Part III: Tuned to the Music of the Spheres

Chapter 10

The two students, following Mrs. Retallack’s lead, ran an eight-week experiment on summer squashes, broadcasting music from two Denver radio stations into their chambers, one specializing in heavily accented rock, the other in classical music.

The cucurbits were hardly indifferent to the two musical forms: those exposed to Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and other eigtheenth- and nineteenth-century European scores grew toward the transistor radio, one of them even twining itself lovingly around it. The other squashes grew away from the rock broadcasts and even tried to climb the slippery walls of their glass cage.

Impressed with her friends’ success, Mrs. Retallack ran a series of similar trials early in 1969 with corn, squash, petunias, zinnias, and marigolds; she noticed the same effect. The rock music caused some of the plants first to grow either abnormally tall and put out excessively small leaves, or remain stunted. Within a fortnight all the marigolds had died, but only six feet away identical marigolds, enjoying the classical strains, were flowering. More interestingly, Mrs. Retallack found that even during the first week the rock-stimulated plants were using much more water than the clasically entertained vegetation, but apparently enjoying it less, since examination of the roots on the eighteenth day revealed that soil growth was sparse in the first group, averaging only about an inch, whereas in the second it was thick, tangled, and about four times as long.

Now Mrs. Retallack wondered how the effects of what she called “intellectual mathematically sophisticated music of both East and West” would appeal to plants. As program director for the American Guild of Organists, she chose choral preludes from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Orgelbuchlein and the classical strains of the sitar, a less-complicated Hindustani version of the south Indian veena, played by Ravi Shankar, the Bengali Brahmini.

The plants gave positive evidence of liking Bach, since they leaned an unprecedented thirty-five degrees toward the preludes. But even this affirmation was far exceeded by their reaction to Shankar: in their straining to reach the source of the classical Indian music they bent more than halfway to the horizontal, at angles in excess of sixty degrees, the nearest one almost embracing the speaker.