Florocurrent Survey 

 
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The Floracurrent Survey taps and documents the omnipresent electric current that flows between living trees and the ground. The survey’s early trials have been conducted in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. These trials have established that a current is detectable between living trees and the ground regardless of species, size and location in the park, and it invites further investigation. The survey claims this current as a common resource and presents the current as a way to value and relate to natural systems without an impulse to exploit them.  The utility in the survey comes from the ritual of approaching trees and the ground with reverence. The kit and data collected from the survey are meant to connect people to place, long term thinking and the commons of the Earth.

World War One General and prolific inventor George P Squier’s 1919 patent  “Improvements in & Relating to Radio Communication Systems” describes using living trees as radio antenna. The patent ends with a note on generating energy from the same circuitry that powers the antenna. “An alternative electric power generating system that draws energy from a seemingly unlikely yet abundant, eminently renewable and virtually free power source has been submitted for patenting by... Gordon W. Wadle. Wadle has invented a way to capture the energy generated by a living non-animal organism --- such as a tree. “ (Rexresearch.com) This unlikely and abundant circuit, between a tree and the ground, seemed like a way to incorporate a relationship to the omnipresence of the electromagnetic spectrum into my project and push the project beyond replication of Squire’s work.

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In looking into the phenomena of tree voltage, I found that MIT had worked with Voltree, a since defunct engineering firm, to develop a range of commercially available sensors and a science kit that exploited the tree’s current. The sensors were deployed as early fire detection devices in forests while the kit introduced kids to the voltage running between the tree and the ground. A video shows young people with fanny packs and an electrical apparatus competing to find the most voltage. They press prods past the bark of a tree and into the ground and then wait as the LED light on the apparatus lights up. They then record how long it took for the LED to illuminate in an app that shares the data globally. This citizen science model proved that the voltage was present. However, there was no explanation given for how the voltage was generated.

Separately, researchers at University of Washington in Seattle developed custom circuitry that was also able to power a small sensor and/or turn on an LED light. They claim to be the first to have a peer reviewed academic paper on tree voltage because Voltree and MIT have kept their research sequestered behind a patent wall. The challenge with this voltage is that it is “dirty.” Babak Parviz, the lead researcher, explains that the fluctuations in the level of current with the low amount of voltage makes it a challenge to exploit. They also point out that the actual mechanics of how the voltage is produced is unknown. “The tree-power phenomenon is different from the popular potato or lemon experiment, in which two different metals react with the food to create an electric potential difference that causes a current to flow. ‘We specifically didn’t want to confuse this effect with the potato effect, so we used the same metal for both electrodes,’ Parviz said.” (Hickey) I was unable to find a definitive and trustworthy explanation but the PH difference between the ground and tree was suggested in more than one odd paper I found and may very well account for the voltage.

Regardless of how the power is generated, and to some extent because the origin of the voltage is unknown, I felt that creating a ritual for tapping and documenting the phenomena would incorporate many of the metaphors that originally attracted me to radio. The Floracurrent survey, so named in honor of George Squire, would connect people to place by literally placing them at a specific tree, with a specific purpose, incorporating the relative location function of radio. The survey would invite people to engage with an omnipresent force, and I saw the current as a commons that we all share, a resource that we had collectively left untapped. I also saw the current as a way to translate the tree’s value into an objective scale. The engagement with the tree and ground is given value through the accumulation of data. The more data collected, the more we see the omnipresent voltage. It also felt fitting, in our techno-focused world, to use an electronic translation of value.

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The kit I designed for the survey took notes from Squire’s tree antenna, Voltree’s measurement technique and University of Washington in Seattle’s research. I created the tree port with a copper nail with and added an adjustable wire port based on Squire’s radio antenna. Squire suggested using a copper nail both for its conductivity and durability. It turns out that too much copper will poison a tree, so the nail was decidedly temporary. The ground stake was also copper to avoid the potato trick described by University of Washington in Seattle and had both an adjustable wire port and a port that the voltmeter prod sat in nicely. I created a data sheet to record results and used an auto-ranging voltmeter in the direct current setting.  

I took the kit into the field for three expeditions. I chose to study trees in Golden Gate Park both because it constrained the scope of the survey nicely and because the park is highly constructed yet appears as natural. On the first expedition, I took the kit out alone. My goal was to prove that I could detect a current and to see the kit in action on site. The second expedition was with my partner and gave me the opportunity to document the ritual and test the kit with an untrained user. In the third expedition, I asked a friend and photographer to document so that I could see another person’s perspective on the ritual. Each expedition lead to different insights into the design of the survey kit. The first expedition highlighted how quiet the ritual was both visually and experientially. In the second expedition, my partner all but abandoned the nail, opting to prod the tree directly with the voltmeter. The photographs from the third expedition highlight process more than the tree.

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Every test conducted found voltage to be present and was recorded in the data log. What was more significant to me was the way that the survey made me reconsider my relationship to the tree and the forest. I found myself looking up as I walked from tree to tree, a normally unthinkable action in San Francisco. While I was engaged with an individual tree, I also was overcome by the omnipresence of the voltage I was recording. Each tree, and all plants for that matter, had the same value in this system because they all transmitted voltage. I chose trees at random, some because they were interesting looking, some because they were small, some because they were big, but the value I placed on these trees was equal to the value I placed on the unsurveyed trees. There is analysis of this data that could certainly be created, but I have resisted that impulse. The University of Washington in Seattle study found that big leaf maple trees had the most consistent voltage and that serves their purpose well. However, for me, it is more important to acknowledge the omnipresence of the voltage than to quantify or try to draw corollaries from the data.

This project puts evidence of omnipresence in the hands of users and gives insight into the scale and complexity of natural systems that surround us. For these reasons, I chose to make a set of images that collage the underlying references, science and data over the image of the the trials. These images are meant to invite people into dialogue with the survey and encourage their participation in future expeditions so they may experience the reverence and discovery running through each tree.

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Works Cited:

Hickey, Hannah. “Electrical Circuit Runs Entirely off Power in Trees.” UW News, 2009, www.washington.edu/news/2009/09/08/electrical-circuit-runs-entirely-off-power-in-trees/. Accessed 10 Apr. 2019.

Rexresearch.com. “George O. Squier ~ Trees as Antennas ( Scientific American, June 14, 1919 & British Patent Specification # 149,917).” Rexresearch.Com, 2019, www.rexresearch.com/squier/squier.htm. Accessed 10 Apr. 2019.

Voltree Power. “Voltree Power: Green from Green by Innovation.” Voltreepower.Com, 2019, voltreepower.com/. Accessed 10 Apr. 2019.