Frog In The Garden

Recently, I wrote up the interactive sound systems I designed for Les Quatre Vents, an incredible private garden in Quebec. This kind of interactive media technology is apparently unusual in the gardening world--I remember seeing surprise and delight on the visitors' faces when we first fired up the systems. One vistitor to Les Quatre Vents has his own private garden near Wilmington Delaware, which was described by the Washington Post as, "as one of the most admired private gardens on the East Coast". About 10 years ago, he contacted me with his own whimsical idea for an interactive sound system: a croaking frog. A GIANT croaking frog:

Like the system at Les Quatre Vents, this system was initially designed to be triggered via infra-red sensors as people approached the frog, which sits atop a hill. Every project like this is essentially R&D, and it turns out (not surprisingly) that Delaware apparently has a lot more fog and dew than Quebec, and so we initially had a lot of late night false triggers of the system (through this process, I learned from the very cool head gardener there that dew apparently condenses in the air and then falls down, rather than accumulating directly on surfaces, which is how I always figured it worked). I eventually found some more robust laser-based sensors, but the owner came up with an even better idea: wireless remote control. The best gardens of this sort are essentially theatre anyway, and he had a very theatrical idea: tour guides would carry a small radio transmitter in their pocket, and then when a guest (typically a small child) touches the frog, it issues massive (pitch-shifted) croaks. I found a wireless system and it worked pretty well over the years.

The frog is right on an exposed hillside, and it was a lot more cost effective to buy an enclosure built to protect remote cell phone site electronics than it was to install massively long cable runs to the nearest building. The only problem with all this is that Delaware also gets a lot of something else they don't get as much in Quebec: lightning. This garden regularly takes direct lightning strikes, and eventually the original radio receiver system (designed for car alarms) gave out.  So a few weeks ago, I replaced it with a more modern system, and cleaned out the code and the rest of the system.

This Rittal enclosure is pretty amazing--it's been sitting on that hillside now for more than 10 years, directly exposed to the elements, and the inside is completely corrosion free, clean, and dry (here's the newly updated system):


Les Quatre Vents--An Extraordinary Garden

As I've been expanding my little rooftop vegetable garden, I've been thinking back to 1997, when I got a strange phone call from my old friend David Birn (Birn, not Byrne). David's client wanted music to play automatically in a building, and was having a hard time finding someone who could figure out how to do it. Hmm, I thought, I'm a show control and an audio guy, that's no big deal. Turns out, though, the building was something special:

(Photo from Martha W on Flickr)

David's client was Francis (Frank) Cabot, who, over many years, had built up a incredible garden called Les Quatre Vents (the four winds) on a mountain in Quebec.  Mr. Cabot wanted French singer Charles Trenet's Le Jardin Extraordinaire to play whenever people walked into the Pigeonnier (building shown above):

I designed and installed some theme-park grade technology, not just for the Pigeonnier, but also for two frog sculptures in other parts of the garden. With each, when garden visitors (unknowingly) cross infra-red beams, music starts playing automatically. One area is Dixieland jazz; another a string quartet.  In a later year, Mr. Cabot expanded the concept to include a musical a topiary opera theatre, and (as far as I know) all are still working today (with occasional sensor replacement over the years).  In the gardening world, Mr. Cabot's ideas were quite an innovation; I recall watching some of the first guests in the garden grinning widely and some even danced.

You can read all about it in Mr. Cabot's book, The Greater Perfection:

There's also some very cool VR panoramas of the garden here, and, best of all, if you're in the Charlevoix region of Quebec this summer, you can see the garden for yourself. The public is allowed into the garden several times every summer, with all admission proceeds going to a local environmental group. It truly is an extraordinary garden!