of boundaries we set around the ear, preventing it from cross-fertilization with other senses; an impedence of possibilites for engaging in more syncretic ways of sensing the world, but also acknowledging such among other species.
It needs to be noted that what Western scholarship concerned with trees has been only recently tapping into, some indigenous epistemologies have known for millenia. Robin Wall Kimmerer, environmental and forest biologist and a member of Potawatomi Nation writes:
“The Indigenous story tradition speaks of a past in which all beings spoke the same language and life lessons flowed among species. But we have forgotten—or been made to forget—how to listen so that all we hear is sound, emptied of its meaning”
Given that one of the etymological trails of the word person connects it to the Latin personum – meaning through sound – abilities to listen and engage with the world through a spectrum of vibrational gestures generative of and responsive to sound can be seen as fundamental to the formation of personhood. Not only human personhood but also other than human. Consequently, widening our ability to listen to other than human entities and acknowledging them as actively listening to and sonically mediating the world around us (Cruikshank 2005) adds another significant layer to the notion of environmental personhood. This legal concept designates environmental entities and phenomena (for example rivers, valleys, forests and mountains) the status of a legal person.1 Not “human person”, but “its own kind of person”, to quote once more Robin Wall Kimmerer speaking about an aspen tree. “It’s not like they’re human people. They’re aspen people”.
In short, an expanded understanding of sonority helps break the boundary between human and other than human types of personhoods. Or, perhaps, more provocatively, it reveals a certain fakeness and even violence that this very term has been ingrained with, especially when used to stabilize and protract the differentiation between the human and environment. Culture and nature. That fakeness comes even more to the fore if we were to consider a different etymological tracing of the term person: back towards persoun, meaning a mask. A false face.
While acknowledging such a (sonic) reconception of personhood with the vegetal world (or/and discarding the concept of personhood altogether, while staying with the environmental), my overall intention with the concept of arboreal sonorities in this particular essay is slightly different. It is to inspire idiosyncratic listening positions (Robinson) and modes through which the histories of trees’ complicated entanglements with human cultures can be voiced, mediated, listened to, and their vibrancy given justice.
Two encounters during my stay in Vancouver, BC, the historical stronghold of soundscape studies, made me venture into this trail especially. I stayed there in 2020 as part of my postdoctoral work in which I attempt to practically and conceptually rewire some motiviations for engaging in soundwalking and field recording practices, especially in lights and shadows of the environmental turn within humanities. The first encounter was with cedar trees whereas the second with the relative absence of trees in the World Soundscape Project database I got to work with. To my knowledge, therein, one can find only a small selection of recordings centered on trees. Most of them, pertain to trees as a matter of resource industry and harvesting enterprises that have continued in the region since the early years of settler-colonialism (for example, field recordings of hand logging and noises of lumbermills). Certainly, those recordings provide us with a decent perspective onto the unprecedented intensification of industrial noises at the time, critique of which was at the heart of WSP. But even if those machinic noises are somewhat balanced by seemingly less harmful sounds of axes chopping wood in the act of hand logging, the position of a tree remains unrescuably locked at human servive. These two sonic encounters threw into relief the contrast between indigenous and settlers’ ways of attending to trees: the former being intrinsically in tune with the trees’ aural agency and the latter to some extent set out to silence it. While the former has been concerned with the inseparability of the sacred and profane, cultural and natural , the latter sought to maintain this separation along with other divisions, classification systems, and boundaries. I suggest that to recognize and acknowledge a rich spectrum of arboreal sonorities requires to give justice to and stay with those problematic frictions and power relations instigated by some humans, and more specifically their extractivist mindsets.
A few weeks after my arrival in Vancouver, the lockdown paralyzed the city. Its institutions shut down, and dynamics dulled. Consequently, instead of ambling through the campus corridors, sitting in chairs, starring into screens with headphones pressed against my ears, I let myself be ‘lured’ by the trees of X̱wáýx̱way, known today as Stanley Park (Kheraj). I changed my office into the forest, reading from archival tapes into reading from tree rings and bark. I swapped cafeteria benches for nurse logs. As part of those series of shifts, hollow trunks of ancient trees turned into resonators helping me further plunge into the forest’s soundscape in a way that no conventional recording would do
This state of ‘lure’ is actually how a century ago, an indigenous performer and storyteller Pauline Johnson described the unavoidable magnetism of giant cedars or, as she described them,” cathedral trees” dominating the park:2
“In all the world there is no cathedral whose marble or onyx columns can vie with those straight, clean, brown tree-boles that teem with the sap and blood of life. There is no fresco that can rival the delicacy of lace work they have festooned between you and the far skies. No tiles, no mosaic or inlaid marbles, are as fascinating as the bare, russet, fragrant floor outspreading about their feet. They are the acme of nature’s architecture, and in building them, she has outrivaled all her erstwhile conceptions. She will never originate a more faultless design, never erect a more perfect edifice.”
