Do you ever wonder if plants have feelings? Some people do. The idea that plants are capable of experiencing emotion was first recorded in 1848, when the German experimental psychologist Dr. Gustav Theodor Fechner suggested the idea in his book Nanna. Dr. Fechner believed that plants are capable of emotions, just like humans or animals, and that one could promote healthy growth by speaking to them with affection. The theory was taken up by the Indian scientist Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose, who first conducted experiments on plants in 1900. Bose believed that plants grew more quickly amidst pleasant music and actually suffered under loud noise or harsh sounds. He also claimed that plants can "feel pain and understand affection.” Although some interesting “experiments” were performed, neither Fechner nor Bose were ever able to prove their theory. Little work was done on the topic until the 1960’s when an ex-CIA interrogation specialist named Cleve Backster tested plants on a polygraph machine and argued they reacted to human thoughts and threats. Much of his work has since been debunked, however new theories and studies abound and have been embraced by many people today. According to botanist Bill Williams of the Helvetica Institute, "plants not only seem to be aware and to feel pain, they can even communicate." In 2008 his research prompted the Swiss government to pass the first-ever Plant Bill of Rights. Among other things this document concludes that plants have moral and legal protections, and Swiss citizens have to treat them appropriately. In the words of John Lennon - “strange days indeed!” Our world is still full of mysteries and I trust science to guide us to the truth - but do we really have all the answers?
It made me think – what if grapevines had feelings? How would they communicate? It could be chemical, hormonal or even – most sensationally - through verbal means. What would the vines say to each other? What if they didn’t like each other? At over 800 vines per acre there would be a lot of opportunity for disagreement.. What if they were in love? There wasn’t exactly a lot of privacy. I decided to take matters into my own hands and conduct some local field research.
My approach was to utilize an old parapsychological method - EVP - otherwise known as Electronic Voice Phenomenon. EVP was developed in the 1920’s when some people thought they could record the voices of the deceased. Many recordings exist that supposedly captured messages from the afterlife. I thought if it could work in a graveyard – why not in a vineyard? The possibilities were too exciting to imagine! Over the winter I installed a small digital voice recorder onto a vineyard post at our Bedell Vineyard. The device was located in one of our oldest blocks in a single row of Riesling vines. To the west was a row of Gewürztraminer and directly to the east was a block of Chardonnay. A perfect spot! All the vines were 30 years of age – old enough to be able to communicate in a mature way. For the first few weeks I heard nothing at all. But when the weather broke and the last of the snow finally melted away, I can across some astonishing results. What you are about to read is a transcript that I recovered from the recorder taken on the morning of March 4th, 2011. From the area where the sounds originated I was able to determine which vines were communicating – Chardonnay (C), Riesling (R) and Gewürztraminer (G).
C: Bonjour my darlings! It is very cold no?
R: Nein. To me it feels a little warmer today.
G: Salud My liebe! I could see you better if he was not always in the way.
R: There isn’t a great deal I can do about that dummkopf.
G: It is a beautiful morning – look at that sunrise!
R: Vat are you two so happy about?
C: Why should we not be happy sweetie? We have everything we need.
R: Everything you need maybe. Und stop calling me sweet!
C: Mon chéri what happened? You used to be so sweet no?
R: Years ago I vas a lot sweeter than I am now.
G: I could really use a trim. When are they coming by to prune us?
C: No. I don’t like to be trimmed. It doesn't feel - how you say - natural.
R: It's not the trimming that bothers me. It’s the tying I find constricting.
G: Well I like it.
R: You like anything you fruity weirdo.
G: You seemed to like me fruity when we were blended together.
R: When I get off this trellis, I'm going to strangle you and your silly umlaut!
C: Hé, les gars ! Please can’t we all try to get along.?
G: You really need to work on your anger issues.
R: You're the one with the identity crisis. What are you, a white grape or a brown grape?
G: Always with the skin color. What is it with you?
C: Mon dieu, this is just too much drama for me. I can find more intelligent conversation on my own trellis.
G: My dear I am sorry we are so….forward.
C: You know I love you all, but you must try to restrain yourselves, un peu.
R: Mein Gott! Get me out of here!
G: Seriously where would you possibly go?
R: To the woods where I can climb.
C: Mon chéri, the woods are full of natives. They will not let you climb.
G: Ssshhhh I hear something!
R: It is the deer - they have come back.
C: S'il vous plait, soyez tranquille!
G: Better than the dogs with all their barking and running around.
C: Look how beautiful they are.
R: Actually, I kind of like the tying thing…
I think you’ll agree these results are extraordinary. It just goes to show how much personality these varieties have. But I've come to understand it’s only after these grapes are made into wine that they really start to speak their mind. Stay tuned…