Trees, and how we view them.

A photo elicitation is simply inserting a photograph into a research interview. Photographs help facilitate communication with the interviewer and the person being interviewed, and helps evoke feelings and memories in the interviewee while generating information and useful data. Tinkler (2013) also notes that photographs help with, “discussion, reflection and recollection” which is a valuable aid when conducting a researchful interview. Along with aiding discussion, pictures are studied alongside the material that comes with it, in order to assist in the connection of ideas and concepts to make sense of the work as a whole (Tinkler, 2013.)

In this blog post, my photo elicitation will involve narratives revolving around trees and the concept by Joanna Dean (Dean 2015:162) that, “the meanings we find in these stories influence the choices we make when we plant trees in the city, they alter the ways that we trim and control the trees, and, finally, they inform our decisions to fell them.”

By referring to the ‘tree narratives’of service,power, heritage and a counter-narrative of one’s relationship with trees will be discussed and how these four tree narratives form a part of our own identity. Included in the four ‘tree narratives’ are three interviews with people like my grandfather, my mother and my friend.

Trees as a Service 

Dean (2015:162) explains that in this narrative, the tree is a selfless service provider in how it provides a ‘service’to the residents in an area, ‘selflessly’and perpetually.

One of my favourite memories as a child was being able to have a few quince fruit from my grandfather’s tree in the garden of his own house. Despite a slight allergy to some acidity, I could not wait for the end of summer, which meant the start of the quince season, and I’d happily eat a few quinces and suffer through the red rashes that would come up on my face and neck once my slight allergic reaction had set in.

Grandfather: My grandfather had a huge relationship with his garden and his trees, and he spent most of his free time watering and tending to his garden of mulberry, loquat, pomegranate, quince and other trees that bore some fruit and some not. It was always a treat for the family to have fruit from the trees when they were in season, and my grandfather’s garden was his pride and joy. This made him moving to a new house all the more sad, as is new complex did not allow for him to plant new trees, so he lost his hobby of maintaining his trees and his garden.

Mother: My mom always spoke about this one avocado tree that was by her childhood home, that would provide avocados to the family as well as be the foundation for her and my uncle’s tree house. My mom and her brother would spend hours in that tree house, eating the avocados from the tree and playing with their toys until it was time to go to bed. The tree also provided much needed shade for the lounge area of the house, which faced west directly and would experience horrible harsh afternoon sun.

Friend: My friend Bianca told me about a big tree in her garden that she used as a medium of play as a child. She would attach a rope to one of the branches and use it as a swing, she would climb it (obviously) and once the tree had died, she would use the remaining stump as a target for her archery practice. The tree provided a service to her in terms of entertainment and the creation of childhood memories.

Trees as Power

Dean (2015:162) describes the ‘tree narrative’ of power as: “human control of nature; aesthetic purposes; symbols of race, class and status.”

I didn’t realise until recently how trees actually become a symbol of status and power. Having the space to grow a tree is influenced by how much space you could afford when picking your place of residence, and in many cases that space to be able to have big tall trees isn’t possible. This makes having trees in your front and back gardens a symbol of status over those who cannot.

Grandfather: My grandfather knows well  of how trees can be a status symbol. He was born in Zambia, and his father works in the mines, which means they didn’t have much money when he was growing up. Because there wasn’t much money, there wasn’t an option to grow trees in their garden because it wasn’t affordable to maintain at the time. So when he married my grandmother and bought their first house, there was money to grow a garden and quite a few trees, thus trees became a symbol of status to him, indicating his move from not having much money to having enough money to maintain his beautiful garden.

Mother: My mom notes that she associates trees with manicured lawns and trees being trimmed daily by paid staff to perfection. She associates well kept trees and beautiful palm trees with people having money and status, as they can afford to maintian their trees immaculately and afford to go on holidays to tropical islands where palm trees grow exotically.

Trees as a part of Heritage 

Dean (2015:162) describes this narrative as: “prominent community landmarks; trees associated with a historic person, place, event or period; a tree associated with local folklore, myths, legends, or traditions; trees to commemorate historical events.

The Yellowwood tree in South Africa is a big part of South African heritage as it is the national tree of South Africa. It also has significance in our history as being one of the most valued means of timber in South Africa, as some of the furniture and walls and floors in houses are made from this wood.

Grandfather: He remembers that Jacaranda trees have been such an important part of our heritage, since Pretoria is known as the “Jacaranda City”and has always been littered with beautiful purple flowers in the spring, which is why he feels saddened that because the law prohibits more Jacaranda trees from being planted, Pretoria will not have any more Jacarandas some day and will thus be redundant in being named the “Jacaranda City.”

Mother:   She remembers a Marula tree at the Mabalingwe Nature Reserve that reminds her of heritage, as her family went to the reserve every year as a vacation, and they would search around the Marula tree for fruit that had fallen from the tree. She also feels that because the Marula tree is inherently South African, the tree forms a special part of South African history, as well as the fruit being a core ingredient in a popular drink.

Friend: My friend Bianca thinks that the Baobab serves as an important part of South African history, as the ‘upside down tree’ is an iconic image and one of the most famous Baobab trees are in the Kruger National Park, which is a famous game reserve.

Unruly trees

Within this narrative, trees are not staying within  their expected confines and are becoming unruly, wild.

The tree root is uprooting the concrete sidewalk, it is becoming unruly and destroying the infrastructure around it. Another example I have seen of this is a tree that is lifting up the bricks of the pavement by the main entrance of the University of Lynnwood road.

Grandfather: My grandfather had to deal with a tree that had roots that were continually breaking through the wall of his swimming pool and was causing the water to drain out, which would drastically increase his water bill. He eventually had to cut it down but it had caused irreparable damage to his pool and he had to get the entire thing re-fibreglassed.

Mother:  At her childhood home, a Stinkwood tree uplifted the pavement outside the fence of her garden. The roots lifted up the concrete slabs and thus made the pavement wonky. The pavement was never fixed, as her father never saw fit to fix it (and when does the municipality actually fix majority of the problems on the road.)

Friend: Bianca told me about a tree that grew right next to her family home, which lived for many decades and grew to be tall and quite massive before it expired and became just a hunk of wood for ornamental decoration. One day, the roots of the dead tree failed and the tree creaked and fell directly on top of the house, damaging the roof and the walls of the house, causing so much damage that would cost a lot of money to fix.

The purpose of this photo elicitation interview was to collect data about trees from people’s personal experiences with them. It can be concluded that trees are of great value to individuals in terms of servicing them with fruit and resources, as a symbol of status and wealth, and as a reminder of ancestral and national heritage, as well as a reminder of personal nostalgia of years gone by.

It must be noted that although trees and nature can serve us, it does not mean that trees are subordinate to us inherently, and that trying to control the forces of nature is a futile effort, when we should just live in peaceful tandem with the trees we value.



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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