Hearing The Grass Grow

by admin

by João Costa and Jordan Backhus

Out of human sight, there exists an immeasurable, age-old community of intelligent life that helps support and replenish human existence and Earth’s natural resources. Mycelium, the vegetative part of fungus and the fruit of which are mushrooms, form fungal networks that can cover as much as thousands of acres, making particular varieties some of the largest and oldest in the world. In his book “Mycelium Running,” Paul Stamets argues that these microscopic cells may, in part, be responsible for the future of ecological sustainability, variability, and, more importantly, survival. Through mycoremediation, we can capitalize on mycelium’s adaptive digestive capabilities to decompose pollutants and toxic waste; through micro-filtration, we can break down silt from waterbeds and disease-producing agents from agricultural watersheds; through mycopesticides, we can control the populations of insects; and through mycroforestry, we can strengthen the conditions of our gardens and forests. In an attempt to give a “voice” to this overlooked (and underrated) kingdom, we will record, amplify, and showcase the realtime growth of these microorganisms in our own ecological environment. The acoustics will corroborate the presence of this inconspicuous domain, which is otherwise left unheard by human ears. Through a plexiglass wall, the user can watch the mycelium grow over time, forming rich soil by breaking down plant debris and other organic matter; through a speaker, the user can hear the growth of our organisms on the microscopic level.

Though we’ve both experimented with acoustics in our various fields of study, we were entirely new to the art of acoustic ecology. In order to record sound of the atomic sort, one must have both the proper equipment and breadth of scientific information. In our first attempt, we contacted David Dunn from The Acoustic Ecology Institute, whose mission is to increase personal and social awareness of our sound environment. In his soundscape composition “The Sound of Light in Trees: The Acoustic Ecology of Pinyon Pines,” Dunn created a composite aural portrait of the acoustic world inside a pinyon pine. In addition, Dunn was one of the innovators of low-cost microphones for microscopic use (for instance, microphones to record infrasonic sounds in the villages of prairie dogs and omni-directional ultrasonic microphones to record the communications between bats). Unfortunately, our efforts to facilitate a conversation with Mr. Dunn were fruitless. As a result, we continued our research, shifting our inquiries to broader territories, specifically that of nanotechnology. After a few days, we discovered Igor Sokolov, the former Director of Nanoengineering and Biotechnology at Clarkson University and current Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Tufts University. He responded immediately to our first email and kindly (and poetically) reminded us that the idea of “hearing” the grass grow “originated in folk fairy tales.” We knew the fit was right.

In our Skype conversation with Mr. Sokolov, he assured us that listening to mycelium growth was, in fact, entirely possible. In his studies of the atomic particles within insect bodies (specifically mosquitos), Mr. Sokolov found that scanning probe microscopy (SPM) was the most successful. In doing so, he could accurately obtain the frequencies and amplitudes of the vibrations of particles within his specimens. He could then use this information to hand-build a microphone capable of recording and amplifying his findings. “The motion and behavior of a single particle yields information different and complementary to that obtained from an ensemble average of many particles,” Mr. Sokolov explained. By recording the movement and acoustics of insect bodies on the atomic level, the observer can see firsthand how particles (including non-specific neurons) interact and react under certain conditions and external stimuli (including, but not limited to, color, light, and sound). Professor Sokolov asserts that this research gives insight into the innate behaviors of insects, including reflexes, orientation behaviors, kinesis (change in the speed of movement), and taxis (movement towards or away from positive or negative stimuli). As we had hoped, Sokolov encouraged our ambitions: out of human perception, there exists an incredibly enlightening and wonderfully poetic environment of both movement and sound.

Unfortunately, obtaining the proper equipment for scanning probe microscopy (and, furthermore, atomic force acoustic microscopy) is not easy, nor is it cheap. The instruments used for this technique are married to specific university guidelines and are inaccessible for external artistic experimentations, such as ours. Professor Sokolov uses the Laboratory for Nanoenigneering and Biotechnology at Tufts University, as well as university funds for his studies; though he was able to obtain a lot of his recording equipment (for the making of atomic microscopes) on eBay, we recognize that these materials are not easily obtained in perfect working condition after various inquires to eBay sellers. Given the brevity of this class’ semester, we can only expect to create a prototype, in the vision of our original idea, in the hopes that we will be able to continue our research outside of the bounds of the classroom for further interpretation and experimentation. It will take time, money, and various levels of written approval to access the unique apparatuses to measure the frequency and vibrations of mushroom growth; with two week’s time, we have yet to find this atypical information from external studies online or in print. Our prototype will be the framework for our future artistic endeavors.

We too often forget the profundity of simplicity; in the activity of our everyday lives, we are swept in the current, in the ebb and flow, of our complexities and that of those around us. Under the surface, out of human sight, there exists an intelligent, sentient community of organisms with complex communications. Fungus are simple-celled eukaryote organisms with a single nucleus; yet, they remain aware; they react to change; they devise diverse chemical responses to the challenges around them. They are, in fact, our infinitesimal protectors and, out of human sight, they consistently, silently heal the injuries we inflict to our planet. Through our studies of mycology and our discussion of its possibilities, we hope to interest our audiences in educating themselves in the power of fungi in our ecological systems and to remind them that in great simplicity, we find extraordinary complexity, and beauty therein.

Sketches and Prototype:

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