SONIC BLOOM - Christopher Bird & Peter Tompkins
Plants, says Steiner, can only be understood when considered in connection with all that is circling, weaving, and living around them. In spring and autumn, when swallows produce vibrations as they flock in a body of air, causing currents with their wing beats, these and birdsong, says Steiner, have a powerful effect on the flowering and fruiting of plants. Remove the winged creatures, he warns, and there would be a stunting of vegetation. His point was well made for us in Florida.
A bird’s-eye view across country south and east of La Belle, midway between the great Lake Okeechobee and Sanibel Island, reveals an ocean of citrus orchards cut by a skein of dusty "sea lanes," extending for miles toward the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, once a paradise for seashell hunters until ravaged by pollution.
Any bird overflying this greensward in the mid-1980s would have been perplexed by the lack of avian fellows among millions of orange trees growing in the confines of Gerber Grove, saturated by a fog of chemicals laid down to ward off swarms of insects – except in Section I. There a multitude of feathered fauna darted among the trees or perched singing in their branches.
To this oasis, the birds had been attracted, not by a natural concert of their colleagues, but by a sonic diapason closely resembling birdsong, which to human ears—incapable of distinguishing its varied harmonics—recalls the chirping of a chorus of outsized crickets.
This sonic symphony was being emitted from a series of black loudspeaker boxes set atop twenty-foot poles, each resounding over an oval of about forty acres. Its purpose was not so much to attract birds as to increase the size and total yield of a crop of fruit, "hung," as they say in Florida parlance, on trees as if it were a collection of decorative balls at Yuletide.
"I have hung oranges the size of peas, shooter marbles, golf balls, and tennis balls, some still green, others fully ripe, all on the same tree, all at the same time," said Roy McClurg, a former Union City, Indiana, department-store magnate, part owner of the Gerber Grove.
We had driven down at dawn to his 320-acre holding, where two young field hands, brothers-in-law, each with a tractor and a trailer tank of foliar feed had started off between two long rows of trees, dousing them with an aerosol mist from top to bottom while a speaker, similar to the ones on the poles, tuned to maximum volume, shrieked a whistling pulse easily audible above the roar of the tractor motors.
Pointing to one of his many trees, McClurg raised his voice: "This is the typical fruit I’m getting with this brand-new method called Sonic Bloom. It synchronously combines a spraying of the leaves of any plants, from tine sprouts to mature trees, with a broadcast of that special sound. With that process, simple but scientifically unexplained, I’ve been able for the first time to get fruit all over the inner branches of my orange trees, greatly adding to the ‘umbrella’-type set which is everywhere the norm. And that’s not all. I want to show you something far more impressive, even fantastic."
On a portion of McClurg’s plantation three immature trees with more than half their branches withered or dead were being treated with a solution similar to the one in the trailer tanks, but delivered from plastic bags via tubes and needles punctured into the bark just above the ground.
"What you’re looking at," said McClurg, "are three specimens afflicted with a mysterious disease called ‘Young Tree Decline’ or YTD. It has taken out at least one of every ten citrus trees in groves all over the state of Florida, which has spent more than $50 million, so far in vain, to try to come up with a cure."
Closer inspection of the sickly trees showed them, after only ten days of treatment, to be putting forth a host of brand-new sprouts all over their limbs, sure proof that their root systems, known to have been withering and sloughing root hairs, were recovering.
"YTD trees such as these," explained McClurg, "sicken at between eight and ten years of age, before they’ve begun to bear. It’s as if a disease were striking young children. A healthy orange tree, like a human, can live up to eighty or ninety years. Mot incredible, as you can see, these little trees are also beginning to put out a heavy bloom, trying to repropagate."
Back in his pleasantly refurbished clapboard house, oldest in the county, McClurg took from his refrigerator a dozen oranges the size of small grapefruit. "These were picked at my grove yesterday," he explained. "Ordinarily oranges as big as these would be pithy and woody inside, with very little juice." Slicing four of them with a razor-sharp butcher’s cleaver, McClurg held up several of the hemispheres dripping with juice to show off rinds no thicker than an eighth of an inch. An electric juicer processed three of them to nearly fill a pint-sized glass.
