Tree Tales

We go about our everyday lives without realising the value behind the trees that we see, but according to Joanna Dean, tree narratives can fit into four main categories:  narratives of service, which are trees that are planted for our own benefit (2015, 162); narratives of power, which are trees that show human dominance over nature or one another (2015, 163); narratives of heritage, which are trees that may be considered a landmark or are associated with a historic person, place or event (2015, 164);  and counter narratives, or the trees known to be unruly because they recognise their own power (2015, 171). This blog post explores these narratives by looking at my experiences with a tree in each category and then using a Photo elicitation interview with three people of different generations. But what exactly is a Photo elicitation interview and what value does it have when doing research?

Photo elicitation interviews require for one or more images to be inserted into an interview in order to “prompt discussion, reflection and recollection” (Tinker, 2013: 174). There are many benefits to adding photographs to interviews. Firstly, they make interaction between the interviewer and interviewee a lot easier because the tension is eased, as the interviewee can focus on the image instead of making eye contact while talking (Tinker, 2013: 174). Secondly, photographs generate useful data because they “stimulate people to talk about what they know, think, experience, feel and remember (Tinker, 2013: 176).


The first image tells the narrative of service. This tree was planted on 3 March 2016 in the Pretoria Botanical Gardens, South Africa. But why was it planted? In April 2015 my preschool friend sadly took his own life. This tree was planted on his birthday with his ashes below in service of remembering him. Rest in peace, Misha.



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In my opinion, palm trees have always been symbolic of wealth. Therefore, these trees tell the narrative of power. This picture was taken in a wealthy estate in Waterkloof, where there does not seem to be any absence of money. Abundant resources have allowed these trees to grow to great heights, whereas trees in poorer areas do not make it very far.



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I have lived in Irene for the majority of my life, and maple trees have always been iconic of the area to me. The trees were planted by the van der Byl in the late 1800’s, and now they line all of the streets in a residential part near the Dairy. These trees are, therefore, part of the rich heritage of Irene.



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This unruly tree has caused more damage than was intended. My mother attempted to cut it down because it was breaking the wall, but when she hacked at it with an axe, a piece of it fell and cracked the wall. She has since abandoned the idea of cutting it down, and it has continued to grow.



The first person that I spoke to was my boyfriend, Julian. I showed him the picture of the tree that was planted for Misha and briefly explained the narrative (although I did not need to because Misha was his friend too). He then explained to me that as an Industrial Design student, they are busy with a project where they are planting Willow trees which they will be pruning and grafting into a product, such as a chair. These tree products are more eco-friendly because there is less wood going to waste, and it is also a stronger, longer-lasting product that reduces the carbon footprint as it grows.

After explaining narratives of power, Julian found it slightly difficult to provide a narrative of his own, but when he saw the picture that accompanied my narrative, he mentioned that he always seems to notice exotic trees in wealthy areas because they have a relaxed, holiday vibe and they are associated with Western culture.  He followed up with the idea that most of the natural trees are removed and replaced with trees that provide some sort of benefit, as if it were a colonisation of nature.

As a little boy, whenever he travelled with his family to coast in Kwazulu Natal, he would notice the Sappi paper tree farms in the Midlands. This was a landmark to him and he would get excited because he knew that he would soon be at the beach. To this day, he still associates the Midlands with the Sappi paper tree farms.

For his narrative of an unruly tree, he told me about the mulberry tree that is at his mother’s house. A few years ago when people received letters in the mail about removing invasive species, he attempted to cut down the mulberry tree. He did not only chop it down once, or even twice, but he cut it down three times. When he visited his mother recently, he looked to the corner of the yard, and there stood the stubborn foliage as if it had never been better.


The second person that I spoke to was my mother. She had many short examples of oak trees that fit into the narratives of service category. When she was a child, she used to run around and play games with her three brothers and two sisters. Their favourite game to play was hide and seek at the park near to their home. Standing tall and proud in the middle of the park was a giant oak tree. This tree served as a counting post for this game. Later, in her teen years, there was another giant oak tree at the bottom of the sports field. She went there with all of her friends to secretly smoke under its shade. Many years later, after she divorced my father, she was looking at houses. She came across a house in Irene that had two giant oak trees, and before she even went into the house, she decided that she wanted the house, purely for the trees because they provided some sort of emotional support for her.

She too, found it complicated to understand the narratives of power relating to trees, but the image from my narrative helped her to remember the London Plane trees that are planted on the sidewalks in Sandton. The trees are planted in a very wealthy area because they are aesthetically pleasing and they do not destroy the plumbing or sidewalks with their roots.

A heritage tree for her is the Sunland ‘Big Baobab’ in Modjadjiskloof in Limpopo Province. This is the largest Baobab tree in the world, and it is actually owned by family friends of ours, Doug and Heather van Heerden. When she was in her twenties, she spent a lot of time on that farm, and now she associates the tree with Limpopo.  Unfortunately, they are looking at selling the farm due to all the farm murders in the area.

Her unruly tree is a Black Stinkwood that lives next to her window. It was destroying the plumbing, so she needed to remove it. She cut it down and turned the wood into logs for the fire, but she could not remove the roots. She called a tree felling company, and they could not remove the roots either.  Eventually, she gave up and it began to grow back. A few years later, she used the logs to make a fire, and we had to evacuate the house because of a thick layer of smoke that spread throughout it, along with the heinous smell.


Lastly, I spoke to an old family friend, as I do not have any living grandparents left, about his experiences with trees. He has lived on a farm in Tzaneen for the majority of his life, so he has always been surrounded by many trees. For his narrative of service, he spoke about an old walnut tree that he had on the farm as a child. It provided a lot of shade and adventure for him, and every now and then, he would crack open a nut and eat it.

When thinking about trees of power, he struggled a bit, but eventually, he was able to link the mango trees on the farms with wealth. He said that it was often quite easy to tell how rich certain people were based on how many mango trees that they had.

According to him, the tall pine trees have always been iconic of Tzaneen and Limpopo, as the pine forests can be seen for miles in all directions. Pine trees are not indigenous to our country, but we grow them anyway because their wood has many purposes and they grow quickly.

Finally, he spoke of an unruly tree that he saw often in the city as a child. It was a tree that was planted next to the side walk in a long line with other trees, but this tree was different. Instead of sticking to the rules like the other trees, this tree spread its roots under the pavement and pushed them through, causing many people to trip. He was always amazed by the strength that the tree had, and it made him realise that we cannot always have the control that we desire.


In conclusion, I have found that using photographs in an interview can really help the interviewee to understand the questions better and relate to them enough to provide their own narratives. Doing a Photo elicitation interview does not only help to expand the awareness of the interviewee, but the rich data that has been generated increases the interviewer’s awareness too. This is a very helpful technique to have, especially when discussing Environmental Humanities, because it allows for the participants to see the world from a different perspective.





Dean, J. 2015. The unruly tree: stories from the archives, in Urban forests, trees, and greenspace: a political ecology perspective, edited by LA Sandberg, A Bardekjian & S Butt. New York: Routledge:162-175.

Tinkler, P. 2013. Using photographs in social and historical research. London: SAGE.


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