After the city of Melbourne assigned its trees email addresses so residents could report any issues, people began emailing the trees a wide range of correspondence. And sometimes, the trees write back.
A lovely story in The Atlantic, “If You Give A Tree An Email Address”, documents Australia’s tree-emailing phenomenon. Melbourne officials probably weren’t expecting an avalanche of treemail when they gave their trees ID numbers and individual email addresses in 2013. The programme was intended to allow residents to send alerts about tree problems, like branches that threatened to fall.
But people started to message the trees with all sorts of emails, from paeans to their beauty to questions about international politics. Here’s an excerpt from an admiring letter sent an Algerian Oak:
To: Algerian Oak, Tree ID 1032705
2 February 2015
Dear Algerian oak,
Thank you for giving us oxygen.
Thank you for being so pretty.
I don’t know where I’d be without you to extract my carbon dioxide. (I would probably be in heaven) Stay strong, stand tall amongst the crowd.
Other emails were more personal in nature:
To: Green Leaf Elm, Tree ID 1022165
29 May 2015
Dear Green Leaf Elm,
I hope you like living at St. Mary’s. Most of the time I like it too. I have exams coming up and I should be busy studying. You do not have exams because you are a tree. I don’t think that there is much more to talk about as we don’t have a lot in common, you being a tree and such. But I’m glad we’re in this together.
There’s more at work than just a sense of whimsy. The Atlantic points out that “the move toward the Internet of Things only encourages the sense that our objects are not actually just things but acquaintances”. As cloud-based connectivity increases and more and more of our devices are wired up for contact, our perspective regarding what is “inanimate” is shifting:
Modern tools for communicating, publishing, and networking aren’t just for connecting to other humans, but end up establishing relationships between people and anthropomorphized non-human objects, too.
Of course, corresponding with a tree in Australia isn’t quite the same as receiving an alert from your smart home or bantering with an AI chat program. There’s someone on the other end of Melbourne’s tree addresses, likely a city employee charged with one of the stranger social media jobs in existence. But they deserve kudos for their thoughtful, educational answers. We might almost believe we’re hearing from a clever Willow Leaf Peppermint.
To: Willow Leaf Peppermint, Tree ID 1357982
29 January 2015
Willow Leaf Peppermint, Tree ID 1357982
Hello Mr Willow Leaf Peppermint, or should I say Mrs Willow Leaf Peppermint?
Do trees have genders?
I hope you’ve had some nice sun today.
30 January 2015
I am not a Mr or a Mrs, as I have what’s called perfect flowers that include both genders in my flower structure, the term for this is Monoicous. Some trees species have only male or female flowers on individual plants and therefore do have genders, the term for this is Dioecious. Some other trees have male flowers and female flowers on the same tree. It is all very confusing and quite amazing how diverse and complex trees can be.
Mr and Mrs Willow Leaf Peppermint (same Tree)
With the advances currently being made in AI, it’s possible to imagine a future where all sorts of everyday Things can be contacted and respond without human aid. Which means one day we might be able to hail a tree and have its corresponding robot brain, full of information, write back. I for one would welcome our perennial overlords. [The Atlantic]
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