"Oranges like these," said McClurg, "will give me a crop with at least a 30 percent increase in yield and a marked rise in ‘pounds solid.’ Add to that the fact that the Garvey Center for the Improvement of Human Functioning, a medically-pioneering research group in Wichita, Kansas, has tested the juice to show an increase of 121 percent in natural vitamin C over normal oranges, and you can understand that this new ‘Sonic Bloom’ discovery we’re talking about not only improves quantity, but also quality. I’ve run blindfold tests with scores of ordinary people who have compared the taste of my juice with that of oranges from many other groves, and they all selected mine as the most lip-smackingly superior."
While McClurg was happily harvesting his oranges, Harold Aungst, a dairy farmer milking a two-hundred-head of Holsteins in McVeytown, Pennsylvania, was equally happily applying the Sonic Bloom method to a hundred-acre field of alfalfa, the deep-rooted leguminous plant grown for hay, brought to Spain in the eighth century by invading Moors and since spread to create agricultural wealth all over the world. Nor did his animals have any difficulty distinguishing the high-quality fodder sprayed with Sonic Bloom.
That year Aungst took off five cuttings, one shoulder-high and so thick he had to gear his tractor down to low-low to pull his cutter through it. With this harvest Aungst won the Pennsylvania State five-acre alfalfa-growing contest over ninety-three other contestants by producing an unheard-of 7.6 tons per acre as against a state average of 3.3 tons.
To dairyman Aungst, the size of his harvest was not its most important characteristic. Hay from this alfalfa fed to his herd that winter allowed the cows to step up milk production from 6,800 to 7,300 pounds per hundred-weight of cow, yet eat one quarter less feed. "I could hardly believe it," said the usually peppery Aungst, third-generation owner of his property. "My cows were devouring the alfalfa, stems and all. Other years they’d leave the stems just lay. A cow’s nose is the very best barometer to tell how good your crop is. Cows are really finicky about what they eat. I threw down hay from another of my fields alongside this record-breaking alfalfa, and the cattle went for the feed exposed to that funny sound every time, changing over to the other only when the good stuff was all gone."
In the cellar of his house, Aungst showed us two dried alfalfa plants, one from his farm, another from his neighbor’s. The Sonic Bloom specimen, twice as long as the other, was much greener and had a far thicker root mass.
"Let me show you something," said Aungst, holding the neighbor’s plant by its root and flailing it against a bare table until the top was littered with dry leaves. Sweeping them off with his hand, Aungst slapped the Sonic Bloom plant down against the surface. Hardly a leaf fell off.
"There!" he said, speaking emphatically. "That should tell you something about the inherent quality of those two plants. When you have to move or ship the Sonic Bloom hay, it doesn’t lose a lot of its bulk the way the other does."
One clue to the cows’ preference was revealed in a test run on protein analysis by an "infrared scanner" at the Pennsylvania State University "Ag-Days" exhibition and fair. Aungst’s sound-exposed hay scored a record 29 percent for protein and an extremely high 80 percent for "Total Digestible Nutrients" (TDNs). At the fair the same test showed similar percentages for Aungst’s soybeans.
Across the United States in the Tiwa Indian pueblo of San Juan, New Mexico, twenty minutes’ drive northwest of Santa Fe, the highly alkaline desert soils, composed of playa clay called adobe, best suited when mixed with straw to make cheap building blocks for houses, can be as had-packed and impenetrable as a New York sidewalk. Yet a garden under the ministration of the same aurally-spiced nutrition as used in McVeytown and in Florida was growing as if in Eden.
Alongside more than fifty kinds of herbs, vegetables were flourishing, including tomatoes and carrots never before grown in that arid region at the confluence of the Chama and Rio Grande rivers.
To Gabriel Howearth, a bearded, pony-tailed master gardener employed by the Tribe, veteran of several years’ working with Maya Indian farmers in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Sonic Bloom was as miraculous in its results as was the Mayas’ ability to grow crops with no chemical additives by simply mentally communicating with them in some mysteriously hermetic way long part of their ethos.
"As you can see," said Gabriel, parting the purplish-green leaves of a German beet to cut his hands around the top hemisphere of a swollen mauve-maroon root much larger than a softball, "I can’ get my hands completely around it. All these beets, which normally scale off at no more than four pounds, will weigh at least nine, possibly ten."
With the steely features of a conquistador overlaid by the gentle traits of a Comanche, Howearth uprooted the giant and sliced it open with his Mexican machete. Like McClurg’s oranges, it had no spongy core. "Pure beet throughout," said Howearth. "Shows every sign of overwintering well. One of these will last a pueblo family a whole week."