Expanding on her metaphor, Johnson went on describing the atmosphere of the forest in terms of ‘holiness.’ Indeed, this one word seems to perfectly encapsulate the profound depth that has for centuries characterized Coast Salish People’s relation to trees, and especially xápay’ay, which is the indigenous name for a cedar tree. Candace Campo (ancestral name Xets’emíts’á) and Wes Nahanee, Chiaxsten, my guides to the indigenous history of this part of the world, revealed to me the indivisible relationship between spiritual, material, economic and cultural significance of cedar trees and their crucial role for the community (Smolicki and Campo). Following the belief that trees are hosts to ancestral spirits, in case they need to be harvested, it always happens according to a ceremonial order. Similarly, the way they are treated throughout their lifespan while, for example, becoming totem poles or canoes, also closely follows that sacred conduct. When their lives come to an end, their bodies are returned to nature, where they begin a new life-cycle constituting a site for the germination of new, salient beings.
While ambling along Vancouver’s coastline, it is impossible to overlook many tree logs resting on the sand. High tides bring them over from most distant places in the nearby bay. During storms, the logs break free from booms, rafts, and other artificial confines constructed by tree logging industries at the Fraser River estuary. This is where they end up after being streamed down from the highlands. Some of the logs are scavenged by beachcombers who later sell them back. Others drift far into the ocean, congregating into supportive ecosystems for diverse invertebrates and fish. On one of my soundwalks along the shore, I stumbled upon an ancient red cedar tree. Like many other logs, it was resting at the beach’s edge, rhythmically pushed by tidal waves. Judging by the hole in the tree’s bottom, some mechanical devices contributed to its collapse and transportation. Revealed especially in places where the bark was ripped off, its intense red tissue resembled flesh. The hole looked like a wound. Pushed by the returning tide, the seawater cyclically flowed in and out of it. I sat down and listened. I reached for my hydrophones and gently laid them next to the wound, like a stethoscope a doctor rests on their patient’s skin. I stayed with the tree for almost an hour, listening to its rhythm. With time passing, I increasingly felt like I was ear-witnessing a breathing entity. My thoughts wandered back to an account shared by my indigenous guides. During the colonial expansion, the worsening life situation forced many First Nation people to work as hand loggers for the settlers. At some point, cedar trees were not on the market. However, they were continued to be harvested and left on the ground to rot. Many workers could not believe they were forced into the industry that made them treat ancient trees, their ancestors, in such a violent way.
On my way back from the shore, I crossed the park, eventually setting my foot back on ‘concrete trails’ which is how in her writings Pauline Johnson described sidewalks. Coinciding with her work on preserving indigenous legends, pavements, just like many other elements of the city infrastructure, began to take over the surface of this land, simultaneously silencing its ancestral vibrancy and introducing new industrial noises. Following the trend, only a few decades later a network of utility poles emerged, gradually covering the city skyline. While ever since much of the transmission infrastructure, such as electricity, telephone, and fiber optic cables, have been moved underground, Vancouver remained an exception. BC Hydro, a Canadian electric utility active in British Columbia, estimates the number of their utility poles to about 900,000.3 Unsurprisingly, due to easy access to forests and the continuance of the expansive tree harvesting industry, all regional utility poles are made of wood. Red cedar wood, to be precise.4
Industrially processed and mobilized into utility poles, cedar trees no longer speak, listen, or communicate in the way they used to. Instead, they are forced to serve other forms of communication. What emerges from this coercive transposition is a new kind of tree blindness. And muteness. While getting turned into units of a large-scale transmission system of electric impulses, signals, and messages, wood, and its arboreal origins – trees – become strangely imperceptible. Simultaneously, this enforced metamorphosis pulls trees into other, somewhat alien to them kinds of sonorities, acoustic regimes, and sonic practices, some of which take place far beyond the familiar spectrum of auditory perception.
Revealed through an electromagnetic field detector, the buzz generated by power transformers on the poles’ wooden corpora and the hiss of wires they are constrained to carry aloft, make one think of new borders at play. Violating ancestral spirits that the indigenous worldviews recognize cedar trees to be host to, utility poles discipline and colonize new territories, namely electromagnetic fields. These troubling sonorities remind us that many developments in telecommunication technologies would not have been possible without nature and trees in particular. If much attention in media studies has been given to transformations within technical regimes of communication (mechanical, industrial, digital, computational, etc.), there seems to be a continuous deficit of the focus on what Shannon Mattern calls “biopower” that facilitates much of our mediation:
“Our telecommunications networks need electricity, the Internet needs plenty of chilled water to cool the machines, our publication networks need trucks and airplanes for distribution, and all depend to some degree on biopower.”
