A digital poetic walk around fourteen of the veteran and ancient trees of London’s Hampstead Heath – exploring the connectivity of ‘things’ in public spaces.


City of London Corporation


EPSRC PETRAS (co-I Andy Hudson-Smith)

CASA Contact

Leah Lovett, Martin de Jode, Duncan Hay, Andy Hudson-Smith

Quick Facts

The Listening Wood (2019) was an interactive digital walk around fourteen of the veteran and ancient trees of Hampstead Heath that developed through a collaboration between artists and technologists from Connected Environments and the City of London Corporation arborists.
Visitors were able to look for words etched into roundels of offcut wood and message them via either SMS text message or the Listening Wood geolocated web app to receive a line of poetry related to each tree.

Funded under the EPSRC PETRAS project, The Listening Wood set out to explore issues of public trust in the use of pervasive mobile communications devices and technologies associated with the Internet of Things (IoT) to engage visitors to the park with the stories of London’s ancient veteran trees. By using IoT and mobile technologies as vehicles to convey poetry generated from corpora of archival and ethnographic research, the project also aimed to increase awareness of the cultural and ecological importance of ancient trees, and the work undertaken by the arborists as their custodians. The trees themselves were selected by the City of London arborists who manage the Heath to include veterans across a range of native and imported species, all of them remarkable either for their age, historical significance, or ornamental value, and often for a combination of these reasons.

Unlike other ‘Internet of Trees’ projects, this study focussed on storytelling rather than sensor networks. Conversational agents (‘chatbots’) were deployed as proxies for the trees to enable a two-way narrative exchange between the participant and the ‘tree’. Two interaction pathways were realised to increase accessibility. The first involved the development of a web application that exploited geofencing capabilities in HTML 5 and the fact that trees are stationary. In addition, an SMS gateway was developed to enable text-only interaction for visitors without smart devices, or with limited access to data.

A series of interviews, drop-in arts workshops and guided walks with the arborists, visitors to the Heath and local community groups provided the space for these stakeholders to share their own stories around the trees. These ethnographic methods combined with archival research into the natural and social history of the trees and the Heath to produce a corpus of stories from which to develop poems as content for the chatbot. The corpus was input into jGnoetry, a web-based program that processes existing text to generate original poetry. This platform was chosen above alternative n-gram generators (e.g. CharNG, eDiastic) because it enables a high degree of user interaction, resulting in human-computer co-authorship. The resulting lines of poetry were grouped according to keywords (e.g. ‘accidental’, ‘vertigo’, ‘aground’) and linked to each of the fourteen project trees.

A pilot of the Listening Wood project was featured at Tate Exchange as part of the PETRAS workshop, Living with the Internet of Things (2018). The installation incorporated five, large format photographic banners featuring five of the veteran and ancient trees, hung in the entrance to the project space. A limited edition deck of cards created using litho press and hot foil printing methods offers readers the opportunity to experience the trees and their poetry after the event of the installation.

Find Out More

Duncan Hay, Leah Lovett, Martin de Jode, Andy Hudson-Smith, ‘Walking in Tree Time, or a walk with the woods’, Walking Bodies: Papers, provocations, actions from Walking’s New Movements, the Conference, ed. Helen Billinghurst, Claire Hind, Phil Smith (Bridport: Triarchy Press, 2020). Available to buy: https://www.triarchypress.net/walkingbodies.html

Martin de Jode, Leah Lovett, Duncan Hay, Andy Hudson-Smith, Richard Milton, Lucy Fraser. (2019). Internet of Things of Trees – Conversational Objects via SMS Protocols. doi: 10.1049/cp.2019.0155.

Leah Lovett, Duncan Hay, Andy Hudson-Smith, Martin de Jode; Mobile Communications Technologies in Tree Time: The Listening Wood. Leonardo 2021; 54 (2): 220–221. doi: https://doi.org/10.1162/leon_a_02006

Sian Bayley, Discover London’s urban trees by joining a poetry walk around Hampstead Heath, Evening Standard, 26 April, 2019. Available online at: https://www.standard.co.uk/futurelondon/culturecity/hampstead-heath-golders-hill-park-sandy-heath-leah-lovett-golders-hill-park-refreshment-house-a4127071.html