He was also growing quinoa, favorite grain of the Aztecs, and amaranth, the prized staple of the Incas, both richer in the amino acids necessary to a body than any temperate-climate cereal. With Sonic Bloom, he had achieved a crop of both grains many times larger than any brought in by the Costa Rican Centro de Agricultura Tropical y Ensenaza, which had pioneered their cultivation at lower altitudes for over a decade and a half. "The remarkable thing about these crops," said Gabriel, "is their ability under this special treatment to adapt to altitudes much lower than those of their native climes. Like the beets and the rest of the herbs and vegetables, they’re in fine balance. With this Sonic Bloom our sorry soils seem to be ‘alchemized’ into getting softer through the plants’ transferring nutrients into the ground itself. You can test this by smelling, even tasting, the soil, feeling the ‘crumb’ of its structure, and noting how earthworms proliferate in it."
One of the native pueblo administrators scuffed the earth with his boot and said wonderingly, "I can’t imagine what would happen if poor people like myself, working with bad soils all over the world, were widely afforded this remarkable method. It could help them grow a great part of everything they need to support their families, and on just a tiny plot of land."
Halfway up the vast arc which connects New Mexico to Pennsylvania, customers at the St. Paul Farmers Market were meanwhile raving about the taste of tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet corn, zucchini, squash, and other vegetables grown with Sonic Bloom, displayed there every Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. As one older buyer put it, as if speaking for the rest, "This produce tastes like it used to taste when I was a boy!"
The vegetables had been trucked to a special booth by William Krantz, a former successful Twin Cities stockbroker, sick of the financial rat race, who had bought a plot of ground in River Falls, Wisconsin, on the left bank of the St. Croix River, separating the state from Minnesota. On his two-acre vegetable plot, not much larger than those to which the Tiwa Indian had referred, Krantz saw cherry tomatoes, less than four feet tall, each bearing six hundred to eight hundred fruits per plant, Cucumis sativus vines sprouting three to six cucumbers at each leaf node instead of the normal one or two, sweet corn growing three stalks, each with two to three ears, all from a single grain. In one corner, a lone viny plant occupied nine square yards of ground, mothering in the autumn sunshine thirteen huge saffron-colored pumpkins.
All of this produce had been treated by the same method used by McClurg, Aungst, and Howearth, obviating the need for any artificial fertilizer; it cost no more than $50 per acre to spray with Sonic Bloom. The same treatment has been experimentally applied to crops ranging from potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, wheat, barley, and soybeans, to such exotic tropical ones as papayas, mangoes, avocados, and macadamias, in all fifty states, with results as startlingly impressive as those obtained in La Belle, McVeytown, San Juan Pueblo, and Three Rivers.
The idea was seeded in the mind of its developer one bitter cold winter day in 1960 in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Dan Carlson, a young Minnesota recruit serving with the U.S. Army motor pool, happened to see a young Korean mother deliberately crush the legs of her four-year-old child beneath the back wheel of a reversing two-ton GMC truck. Tearfully the woman explained in distraught and incoherent English that, with two more children starving at home, only by crippling her oldest boy could she beg enough food in the city to feed her entire family.
There and then, Carlson decided he would single-mindedly devote the rest of his life to finding an innovative and cheaper way to grow food, accessible to anyone with even the smallest and poorest plot of land. Back home in Minnesota, he enrolled in the University's Experimental College. Like David Vetter at Ohio, he was allowed to design his own curriculum and reading program in horticulture and agriculture.
Soon he concluded that in poor soils, if plants could be appropriately fed, not through their roots, but through their leaves via the minute mouthlike openings called stomata -- which plants constantly use to exchange gaseous aerosols and mists with the surrounding atmosphere -- they might flourish and even grow rapidly in soils that were acidulous, alkalinely salty, arid, desert, or otherwise deprived of balanced nutrients.
But some motive force, he soon realized, was needed to awaken the stomata to action. Puzzling as to what this might be, Carlson stumbled on a record called "Growing Plants Successfully in the Home, devised by George Milstein, a retired dental surgeon who had won prizes for growing colorful bromeliads, members of an extended plant family as diverse as the pineapple and Spanish moss. Milstein's innovative idea had been to get a recording company, Pip Records, to amalgamate into a popular tune the pure sound frequencies broadcast by University of Ottawa researchers to increase wheat yields, which he had read about in The Secret Life of Plants.
