Above: Moore and Shepard’s installation, Palm Reflections, at the October 14-16, 2021 Autumn Lights Festival at The Gardens at Lake Merritt in Oakland, California enchanted about 3000 visitors nightly and received the Mayor’s Choice Award. Video by David Moore

When NYSUFC Past President David Moore moved west with his wife Leyla to work as Senior Tree Supervisor for the City of Oakland, California, finding new friends was a high priority. A pal from Moore’s SUNY-ESF days introduced him to Blake Shepard, a licensed marriage and family therapist living in the San Francisco Bay area with a passion for creativity and music.

Tree Jays David Moore (left) and Blake Shepard (right) in the Palmetum at The Gardens at Lake Merritt in Oakland, California. Photo by Heather Alarab

They became fast friends who helped each other remain sane through the pandemic, when Shepard taught Moore a new outlet: skateboarding. At Bay Area skateparks, they bonded deeply over their musicianship and explorations into digital tech; Moore is an electronic music composer, recording artist, sound engineer, and DJ, and Shepard played in punk rock bands earlier in his youth, still makes music, and is deep into 3D animation and digital fine arts. They’ve collaborated on music videos and art projects and found they worked exceptionally well together.

Blake Shepard designed the Palm Reflections explainer video to both welcome people and set a tone with a throwback to early computer graphics. “In this exhibit about the intersection of technology and nature, I wanted the video to elicit the sense of wonder from the early stages of computer graphics,” Shepard says. “It’s an on-the-nose style to represent this new frontier that’s emerging between technology and communion with nature.”

Both men are drawn to the intersection of technology and nature, which played out in a dramatic way at the 2021 Autumn Lights Festival at The Gardens at Lake Merritt in Oakland when Festival-goers entered Palm Reflections, the name of Moore and Shepard’s Tree Jays installation. Visitors to Palm Reflections were immersed in a nightscape of light and sound generated by the electrical pulsations of plants (more on that shortly). Shepard has a long history of disassembling and rebuilding computers, and Moore is an expert with audio programs and synthesis. Their combined formidable skills were applied and stretched in the three months between applying to the festival and the weekend of the event.

Moore attaching PlantWave electrodes to a palm in preparation for their first night of Palm Reflections. Photo by Heather Alarab

The genesis of the idea for Palm Reflections came from when Moore was living and working as an urban forester in New York City. With the goal of merging his passions for music and trees, he sought out Joe Patitucci, founder of Data Garden, the company that produced MIDI Sprout, now known as PlantWave. This device can connect to plants via a pair of electrodes and translates the plant’s electrical impulses into sound, creating melodic synthesized music.

PlantWave unit (center) with electrodes attached to palm, whose conductivity data translates as music from the speaker. Photo by Jason Favreau

Moore volunteered at a Queens outdoor music venue and beer garden called Nowadays to learn more about what it was like managing a venue, with hopes of someday being able to create meditative greenspaces where people listen to music generated by plants, inspiring peace and a connectedness to nature. He learned more about the practices of forest bathing and ecotherapy, discovering fascinating research about the psychological benefits of spending time in nature.

Shepard setting up the nerve center for Palm Reflections. Photo by Heather Alarab

The plan was put on hold when Moore was offered the job in California and packed up and moved with his then-pregnant wife, Leyla. His department, City of Oakland Parks and Tree Services, manages Oakland’s street trees, parks, and greenspaces. This includes The Gardens at Lake Merritt, a hidden gem of a 7-acre botanical garden in Oakland’s Lakeside Park, the nation’s first wildlife refuge. Moore had volunteered in the Gardens and also attended their annual fundraiser, known as the Oakland Autumn Lights Festival. Moore describes the Festival, which attracts 10,000 attendees each year, as akin to “a mini Burning Man with larger-than-life psychedelic art installations merging nature and technology.”

