Tree Narratives

An interview is often a formidable and uncomfortable process of extracting information – especially for interviewees. A photo-elicitation interview, however, contrasts to the methods of a face-to-face interview – all through the intentional insertion of a photograph into the interview space (Tinkler 2013:174). Thus, the photo acts as a ‘third-party’, which inevitably prompts a less pressured atmosphere. In this process of gaining research, called auto-driving, the inserted photographs encourage and coax discussion, remembrance and personal reflection – information apart from the factual (Tinker 2013:174, 178). Thus, photos engender a space for personal connotation and perspectives that often lead to information that would not have been discovered otherwise (Tinkler 2013:174). Photo-elicitation, then, embodies the structures between the visual and the verbal, as well as that between photographs, personal memories and stories (Tinkler 2013:194).

This discussion further aims to conduct this process of photo-elicitation through using photographs of trees to research different perspectives of Joanna Dean’s theory of the four tree narratives.

Dean states the stories and connotations that we have of trees determines our relationship with them and the means by which we cooperate with one another (2015:162). She further theorises that there are three types of narratives to which we relate to trees, namely categorised into the persisting narratives and the counter narrative. The persisting narratives all function for the satisfaction of human needs, these being the narratives of service, power and heritage. The counter narrative, on the other hand, defines the tree that is uncontrollable – one apart from human function as it is unable to be submitted to authority (Dean 2015:166). Dean states that to successfully coexist with the trees around us, we need to think ‘beyond narrowly anthropocentric narratives’. Thus we need to acknowledge the uncontrollable tree in our city landscape (Dean 2015:162)

The following photographs and narrative captions intend to express Dean’s theories through photo-elicitation. The first of each narrative is from personal perspective and the others that follow are excerpts from photo-elicitation interviews that I performed with three generations (my sister, mother and grandmother).

Narrative of Service


Photograph 1: Avocado Pears. (Priddy, B. Avocado Tree Zones)

The narrative of service describes the tree that devotes itself to the provision of human needs in the urban environment. I have grown up with a similar avocado tree for almost my whole life and it is a beautiful example of how a tree gives up its wonderful fruit, shade and pleasure in service of the human kind. For ages, I remember collecting this tree’s fruit and enjoying the deliciousness that it produced. It selflessly does this while effortlessly surviving in an urban space.

Emma, my sister, recalled the little cherry tree that she used to climb when she was living in Oregon, the United States as a narrative of service. She said it was a tree that not only selflessly gave her emotional support and happiness, but it was a place where she could read and find peace. A deep bond grew between the two, as she states, she found a ‘connection’ with the tree. The tree blossomed every spring – beautiful, delicate pink flowers, and as it was right outside her bedroom window, she states, “I felt like it was blooming for me”.

Mandy, my mother, remembered a large oak tree that she grew up with when mentioning the narrative of service. One time she was riding a donkey (she lived on a farm) very close to the tree. The donkey managed to kick her off and she recovered underneath the tree. She says it was a place of protection, emotional support and stood as a symbol stability and rest – allowing those to seek shelter in its shade.

My grandmother states (with regards to the narrative of service), “We had an enormous Makhula tree in our garden which gave a deep dark shade in the hot Summer months of that sub-tropical climate. It was also home every year to a pair of Ibis (Hadada) who reared chicks in their nest in the branches annually!” This tree selflessly gave much joy to my grandmother whether it be through shade or by it protecting other species that sought its shelter.

Narrative of Power


Photograph 2: Avenue of Jacarandas, 2011. (Pretoria, The City…2011:sp).

The narrative of power demonstrates the anthropocentric domination and control of nature. The long avenues of Jacaranda trees (as a matter of fact, I am blessed to live in one of these avenues) in South Africa, for example, depict this sense of human control over trees. The Jacaranda trees have a history in Pretoria dated as far back as the 1880s. Since then, the surrounding society has managed, controlled and dominated them by cutting back their glorious branches, aligning them in rows and cleaning up their beautiful purple flowers consistently. The Jacaranda trees are submitted to conforming to human standards – they are caged from existing in their natural form.

A shocking experience in Emma’s life made her realise the extent at how human beings are able to control nature. She came across many forests on a hillside – all razed to the ground. The perfectly aligned trees that they once were had been eliminated from existence for the sole purpose of paper and other such materials. She states, “I know they are not sentient, but it feels like we control them”. She meant a cruel and ruthless control over them.

My mom, similarly to my sister, recalled memories of seeing large plots of pine trees in the midlands (where she grew up). She states that she would “always look down the straight rows and see how far you can see”. They remain in their rows being “so obedient to where they have been planted”. She also said that the trees “get cut down, but grow back there”. She noted this continual cycle – the control of man. She further recalled the experience of seeing the enormous trucks that carry the huge tree trunks away and contemplated the fact that, “they have power, yet we have power over them”.