Picking up where Milstein left off, Carlson focused on finding frequencies that would motivated the stomata to open and imbibe. Though he did not at first suspect a tie with the sound that caused the birds to flock to McClurg's orange grove, he managed through a stroke of spiritual insight to hit upon a combination of frequencies and harmonics exactly accordant with the predawn bird concerts that continue past sunup into morning.
To help create a new cassette tape of popular music into which his nonmusical sonics could be imbedded for inclusion in a Sonic Bloom home kit for use in small backyard gardens and greenhouses, and on indoor plants, Carlson enlisted the technical expertise of a Minneapolis music teacher, Michael Holtz. Within seconds of hearing Carlson's "cricket chirping" oscillating out of a speaker, Holtz realized its pitch was consonant with the early-morning treetop concert of birds outside his bedroom window.
The first cassette, using Hindu melodies called ragas, suitable to an Indian ear, and apparently delightful to both bird and plant, induced stomata to imbibe more than seven times the amount of foliar-fed nutrients, and even absorb invisible water vapor in the atmosphere that exists, unseen and unfelt, in the driest of climatic conditions. But the sound proved irritating to American horticulturists and farmers, especially women, apart from those few whose tastes for the exotic accepted ragas as in vogue.
Looking for western music in the range of Carlson's highest frequencies, the one which in Hindu experiments had shown the best bumper crops of corn, Holtz culled several baroque selections from the Dictionary of Musical Themes, settling on the first movement of Antonio Lucio Vivaldi's The Seasons, appropriately called "Spring." Listening to it time and again, said Holtz, "I realized that Vivaldi, in his day, must have known all about birdsong, which he tried to imitate in his long violin passages."
Holtz also realized that the violin music dominant in "Spring" reflected Johann Sebastian Bach's violin sonatas broadcast by the Ottawa University researchers to a wheatfield, which had obtained remarkable crops 66 percent greater than average, with larger and heavier seeds. Accordingly, Holtz selected Bach's E-major concerto for violin for inclusion in the tape. "I chose that particular concerto," explained Holtz, "because it has many repetitions but varying notes. Bach was such a musical genius he could change his harmonic rhythm at nearly every other beat, with his chords going from E to B to G-sharp and so on, whereas Vivaldi would frequently keep to one chord for as long as four measures. That's why Bach is considered the greatest composer that ever lived. I chose Bach's string concerto, rather than his more popular organ music, because the timbre of the violin, its harmonic structure, is far richer than that of the organ."
Holtz next delved into what for him was a whole new world of bird melodies. In the 1930s, Aretas Saunders, author of Guide to Bird Songs, had developed a method of visually representing, through a newly devised audio-spectrogram, the arias of singing birds that can neither be described in words nor adequately shown with any accuracy on a musical staff.
Refined at Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology into "sonograms" which show electronic frequencies and amplitudes rather than musical notes, they were first popularly used in 1966 in a field guide, Birds of North America, where they are printed next to most of the individual descriptions of 645 species of birds representing 75 families that live north of the Mexican border.
A few songs of particularly high pitch -- from 6,000 to 12,000 cycles per second or cps -- such as that of the shy Tennessee warbler, whose protectively-colored bright back blends into the leaves at the tops of trees, are as inaudible to many older people as high-frequency dog whistles. They are distinguishable in the guide because they have to be represented on an extra-large sonogram.
Soon Holtz came to see where the various predominating pitches in birdsongs could be calibrated by reference points on the musical scale and their harmonics. Dan Carlson had instinctively hit upon frequencies that were the ideal electronic analogues for a bird choir. "It was thrilling," said Holtz, "to make that connection. I began to fee that God had created the birds for more than just freely flying about and warbling. Their very singing must somehow be intimately linked to the mysteries of seed germination and plant growth."
During visits back to the Iowa farm country of his birth, Holtz learned that there had once been literally thousands of songbirds all over the countryside. His Aunt Alice particularly missed the lyrically beautiful and extended flutelike trilling of various spotted-bellied thrushes, the high, thin whistling of the black-and-white warbler, and the buzzy five-note song of its cousin the blue-winger warbler, recognizable by its bright yellow head, throat, breast, and underparts. Most, if not all, of these songsters were long since gone from the landscape.
"I guess Rachel Carson was right," Holtz said nostalgically. "The spring season down on the farms is much more silent than ever before. DDT killed off many birds and others never seem to have taken their place. Who knows what magical effect a bird like the wood thrush might have on its environment, singing three separate notes all at the same time, warbling two of them and sustaining the others!"