Light is generated from surface conductivity data measuring the movement of water through the palm leaf’s tissues. Photo by Jason Favreau

The intention of the Festival is to celebrate the beauty of the Gardens by emphasizing the plants and landscape in artistic ways. This event seemed like a perfect opportunity and setting for Moore to manifest his long-held dream of creating a soothing and peaceful public sound installation generated by plants. When he contacted event organizer Tora Rocha in August of 2021 with his proposal, she was delighted that the City’s urban forester took creative interest in the Gardens and welcomed him as a contributor. To live up to the visual focus of the event, Moore envisioned having the plants control not only sounds, but also lights. This seemed technically possible, but far beyond the frontier of how Plantwave is commonly used.

Moore attaching PlantWave electrodes to a fern in the Palmetum. Photo by Heather Alarab

He immediately contacted Shepard to be a collaborator, knowing that his friend’s enthusiasm, creativity, artistic and technical skills, and legitimacy as a licensed therapist would make him a perfect fit to manifest an impressive and meaningful installation. The duo had just over two months to figure it all out—at the outset, they had only a small fraction of the equipment needed for the gig. Ongoing innovations and problem-solving leading up to the event led to a breakthrough success.

Moore and Shepard on opening night of the 2021 Autumn Lights Festival. Photo by Jason Favreau

In simple terms, how does this technology work?

PlantWave functions the same way as a lie detector, by measuring the electrical conductivity of an organism’s surface. Lie detectors measure the presence of sweat on skin, whereas with PlantWave, two electrodes are attached to plant leaves and measure the electrical conductivity between the two points. This conductivity is a function of the amount of water that the plant cells are moving around from moment to moment.

Thus, as mediated through PlantWave, the greater the fluctuation between two musical notes, the greater the physiological change that is happening within the plant. In essence, the internal processes of the plant that are invisible to the naked eye are responsible for generating sound. This may include photosynthesis or other processes, and it’s apparent that the sounds change depending on which plant you connect to and whether it’s day or night—along with a host of other environmental conditions. These fluctuations inspire a lot of curiosity as to what exactly is going on inside the plant, leading to many questions and possibilities for research.

The PlantWave device converts the plant’s changes in surface conductivity data to MIDI data, which is the type of computer language that’s used for electronic music, heart monitors, Apple Watches, etc. With the use of a computer running a digital audio workstation, such as Ableton Live, this data can be intentionally tuned to scales and assigned to specific instruments in the same way that a wind chime is designed and tuned to be played by the wind so that it creates an intentional array of pleasing sounds. You can hear an hour of the sounds generated by the plants in the Palm Reflections exhibit on SoundCloud or Spotify.

Photo by Jason Favreau

During the pandemic, Shepard turned Moore onto audio engineer and music instructor David Gibson who took Moore on as a student at his Globe Institute of Consciousness and Sound Healing in Sausalito, CA. It was here that Moore learned how sound design and audio engineering can be used to create intentional emotional effects on an audience. These teachings played a huge role in choosing the instruments and effects played by the plants in Palm Reflections, as the intention was to create a therapeutic atmosphere that draws the audience into a sense of peace and connectedness with the plants around them.

To take the installation to the next level and align with the visual intentions of the festival, the data generated from the plants was also converted to DMX via a computer running DMXis, which controlled 8 multi-colored LED stage lights spread throughout the Palmetum. Colors on each light were assigned to different musical notes, meaning that the plants would turn various LED lights on or off as they transmitted different electrical impulses, vibrantly uplighting the lush jungle landscape in blends of red, green, blue, ultra-violet, amber, and white.

Photos by Jason Favreau

What did the installation actually look and sound like?

Palm Reflections was tucked far away in the back corner of the Festival, and the isolation helped add to the mystery and otherworldliness of the installation. Before people could see it, they could hear the melodic ambient sounds from far away, drawing curious minds closer to the dense palm jungle.