My grandmother recalls the memories she had as a child spending time in her father’s orchard. He grew many varieties of peaches and plums, she states. “These fruits provide bountiful fruits for raw food as well as supporting a very large canning industry”, she says. The narrative of power here is demonstrated in the way humans control the fruit-bearing of the trees – taking what they need from them, when they need it and at the quantities they want.

Narrative of Heritage


Photograph 3: the “Eastern Monarch” (yellowwood), 2013. (Boys, S. 2013:sp).

The narrative of heritage stands as a landmark that symbolises a history deeply rooted in the surrounding society. The South African yellowwood, or our national tree, which I have had the privilege of seeing in beautiful forests, tells this narrative of heritage. Through history, the yellowwood has been known for its beautiful and precious wood. This is inextricably connected to the historical culture of South Africa as the quality of yellowwood furniture, boats and luxury items was, and is, unsurpassable. Its wood even adorns the interiors of our governmental spaces (Boyes 2013:sp). A national pride arises from the yellowwood – it is an incredible symbol of the history of South Africa.

Emma recalled, again, a tree from Oregon – the Oregon pine. This, she states, seemed to be more  famous than the State itself. “I heard about them in places where I didn’t think people would know about as a state”, she says. The Oregon pine, according to her, was an integral part of everyone’s lives there. It is a source of much pride, heritage, history and tradition for the surrounding community. The tree itself has become a deeply woven symbol of the State, however at the same time it has “outgrown its own reference” – being internationally known while its habitat is not as well known.

A tree of heritage was the Jacaranda for my mom. Much of her history involved moments with the jacaranda tree. These of which firstly include growing up with a Jacaranda tree outside her grandparent’s house. Her parents also got married in proximity with a Jacaranda tree. There was a Jacaranda outside her residence in varsity. And lastly, when she was at school she would sit under the Jacaranda tree and wait for a flower to fall on her head – all in hope of excelling in her exam. And now moving back to Pretoria, she states, and seeing the Jacaranda trees here, has caused her to reminisce over the precious memories and history she has had with these trees.

My grandmother similarly recalls the yellowwood as a narrative of heritage. My grandmother planted a small one in her garden and remembers how slowly it grew. She compares this to the enormous yellowwood trees she saw in the forests in Natal Midlands. Such awe and wonder arises from an enormous tree that started so smaller and grew so slowly. She states, “From Wagon Wheels in the early days in the history of South Africa to the exquisite furniture which is made today, they are truly part of our Heritage.”

Counter narrative of the Unruly Tree



Photograph 4: The troublesome tree in our garden.

The troublesome tree, as Dean calls it, brings much irritation as it is against conforming to human control. Such an instance has occurred in my life. We have a rather ugly tree in our garden that used to have a large branch hanging in the centre of the view of the rest of the garden. It would block sunlight from entering into my mother’s beautiful rose garden. We decided that with this evidence against it, the branch and the tree must be cut down. In this process, my dad nearly cut his hand off with a chainsaw. He lost full function of his hand for over a year.  The branch was only cut down, but no one had the courage to cut the full tree down.

Emma’s narrative of the unruly tree entailed a rather dangerous tree. She and her friend were playing in the garden when they were young – under an enormous, towering pine tree. Suddenly, and most terrifyingly, a large branch (apparently 2-3 meters) cascaded down from the heights of the tree. It nearly hit the two girls. My parents were greatly angered by this tree and resorted to cutting many of its glorious branches.

The troublesome tree for my mom was the bugweed. Although this is not quite a tree, it grows to a very large size – very similar to a small tree. That is, if it is not cut down. My mom remembers these weeds in the garden of our first house. The bugweed would pop up everywhere and invade the rest of the garden. No matter how much my parents poisoned and cut them down, the bugged would still appear. She states, “When I see a bugged, I think of how Dad (my father) used to fight the bugged on our property”.

My grandmother’s story of an unruly tree involves very reproductive trees with poisonous berries. She states, “We had very unruly, irritating Syringa trees growing at the back of our garden and not only did they drop their yellow berries all over the place, but no matter how often we chopped the trees down or cut branches off, they just grew again! And the berries they dropped soon became little trees – what is more the berries are poisonous, so one had to be very careful with toddlers around! All round unwelcome trees!”


Subsequently, the process of photo-elicitation has encouraged interviewees to discuss their personal perspectives of the four tree narratives, and thus hidden and complex data have been unveiled through such personal interaction with the photograph. Evidently, photo-elicitation allows a space for deep reflection and personal connotation that a face-to-face interview could never engender.


Boyes, S. 2013. The State of Southe Africa’s Yellowwood Forests: An Open Letter to the President. [O]. Available:
Accessed 9 May 2016

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.

Pretoria, The City of Jacaranda. 2011. [O]. Available:
Accessed 9 May 2016.

Priddy, B. [Sa]. Avocado Tree Zones. [O]. Available: (avocado)
Accessed 9 May 2016.

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


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