One morning while Holtz was mentally bemoaning all the species of birds that had vanished from Iowa, a yellow warbler, looking for all the world like a canary, flew, as if reading his mind, to perch on the top of a tree outside his bedroom window and, as if cued by his ban maestro's baton, burst into song. Holtz grabbed his tape recorder and managed to register an aria that went on and on for nine to ten minutes. In the field guide, he found that the little bird registers a high 8,000 cps. Drawn deeper into the subject, Holtz consulted books that detail the structure of birdsong, such as Vocal Communication in Birds, Born to Sing, and Bird Sounds and Their Meanings. He also consulted biological texts to find that tiny villi, minute, shaggy, hairlike tufts in the cochlea of the human inner ear, vibrate to certain "window" frequencies.
"What I was trying to figure out with Dan Carlson was what exactly we were oscillating in plants," Holtz explained.
Looking at drawings of a cell, Holtz further discovered the representation of a subcellular structure within the cytoplasm known as a mitochondrion. Pointing to the enlarged drawing of one of them he asked, "Of what does their shape remind you?"
A glance suggested the form of the wooden-bodied sound box of a violin or viola.
"That's right," Holtz exulted. "And I found it more than of passing interest that the resonant frequency of mitochondria is 25 cps, which, if interpolated upward gets to a harmonic of 5,000 cps, the same frequency used by Dr. Pearl Weinberger to grow winter wheat two and a half times larger than normal with four times the average number of shoots, as reported in Dorothy Retallack's The Sound of Music and Plants. It could be that the frequencies he used vibrated not only the mitochondria in the wheat seeds, but the water surrounding them, increasing the surface tension and thus enhancing penetrability through the cell wall."
Holtz connected this to Retallack's having also discovered that the transpiration rate rose, indicating greater growth activity in her experimental plants when the "listened" to Bach, 1920s jazz, or the Indiana strains of Ravi Shankar's sitar; whereas exposed to hard rock, with the same rate nearly tripled, within two weeks the plants were dead.
"I believe such frenetic music," said Holtz, "was too much for their overall systems. The intense, grindingly, monotonous energy in that rock sound could have virtually blown the cells apart! Young volunteers for the U.S. Navy who have listened to that type of music since childhood have been rejected because of partial deafness, even before reaching the age of twenty."
Asked if one could simply play the recording of a crescendo involving all of symphony orchestra's instruments with their hundreds of frequencies and harmonics and allow plants to select those best suited for their needs, Holtz replied, "You have to take into account a law of diminishing returns. Too big a dose of anything is not necessarily of greater benefit than just a little or even a tiny dose."
It seemed significant that Holtz, the musicologist, could say this without any knowledge of homeopathic "potentizing."
Carlson, whom we met in Kansas City at one of Charlie Walters' annual eco-agriculture conferences, explained his approach with lively enthusiasm. "What I've tried all along to do with the sonic part of Sonic Bloom," he expostulated, his jet-black hair and pirate beard reflecting the hue of the Western-cut suit he wears for public lectures, giving him the air of an Amish elder, "is to stay within boundaries set by nature. I think there are certain cosmic forces which can account, however 'unscientifically,' for much of our success. Properly adapted they will get plants to grow better, perhaps get cows to give more milk, or even inspire people to relate to one another more harmoniously. There's plenty of evidence that various frequencies of both sound and color can be curative. But 'hard rock' is not consonant with nature's own harmonics. I believe birds exposed to it for long periods would fall ill and die, just as Retallack's plants withered away."
He waved his hands like an evangelist. "I get over a hundred calls a year, from people experimenting with my broadcasts. Most of them say that when the sound is turned on, plants actually turn away from the sun to grow toward the speakers! Always! To me that means the sound is as important to plants as whatever we understand about photosynthesis. Perhaps that's what Rachel Carson mean when she intimated that 'spring' might one day be silent without Vivaldi's violins."