The corner of the Palmetum that housed Palm Reflections was approximately 50 x 50 feet, with a loop path weaving through the center upon which visitors could wander around, and with entrances/exits to the rest of the garden at two opposite ends. Ferns, palms, and understory plants create a dense and lush landscape in all directions, from the ground up to far overhead. Four audio speakers lined the perimeter of the installation space, each connected to a specific plant adjacent to each speaker, playing unique ambient sounds generated by each plant in real time. The notes playing out of each speaker were different, yet complementary to the others, creating a rich soundscape in quadraphonic surround sound.

Four pairs of LED stage lights throughout the space ebbed, flowed, and flashed, illuminating fronds, leaves, and trunks paired with shadowy silhouettes. A custom-made fog curtain spewed blasts of fog across the threshold of one entrance, framing the space dramatically, while another fog machine in the center of the space spread low-lying fog across the Palmetum’s floor. A 3-minute video of 3D digital animations was projected on one of the walls, featuring a variety of dynamic palm trees, landscapes, and cityscapes highlighting the connectedness of technology and nature. A video monitor scrolled text that was written to explain the concept of the installation and how it was technically achieved.

Oakland, California Mayor Libby Schaaf awarded Blake Shepard and David Moore the Mayor’s Choice Award for their Palm Reflections exhibit at the sold-out Oakland 2021 Autumn Lights Festival. Photo Courtesy Mayoral Staff

What was the effect on the audience?

Upon entering the space, the impact on the visitors was apparent. Some calmly wandered the space, exploring it with their eyes and ears. Some stopped in astonishment or disbelief. Others quietly stood still or found a seat to enjoy the serenity. The overall response was strongly positive. Shepard says, “So many people came up to us to tell us how calm they felt in the space, which was wonderful because we are hoping that for some folks who don’t already feel a deep connection to nature, this immersive experience could be an entry point.” Shepard says he and Moore see the installation as functioning for many others as part art therapy, part eco-therapy.

Over 300 artists contributed to the 2021 Autumn Lights Festival, but Mayor Libby Schaaf presented Palm Reflections with her Mayor’s Award due to its cutting edge technical engineering and the profound impact it had on her.

Photo by Jason Favreau

What does the future look like?

Shepard says that now that he and Moore have their proof of concept, they can get more artistic and experimental. “We’re just cracking our knuckles here,” Moore says, laughing.

“I’ve been reflecting on the question of what is the space that we are entering into, and where is this collaboration taking us,” says Shepard. “It’s occurred to me that we’re not being drawn to anything—we’re creating a new space. That’s so exciting to me.” Shepard wants to use his 3D art and animation skills to create new virtual spaces with Tree Jays.

“I’d like to create VR (virtual reality) experiences so that folks can ‘enter the tunnel’, so to speak, from either end,” he says. “What I mean by that is that some people are already communing with nature in an ancestral way but could be drawn to learning more about technology, while other people may be immersed in tech already but could benefit from more of a connection to nature. I’m really into this idea of getting the same messages from multiple directions, intertwined.”

Photo by Jason Favreau

For anyone who’s intrigued by the ideas in this feature, Moore recommends the 2021 book Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by University of British Columbia Forest Ecologist Dr. Suzanne Simard, and her Ted Talk, “How Trees Talk to Each Other.”

With more than 30 years of research under her belt, Simard proved that trees in a forest can exchange nutrients, as do paperbark birch and Douglas fir trees. She also proved that a “Wood Wide Web” of mycelium (underground fungi networks) is the delivery systems for the sharing of nutrients. “I learned from her research that the biggest, oldest trees are the hub of the network and will assist the trees around them,” Moore says. “This resonates with us, as one of our goals is to awaken people to the interconnectedness of life.”

Moore adds, “We’ve observed that isolation is the driving force for greed and selfishness … a bottomless pit can never be filled. We don’t need more consumption, we need more connection.” 🌳

Story compiled and edited by Michelle Sutton