Screaming plants (Learning Things: April 3, 2023)

Thoughts on plant communication and an attempt at automatic drawing.

A graphite-style digital drawing of a tradescantia zebrina plant.

Here's what I've been up to this week, featuring plenty of paranormal plant talk and an automatic drawing session with limited success but some helpful takeaways.

Paranormal research + DIY paranormal gear

I've been thinking a lot about plants lately. Well . . . I'm always somewhat aware of plants, particularly since my desk is surrounded on three sides by ~57 pots of houseplants. Though really, many of these containers house more than one plant, so there's probably well over 100 plants in the room that I'm sitting in right now. The study is a veritable bonanza of tradescantia zebrinas, philodendrons, pothos, snake plants, pileas, various succulents, and one wood sorrel plant that, as far as I can tell, materialized out of thin air. (I haven't had much luck with growing herbs in my apartment, but the houseplants love it here, at least.)

Anyway, I mention plants because, as I've said before, I really want to try building a biodata sonification device. Which I want to make, of course, because I'm fascinated by plants and am interested in where they fit into paranormal investigation.

I often think about "plant time" (I don't know if that's a real thing; it's just what I call it). To me, plant time is the timeline on which plants exist. Like you look at a tree and you can't tell that it's growing, but that's only because you're on human time and the tree is on plant time. But if you perceived the tree from the perspective of plant time, it'd look as lively as any critter.

On my more observant days, I notice that certain houseplants  shift slightly every few hours. Once, I opened the window and didn't notice that one of my succulents (a ghost plant) had reached its long arm (stem?) out toward the screen over the course of the day. When I closed the window, I almost slammed it down on the poor thing. (Luckily, I noticed at the last minute and was able to rearrange the plant.) A calathea that lives on the windowsill next to our table sometimes audibly and visibly shifts its leaves around. (On days when it doesn't move around when I'm sitting there, I manage to convince myself it's mad at me.)

A new study even found that when plants are stressed out, they emit ultrasonic sounds. (Or as someone on Mastodon put it, plants scream when stressed.) We can't hear them, but some animals can.

From the study:

Stressed plants show altered phenotypes, including changes in color, smell, and shape. Yet, airborne sounds emitted by stressed plants have not been investigated before. Here we show that stressed plants emit airborne sounds that can be recorded from a distance and classified. We recorded ultrasonic sounds emitted by tomato and tobacco plants inside an acoustic chamber, and in a greenhouse, while monitoring the plant’s physiological parameters. We developed machine learning models that succeeded in identifying the condition of the plants, including dehydration level and injury, based solely on the emitted sounds. These informative sounds may also be detectable by other organisms. This work opens avenues for understanding plants and their interactions with the environment and may have significant impact on agriculture.

All of this to say: plants are mysterious creatures that live all around us, clearly experiencing an altered version of reality. Plants also have magical properties in various belief systems. So they feel like an interesting entry point into the paranormal. What can plants tell us about both themselves and the visible and unseen world around us?

Garrett from Liminal Earth has done some some cool work devising an ingenious Floraphone device that uses the midi output from a biodata sonification device and then feeds it into something that converts the midi into sounds that resemble speech, which is unbelievably cool.

As for me, my first goal would be to be able to build a biodata sonification device, and then see where I can go from there. This week saw very little material progress toward that goal, though I did do plenty of research and thinking about it. (And I also did a bit of gardening, trimming some leggy plants and putting them in water to propagate.)

Also related to paranormal plants, around mid-week, I had a very strange, complex dream with a convoluted plotline and wide cast of characters, but at one point, I was seeing through the "eyes" of a plant vaguely resembling a sea anemone, living with a bunch of other similar plants. We were all growing around the edges of a tall, circular stone tower, and had the ability to suck the life out of humans in order to gain additional powers (like the ability to walk around and eventually become either human or animal--I'm not totally sure which, because I woke up before that point.) So, anyway. Plants are weird and cool and occasionally vaguely threatening, at least in the dream world!

Art and paranormal investigation

I did a quick automatic drawing experiment this week, inspired by Solitary Seance: How You Can Talk with Spirits on Your Own by Raymond Buckland. In the book, he talks about how

to doodle unconsciously is when you are caught up in your conversation, or whatever the activity, to the point that you are scribbling on a piece of paper without looking at it and have no idea what you are drawing until you finally look down when the conversation ends. It’s this unconscious doodling that ties in with spirit communication, and is frequently guided by spirit.

He says that automatic drawing is best done when you can

focus your attention on something else. That “something else” can be reading a book, talking on the phone, watching television, talking to a friend who is with you, or anything similar—anything that will hold your attention for a period of time so that you don’t have to look down at what your hand is doing on the paper.

So I did a version of that, doodling on my iPad without looking down while talking on the phone with my sister. Over the course of the half-hour-long call, I did four or five drawings.

None of them seemed like much of anything to me. Though it might be interesting to use images like those as inspiration for something else. Like I could look at them and draw whatever they made me think of. Haven't tried it yet, but it seems promising.

Also, I'd never tried automatic drawing on an iPad before, and I hadn't thought about how, if you're drawing and then pause with your Apple Pencil still on the iPad, Procreate automatically tries to detect what shape you were trying and "correct" your lines for you.

That meant that, in between a bunch of organic loops and such, I also ended up with some interesting, odd geometric shapes on the canvas. At first, I didn't like that, but it's starting to grow on me as just an interesting quirk of the medium. It's a limitation that adds to the final result.


I'm still plugging away at editing the queer solarpunk fantasy romance novel that I'm writing. This week wasn't the best in terms of progress. Everything felt like slow going, and most of what I wrote, I think I'll end up deleting. But, hey, not all weeks can be winners.

Other writing I did this week: I attended this month's Weird Words Writing Group, which is hosted on Zoom by the folks at Liminal Earth on the last Thursday of every month. It was a lot of fun! We used a bibliomancy writing prompt, and I ended up writing a blog post(s) inspired by that, about perception and the way we give things meaning. (Should be finishing that up and posting it sometime this week.)


In addition to all of the above, I also bought the new game Terra Nil, an environmental strategy game where you start with a wasteland and rewild it, then you recycle everything you used to purify the land and water and fly off in an airship.

It's sorta like the reverse of something like Sim City (or my preferred childhood sim games, Sim Safari and Pharoah) and I'm loving it! There's even a zen mode that's perfect for people like me who don't actually want to have to bother with strategy in their strategy games.

Anyway, I highly recommend it if you want a chill, solarpunk-style game to play!