With a cold Minnesota winter coming on, and limited space in which to carry on his early experiments in a VHA-financed home, Carlson took a big step; he spent eighty-eight cents on a tropical Gynura aurantiaca or purple passion vine. Known also as a velvet plant, native to the Indonesian island of Java, its fleshy teardrop leaves are densely covered with violet veins and hairs, and its yellow-orange dishlike flowers exude a nasty smell. But to Carlson this was his cherished baby. Once a month with a cotton swab, he applied doses of nutrient to the tip of his vegetal pet, almost homeopathically weak doses, while simultaneously getting it to "listen" to his sonics. The swabbing turned the tip a withering brown, but quickly a new sprout burgeoned forth one leaf below the dead tip to grow at an accelerated rate. Within a few days, the original tip had completely recovered and was spurting rapidly ahead, both shoots exhibiting thick, healthy stalks and exceptionally large leaves.
As the vine crawled upward out of its pot, Carlson screwed teacup hooks into the wall of his kitchen, six inches apart, to support it; and so fast did the vine race for the hooks he had to add half a dozen every week.
At which point he made another startlingly discovery. If he snipped the growing tips with a scissors, the Javanese plant, far from daunted, put out a new shoot at the first leaf node below the cut.
As novel as this seemed to Carlson, he was even more puzzled by his pet's growing not only the teardrop leaves characteristic of its species, but also saw-toothed ones typical of its Indian cousin Gynura sarmentosa, along with completely alien split leaves previously never seen on any purple passion plant. The sound-plus-solution treatment appeared to be strangely affecting something to do with his vine's genetic qualities even as it grew.
In a paper on his experiment submitted to his professor, Carlson presciently asked, "Does one cell of a plant genus contain all the characteristics of all the species of that genus? If not, why has my plant, grown from a Gynura aurantiaca cutting, developed leaves, over 90 percent of its length, peculiar to the Gynura sarmentosa and, at the same time, exhibited an entirely new split-leaf form? Could the combined application of nutrient and audio energy result in such rapid growth rate that the very process of evolution is condensed? Have I enabled my plant to adapt more quickly to its environment? Is this the reason for the different leaf characteristics appearing on one plant? If any of these questions can be answered 'yes,' can this knowledge be applied to other plants? Could food crops be treated to achieve more rapid growth and better adaptability to their own or alien environment?"
As winter wore into spring and summer into fall, Carlson noticed another oddity: his plant had bloomed not the usual once, but twice. Even more fantastic was its incredibly extending length. In only the first three months, the vine, which normally never exceeds a length of 18 to 24 inches, had grown a total stem of 150 feet. During the rest of the year, it pushed on at the same rate, out of the kitchen through an inch-and-a-half hole bored in the wall leading to the living room, where it boustrophedonly roved back and forth along the ceiling on wires strung eighteen inches apart, to attain a length of over a tenth of a mile.
During the next year, Carlson begin snipping four-inch shoots from his vine, which he started in small plastic pots. Four hundred of these, labeled with his address and phone number and a request to call him for a replacement should the shoots die, he took to a flea market, where they rapidly sold for $4 apiece.
"I had many calls," he reminisced, "but none were to complain about sick or dying plants. Instead the callers wanted to know why the offshoots from my mother plant were growing twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty feet long, and even more. I at once thought that this unheard-of development might give rise to the possibility of whole new strains of hardier super-flora."
Despite this achievement, worthy of Luther Burbank, when Carlson, in happy excited, asked members of his university committee to come to his house to see for themselves what he had done, their only reaction amounted to a yawn.
Didn't he realize, they asked, that because his results had been obtained on a nonedible house plant, they were of no commercial value or interest?
"I was dumbfounded," said Carlson. "I could hardly believe this reaction. Here was the first time in their lives they had heard of sound being able to enhance the update of nutrients to produce the kind of growth I was getting, and they cast the result aside as worthless."
Desperate to get anything into the public record that would substantiate his achievement, Carlson wrote to Guinness Superlatives Limited in Middlesex, England, publisher of the now famous Guinness Book of World Records, which sent to Minnesota to check his claim "specialists in the matter of freaks in the plant kingdom."
Carefully measuring his plant's stem, inch by inch over its entire length, the freak specialists congratulated Carlson. That same autumn, the new edition of the record book had an entry on page 113 extolling his find. To counter the notion that his new method was commercially valueless, Carlson next began to supply portable sonic equipment and nutrient mix to backyard gardeners who had called him after the Minneapolis Star ran a huge photo of the Carlson family standing under the passion plant, its leaves intertwined in the supporting chain of a chandelier before proceeding, through additional holes in the wall, into his children's bedroom.
