Meet the plant influencers — that are actually plants

March 15, 2023
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Landscape Trades in March 2023.

In this new regular column for Landscape Trades, Nadina will spotlight Internet of Nature (IoN) technologies and practitioners making a difference in how we can optimize soil health, manage urban forests, create liveable cities, and everything in between.

Even while more cities come to grips with the importance of building resilient natural habitats, embracing tree-planting – and most critically, “tree-growing” – campaigns and sometimes even hi-tech moisture sensors, as we discussed in the first column, another challenge threatens to derail our progress. Changes in our climate are giving rise to deadly natural disasters that threaten the solutions themselves. As blistering stretches of weather increasingly become normal, the changing climate can suffocate trees. 

With so much of the climate change discourse focused on Antarctic ice sheets and the plight of threatened species like polar bears, most people do not appreciate its most immediate impacts on our lives, which will take place in the habitat around our homes. In this column, I want to introduce you to Dr. Tim Rademacher, a scholar of trees who aims to make us feel the effects of climate change the way the plants that sustain us do. 

Realizing how little most understand of this problem, Tim sought to bring it to the surface while at the Harvard Forest, an ecological research station of 3,000 acres owned and managed by Harvard University and located in Petersham, Massachusetts. He and Clarisse Hart, who oversees outreach and education for the forest, were inspired by a popular book about climate change that he believed held the secret to effectively educating the public about the threat of our changing climate to the very tools with which we seek to address it. The book, Witness Tree, by award-winning journalist Lynda Mapes, chronicles the impacts of climate change on a hundred-year-old oak tree in Harvard Forest over the course of one year.

Now, under Tim’s purview, that oak tree is continuing its storytelling on Twitter, live-tweeting climate change via the Twitter account @awitnesstree. The oak, which followers have taken to calling “Whitney,” is equipped with sensors and cameras that continuously monitor its sap flow and growth. It also receives input from Harvard's data archive, which stores more than 55 years of climate data. Using a custom computer program that Tim built, the tree translates sensor information and climate data into tweets.

Postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Tim Rademacher, and Harvard Forest Outreach Director, Clarisse Hart, posing with @awitnesstree.

For a young researcher, Tim speaks with a kind of clarity and determination most people spend years perfecting, acknowledging that even though most people understand trees are really important, few actually know how they work. He views Whitney, the oldest living organism on social media, as an ambassador for life in a changing environment, a communications guru that has the capacity to teach us about the inner functions of these majestic plants.

“Trees are strange, alien creatures,” he explains, and despite our fascination with them, we need something to demystify them. A lifelong tree lover himself, Tim describes only beginning to truly understand them after spending years in Harvard Forest equipping trees with enormous numbers of sensors and collecting data. He used sap-flow sensors to measure their vascular health like a heart monitor, as well as moisture-measuring devices to watch how they kept the right balance of nutrients. “I realized then that I was in a very privileged position,” he says, “so I started to tell my friends, family, and colleagues about what I was learning, and they told me to share it online.”

In just two years, Whitney has racked up nearly 10,000 followers and inspired other enthusiasts to bring their local tree online. “I want to build on the network that inspired me to program Whitney,” Tim said, whisking a stray hair from his forehead. He had jokingly told me over the phone he was a “long-haired treehugger.” I see now he wasn’t lying, on either account. Tim tells me about Whitney’s inspiration and sister project, Led by Ghent University, that website set up its first tweeting tree in 2016. It now disseminates sensor data from 21 trees across Belgium, Germany, India, the Netherlands, and the UK. 

Analyzing data from Whitney and has already paid off. Sensor logs from those trees have revealed that droughts can block water uptake, disrupting growth, which leads to less carbon uptake. In previous decades, you could only diagnose this once it was too late to save the tree. Sensor data instead now facilitates preventive tree care.

But Tim’s larger aim – inspiring empathy for the trees that help us survive in our homes – also shows great promise. By giving trees a voice and a platform to share their experience of climate change, he hopes to show, rather than tell, how all organisms on this planet are locked in a common struggle. The computer program explains the hardships Whitney is up against in a language we humans understand. If you ask her how she’s doing, Whitney will tell you – and will even send you a selfie.

Tim’s analytics measuring how Whitney’s followers are responding to her content demonstrate that tweets about her struggles in the face of her changing climate attract the most attention. If we can relate to something that speaks our language, he reasons, we’re more likely to show empathy for that thing, and perhaps even care for it more, a theory supported by vast, persuasive research. “Ultimately,” Tim said, “I’d like every city to have a tweeting tree.” I call it a digital Lorax, speaking – or rather tweeting – for the trees.

“I’d like every city to have a tweeting tree,” Tim waves while climbing one of Earth's most massive trees, the giant sequoia.

Tim’s tweeting trees would, in a sense, be the heirs to the last movement that inspired a mass return to the land, Romanticism. These digital poets build from the values of the 19th century artists and philosophers characterized by a deep celebration and awe of nature. Romantics like Ralph Waldo Emerson and his disciple Henry David Thoreau sought isolation and proximity to nature, using the popular forms of their time – poetry and the novel – to inspire the public to see what it had lost. The work inspired Fredrick Law Olmstead to design America’s first urban parks, a radical notion in 1850, reconnecting urbanites with the restorative power of nature which had been broken by the hustle and bustle of city life.

In contrast to the Romantics, today’s poets are Instagrammers and TikTokers, facing an even greater crisis, one that threatens to unravel our way of life. Having seen the impact of Olmstead’s legacy, which brings joy nearly three centuries later to anyone who strolls through New York’s Central Park, the Washington Mall, or any of the dozens of urban oases he designed, these internet-savvy scions demand that we recenter nature. What if a tweeting tree could someday have more followers than Christiano Ronaldo, they ask – or Justin Bieber or the Kardashians? What if someday the most popular social media influencers were the very plants we depended on to survive?

Though Tim understands that his project anthropomorphizes the tree in ways that might seem problematic, giving it a personality and sense of humor that are entirely human, the strategy has proved effective. Research has shown that if you can relate to something, you’re more likely to show empathy for that thing, and perhaps even care for it more. 

An example of a tweet by @awitnesstree.

One of Whitney’s more popular tweets, describing how hot she was, supported that observation. A heat wave had caused her to transpire more than usual and said she was desperate for a sip of water. As cities across the world continued to shatter heat records, the parched throat that her message called to mind was a feeling that most everyone understood all too well. 

Last year, renowned tree biologist, Dr. Andrew Hirons, and I were tremendously inspired by Tim’s live-tweeting brainchild. We felt, however, that more could be done to raise awareness on the plight of city trees and the underground world of soil health, which in large part determines the health of the tree. Thus, with the developmental support of Mersey Forest and Soilmania, our own tweeting tree – @bowiethebirch – was born. In the next column, I’ll introduce you to Bowie – until then, why don’t you give both Whitney and Bowie a follow?