Dawn. Creatures stirring, birds chirping, plants quivering with delight as they bask in the warmth of a new day's sun - or so centuries of poets would have you believe.

"Taint so, says William G. Gensler. Matter of fact, he says plants get downright grumpy when the sun rises. It's dusk, not dawn, that turns them on electrically, at least.

"You look at these plants when the sun goes down, and that's when they're doing their thing electrically," says Gensler, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Arizona here. "They've gathered all their energy and go into an active metabolic phase."

As proof, Gensler points to a bobbling line - a rhythmicity record - on one of the charts tacked up on his office wall. It's one of the results of his eight years of investigating the electrical lives of common plants by inserting probes into the plants and their surrounding soil and measuring the slight voltage they generate.

Gensler admits he's a rare fellow - an electrical engineer fascinated by plants. It's been a tough row to hoe, he says, trying to get either botanists or his fellow engineers excited about his work.

"The electricals regard botany as a very alien thing, and botanists see electricals as very strange," he says.

But Gensler is undaunted. He believes interest in his work is perking up as he gets closer to one of the goals of his research - long-distance farming.

Here's what he envisions: A farmer sitting before a console, accurately, monitoring his crops by the electrical signals being transmitted from sample plants in his fields. The plants will tell him how they're doing in general, whether they need fertilizer or water and when they're switching from a growth to a reproductive cycle.

"The idea is it permits a quantitive decision on these things," Gensler says. "Usually, the tendency is to overwater, overfertilize, to insure the proper yield, and farmers spend a lot of money watering and fertilizing."

Not only would his method allow a farmer to accurately gauge what he feeds his crops, but "the grower can stay in a central location, like the farmhouse or the corporate headquarters," Gensler maintains, because agriculturists already use remote-control techniques to monitor plants, such as examining photographs taken by satellites or flying over them in airplanes.And it's also not just an idea that's light-years away from reality; he's already done some field-testing and hopes to have a more substantial field project underway within this year.

But Gensler admits there's still a lot of work to be done before long-distance farming becomes a practical reality. Cost has to be pared down to an acceptable level, for example, and more work is needed before the signals plants transmit can be used to gauge their needs accurately.

He knows the key to commercial success is saving money. "Commercial growers realize the need for a quantitative measure, but they have to make a dollar," Gensler says. "If, by techniques like this, we can cut agricultural costs by 5 per cent, we can save an enormous amount."

He sees other practical applications of his work, such as home plant-monitoring gadgets that will tell more about your houseplants than those now on the market. But don't expect Gensler to come up with a doodad that will let your plants tell you how they're feeling today. That kind of nonsense, he says, has caused him all sorts of grief.

"All this flurry of talking to plants and that kind of thing - which to me is very suspect - has thrown a cloud of suspicion on this whole subject," he says.