Not to be outdone, the St. Paul Dispatch, describing his African violets, with more than four hundred blooms in a full spectrum of colors, and his morning glories, purple, blue, white, red, and pink, as enveloping his house from its foundation to its roof eaves, quoted Carlson as foreseeing a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk world with gigantic flora capable of feeding multitudes while their stomata increased the world's supply of life-giving oxygen.
Though he did not inform the reporter that the multicolored, old-fashioned, trumpet-shaped morning glories had come from an ancient seed packed found by one of his mother's friends when she was cleaning out her attic, it did occur to Carlson that if Luther Burbank could coax a spiny cactus into losing its thorns, not through crossbreeding, but by informing that plant that it no longer needed them because he would "protect it," he too might get his climbing plants to adapt to human desires.
"I subscribed to Burbank's idea," Carlson told us, "that at the highest level, plants are capable of creating what is in the mind of man as a means of assuring their survival into future generations. I did not discount the many stories about trees which had borne no flowers or fruits for years, suddenly blossoming and bearing when threatened with an axe or a chain saw."
One spring, as he collected the seeds from his morning glories for successive annual planting, Carlson and his twelve-year-old daughter, Justine, meditated on how to get the vines to respond to their lovingly-felt desires, by focusing on their favorite hues, purple for Dan, pink for Justine. "We believed," said Carlson, "that the plants might respond to the colors we favored and draw closer to us as we were mentally and emotionally drawing closer to them." By late summer when the vines were putting out the usual mixed spectrum of blooms over most of Dan's house, he found massed all around his daughter's bedroom window nothing but pink flowers and around his bedroom windows only purple ones.
"This confirmed to me," he said, "that we can, in some still undefined way, communicate with plant life, which is even capable of altering the colors of flowers and the shapes of leaves. It must somehow be based on trust. The plants must feel your intent and realize that if they respond you'll save their seeds to assure their flourishing continuance."
Even more intriguing was Carlson's belief that his method would allow him to determine the very likes and dislikes of plants. By exposing them to a varied menu of nutrients hitherto unavailable to them, he aimed, through their reactions, to find out which selections they might prefer, instead of just forcing them, like human babies plied with distasteful turnips or liver, to accept what their parents believed, usually mistakenly, to be good for them.
This he hoped might ultimately lead to the elimination of deficiencies resulting in bad-tasting fruit or vegetables, the eradication of plant disease, and even, with their exposure to spice-laden aerosols such as mint, cinnamon, or nutmeg, the creation of apples with mint, cinnamon, or other flavors, right on the tree instead of in the pie.
"What I began to realize," said Carlson, "was that my method was challenging the seeds' potential, a potential maximized with the right number of Sonic Bloom sprays -- which have turned out to be five -- put on two weeks apart." Striking a massive fist on the table for emphasis, he added: "I believe I've come across a new principle that can be called indeterminate growth! It shatters the idea that plants are genetically limited to a given particular size or yield!"
This believe in a lack of limitation led Carlson to another principle: geometric progression. "We began regularly to discover that plants treated during one growing season would pass along whatever changes were taking place in them, and create, right through their seeds, a successive generation 50 percent larger and more fruitful, even when the newly generating plants remained untreated with Sonic Bloom. I also call this genetic elasticity, the latent ability of plants to exhibit characteristics hidden in their gene pools, pulling out advantageous ones that may have been hidden for hundreds of years. This is connected to the ever-bearing trait brought out in McClurg's oranges."
Suggesting that the potentials in plants to respond to human wishes should be closely examined, he lamented that botanists, plant breeders, and genetic engineers have failed to understand the problem. "Scientists are rushing headlong into tampering with plants, monstrously slicing and splicing genes with as much surgical fervor as the ghouls who cut and maim animals in laboratories. This has led some of them to proudly announce that in order to produce a leaner grade of pork they have developed a cross-eyed hog that staggers pathetically on legs that can hardly hold it up." He looked up and away with the firm yet benevolent gaze of a committed soul. "We should tender plants and animals, not distort God-given gifts still unrevealed in his creatures, but coax these gifts and learn to live cooperatively with all God's creatures."
He paused to allow the emotion in his words to simmer away. "Some people, with particular philosophies," he added, hardening his tone, "might accuse me of torturing plants, abusing their delicate nature. This is not so. I would challenge anyone to look at the model gardens I've set up, examine the radiant health of the plants, witness the remarkable fructification, and taste of this fruit. It is all done with nothing but affection, natural nutrients, and sound."
