10 Jan 2015

notes toward a library of superlative trees. a transmission for Eucalyptus regnans

notes toward a library of superlative trees. a transmission for Eucalyptus regnans was one of two works exhibited as part of a listening air. / They are that that talks of going at Constance ARI, Hobart, Tasmania, which opened on 10th January 2015, alongside works by Matt Warren and Alex Bishop-Thorpe. It was part of the offsite programme for the sound festival Mona Foma.  

the work is a mini-FM radio programme which conducts radio art as a form of fieldwork. It investigates the notion of non-human memory through engagement with the sounds of the tallest flowering plant in the world, a tree native to Tasmania and Victoria, but now found worldwide. 
Orokonui eco-sanctuary in Dunedin, New Zealand, is a biosecure reserve for rare New Zealand birds. It also contains “New Zealand’s tallest tree”, a Eucalyptus regnans and an introduced Australian, planted in the 1870s as part of a farmland boundary line. 

Unusually for a culture recently enlightened to the fragile specificity of its own island ecology, this introduced visitor - essentially a giant 'weed' - has been celebrated, rather than chopped down to provide space for native Rimu, Rata or Kauri. (Perhaps this curious circumventing of current principles of biosecurity is something to do with our cultural proclivity to valuing the surmounting of tall obstacles, what we might call the "Edmund Hilary Effect"). Currently, the grove of tall E. regnans in Orokonui tower above the native vegetation, and have become home to flocks of introduced rosellas, creating a strata of Australian life high above the New Zealand ecology in the lower reaches, where endangered endemic birds find their home, creating an ecological palimpsest, an intriguing doubling.

In developing this work, the sounds of New Zealand's Tallest Tree and its surrounding ecological community, recorded through various kinds of microphones, have been collected, and flown across the Trans-Tasman border, to be put into conversation with endemic E. Regnans from the old growth forests of the Tasmanian Styx State Forest. This was staged through the creation of a site-specific radio programme which involved the transmission of sound recordings of the life processes of New Zealand trees into a 400 year old, partially hollow Tasmanian E. Regnans popularly known as The Chapel Tree. 

Additional recordings of other tall trees in the area were then collected, through the same methods (emphasising sonic intimacy and non-human perspectives, as well as an approach to field recording which doesn't isolate fragments of the soundscape out from the potential capturing of a wider communicative field, via small paired omni and contact microphones). In the work's final stage, this audio is collated and brought into the gallery space, with both the radio transmission, as well as the original field recordings from both locations, re-transmitted into the space, in the company of some tiny E. Regnans seedings, purchased from a local nursery called Plants of Tasmania, and subsequently re-planted in the bush at the conclusion of the show. 

This radio fieldwork translates one location into another, staging a comparative study, investigating site through electromagnetic energy, and normally inaudible sounds, which postulate forest memory as a non-human form of mnemonic. In correlating trees and radio transmission towers, the project looks back at historic experiments to turn tall forest trees trees into temporary aerials. It investigates the role of environment in two post-colonial countries which have always been modern, but which both have Romantic myths of origin based in the co-option of nature to symbolic narratives. In considering the life processes of this species of tree in the globalised present, we find two very different contemporary biospheres, each with very different cultural discourses around the subject of Nature. 

This can be noted particularly when considering the fact that, at approximately only 80 metres in height, the celebrated New Zealand E. regnans would not even make the grade, in terms of the minimum height which is set out in the Forestry Tasmania protective register that exempts eucalypts above 85 metres in height from being logged. In Tasmania, the age of these endemic trees predates colonial settlement, In New Zealand they mark the boundary between a reconstructed endemic forest, which is highly managed to provide habitat for extremely rare birds, and farmland. The New Zealand E. Regnans might remember a different story to their old-growth Australian cousins – their own role in being part of the changing of the landscape by settlement. 

with thanks variously to Nigel Bunn, William Henry Meung, Nigel Farley, Campbell Walker, Alex Bishop-Thorpe, Matt Warren, Eliza Burke, Julia Drouhin & Arjan Kok, and all at Orokonui Ecosanctuary and Constance ARI.