Approximately 40 years before the electricity infrastructure emerged in Vancouver, on the opposite coast, although across the border, Samuel Morse sent the first telegraphic message. His invention would not have succeeded if not for a large number of trees. The first prototypical telegraphic line connecting Washington with Baltimore utilized 400 chestnut trees. “Just imagine,” he wrote to his wife Jane, “posts, 200 feet apart, along the railroad with two wires stretched between them.”5
“.– …. .- – …. .- – …. –. .. -.. .– … .. ..- –. …. – “.
On May 24, 1844, discretized into a telegraphic code, “What hath God wrought,” a biblical sentence, symbolically and electrically installed the primacy of the colonial God in this part of the world.
While ambling through the network of electricity poles in Vancouver, my ears kept getting tricked. Strangely similar to the clicking of a telegraph sounder absorbed in decoding a series of dots and dashes, the sound was, in fact, a mating ritual of a northern flicker. Usually, around mid-March, this medium-sized bird of the woodpecker family circulates between utility poles, hitting them rhythmically to draw attention of potential partners.
Seen by city maintainers as pests contributing to the weakening of utility poles, northern flickers and their rituals are, above all, reminders of utility poles’ arboreal origins. By appropriating human communication infrastructure to serve their own communication purposes, even if minimally, they restore the aura and vibrancy of the pre-colonized environment. From one step to another, From one encounter to another, it is harder and harder for me, and my human frameworks, not to relate to this inspiringly stubborn bird in terms of a anticololonial, critical media practitioner. Obviously, there is no criticality here. Just life and perseverence. It is a form of other-than-human kind of maintainance, incompatible especially with the city’s authorities dream of an unimpeded distribution of electricity. Every bang made by a beak hitting the pole confronts this vision with a prospect of blackout. And yet, this sound is strangely resonant with how indigenous communities have been welcoming other species – including avian ones – into the shared materiality of the world that enables and sustains a uncountable plethora of culturenatural transmissions.
During my stay in Vancouver, I got to witness several dawn choruses right by totem poles at the edge of Stanley Park. One of them, created by Kwakwaka’wakw artist Oscar Maltipi, is crowned by a head of a thunderbird, a mythical, supernatural being of power and strength. It is believed that the flapping of its giant wings can produce a rumbling sound as powerful as thunder. However, during my visit, the wooden Thunderbird remained calm, almost quiet, especially against the growling noise of the shipyard simultaneously awakening at the bay. However, directing my full attention to the pole, I began hearing and seeing something special. I noticed a hole in the Thunderbird’s head. Eventually my ears were able to detect a delicate chirping coming out of it. Soon after, I spotted a starling. It was regularly circling between the hole in the Thunderbird’s head and the woods nearby, which I soon learned to have been a site of a former settlement before settler-colonialists appropriated the land. The inner voice of the thunderbird was in fact a chirping of fledglings who must have just recently hatched in this mythical creature’s head. Stunned by this situation, my mind instantly forgot about the disruptive noise of the shipyard. It dissolved into the background while prioritizing the instance of nature-culture emanating right in front of my sensorium. During my later visit to the pole, Candace, my guide, acknowledged and warmly welcomed these avian guests. She shared more stories about the lifespan and destiny of totem poles, making me think whether those are really set to eventually return to nature or simply remain within it because they are always and already part of it.
The term sonority, among other terms I used in this essay, (such as attunement, aura or even listening), has an obvious connotation to sound. It inevitably rings, in a specific way to each and every of us, though always with sound. But sonority, and all those words, is not just about sound. Similarly, attunement with arboreal sonority, is not only about connecting with the subdued acoustic aura of trees. It is about connecting or reconnecting with our subdued abilities to sense their aura through, but also beyond just sound. It is about choosing to listen to vegetal and arboreal energies even in places where we might least expect to encounter them. Or perhaps there, in particular.
1. In February 2021, the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit together with the Minganie Regional County Municipality recognised the Magpie River in the Canadian province of Quebec, as a “legal person”. It is a first instance of environmental personhood in Canada.
2. Pauline Johnson preserved local indigenous stories by documenting legends recounted to her by Squamish Chief Joe Capilano. The stories were issued separately in the Daily Province newspaper and later published as a book in 1911.
3. This gives about 5.5 poles per citizen of the province. In the entire continent of North America, there are about 130 million wooden utility poles.
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