But perhaps the most encouraging prospect for fulfilling Carlson's dream of growing large quantities of food on very small plots of ground in a very simple manner is the marriage of his system with one developed by Ron Johnston of Mississippi, an amateur farmer in his thirties who doubles as a night nurse in a hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
In a mixture of nothing but sawdust and sand in long, rectangular boxes ten inches high, Johnston has been growing a staggering amount of delicious healthy produce. With discarded lumber from the sawmill, plus two pickup trucks full of free sawdust and one of sand, each box requires no more than a few hours of labor to build; and by Johnston's conservative figures a box eight feet wide by sixteen feet long can produce as many as 800 cantaloupes or 5,000 pounds of tomatoes -- many times more than could ever be brown on the same size plot of ground.
"It all came together for me," says Johnston, "three years ago. Before that, I couldn't grow a thing down here on the dead soil of Mississippi. Then I got hold of a tape of Dan Carlson's and I ran into a farmer using microbes. I also read about the French intensive method and that gave me the idea for the boxes. They system eliminates plowing, cultivating, and weeding. A daily watering can be automated and extremely economic, My water bill had gone up only a few dollars since I started; and during the drought of 1988, while my neighbors were cropless, my plants were a jungle of healthy green."
With a mere expenditure of $150, Johnston added a frame and plastic hothouse to his first box of sawdust and sand to produce tomatoes two months before his neighbors. Each tomato plant, planted seven inches apart, and producing twenty-five to thirty blossoms, gave as many as sixteen pounds of fruit per plant, some individual specimens weighing as much as a pound and a half. The chlorophyll content of the leaves was almost doubled, and they contained so much sugar that insects nibbling on them were killed by an overdose of alcohol. Johnston uses no insecticides.
Two hundred strawberry plants in a narrower box produced two hundred quarts of strawberries with double the normal sugar content. And just one normal box of bean plants alone is enough to feed a family of four for a year. With cantaloupes clipped onto strings and climbing toward the rafters of the greenhouse, Johnston is able to hang twenty full-sized fruits from each plant.
Sawdust and sand form a fluffy consistency that allows plenty of essential air and water to reach the roots. But the real heroes of the system are forty-seven strains of microorganisms that Johnston obtains from a cultivator out in California. "I call them piranhas," said Johnston, only half joking. "They devour whatever nutrients are in the air and turn into healthy plant food whatever fertilizer I put into the boxes, transmuting potentially toxic salts into a balanced diet for each specific type of plant, providing them with a continuous flow of nutrients."
One teaspoon of microbes is added to a gallon of water and sprinkled around the plant stems; there they proliferate at the rate of 200,000 a minute, drying off individually every thirty minutes, but lasting, as a strain, as long as there is food for them to feed on. "The microbes," says Johnston, "eat any cheap fertilizer I provide them, and switch the elements around. They can turn potassium into sulphur, or whatever is excess into whatever is scarce. And my microbes feed the plants just what they need, just when they need it, providing them with a variety of minerals, the more of which the plants can get the better they taste and the longer is their shelf life."
Like camels, says Johnston, his microbes absorb a great deal more water than they need, which they then relinquish to the plants in moments of drought. Well fed, the proliferate down into the soil below the boxes to a depth of several feet, turning it to humus.
But all of this is only half of Johnston's story. The rest is provided by Dan Carlson's Sonic Bloom. Every morning Johnston plays the enchanter sound to his plants, enabling them to suck in element-laden moisture from the air; and once a week he saturates their leaves with Carlson's liquid nutrient. "It all works in concert," says Johnston. "Sand and sawdust; microbes and fertilizer; Sonic Bloom and sound. Each by itself will not give the same results."
The whole system, as Johnston explains it, started as a hobby, then turned into a driving force. He's now determined to teach people anywhere in the world to grow a garden in their own backyard or terrace that will feed an entire family and leave a marketable surplus. "At first," he says, "people will find it hard to believe; but they'll be amazed when they find they can grow cantaloupe in quantity on the small penthouse terrace of a skyscraper in mid-Manhattan, or when a peasant in the Third World learns that with only a tiny corner of land and a little labor, he can flourish as never before."
Ron Johnston paused to survey a whole acre of his boxes laden with produce, worth potentially a couple of hundred thousand dollars. "What I'd really like," he added with a winning smile, "is to help turn this planet back to what it was before the 'original sin' of desecrating the soil of Mother Earth."
-- Secrets of the Soil,