The stories trees have to tell



 Including a photograph in an interview has proven to be exceptionally beneficial, Tinkler (2013:173) explains, because it takes away the pressure on the interviewee when confronted face to face with a barrage of questions. Although a photograph could potentially be a hindrance by being a distraction or dominating the focus, a photograph also serves as an icebreaker; as a medium between the interviewee and interviewer, which soothes the atmosphere. Photographs expedite communication and prompt discussion, reflection and recollection (Tinkler 2013:174). Both parties involved in the interview have a mutual intention to evoke meanings and recognize perspectives from the photograph, which creates a negotiated understanding between them. A photograph lends a personal touch to factual information and stimulates memories and feelings, which help the interviewee to process and articulate their opinions more easily.

The tree as a narrative of service

23469281961_039d611a4e_oFigure 1: My exchange sisters and I around the oldest Olive Tree on Francesco Papasergio’s farm.

Trees selflessly serve our society by providing valuable shade and purifying the air of carbonic acid gas (Dean 2015: 162). Spending a year in Italy, I realized the significant role of the Olive tree, which serves the community by acting as a source of income for farmers through olive oil and olives.

 The tree as a narrative of power and status

23467473561_30be25e897_oFigure 2: Autumn in Dresden, Germany

Humans have tamed and controlled trees to proclaim human governance over nature (Dean 2015: 163). In Dresden, in the upper class areas, streets are lined with majestic, full-bodied trees reflecting affluence, whereas in the alleyways or outskirts of the city, there is nothing of any particular grandeur. The trees are blocked in up to their trunks with cobblestones, supporting anthropogenic supremacy over nature.

The tree as a narrative of heritage

13087349_10153462425392115_3643635086506936456_nFigure 3: The mighty Baobab in Kruger National Park

 Dean (2015:164) speaks of trees as community landmarks. The Baobab, also known as the Tree of Life, has a remarkable spiritual, medicinal and cultural purpose in Africa. The Baobab is a symbol of perseverance in a harsh landscape and many tales and traditions center around it, which are passed on through generations and make it an African landmark and our cultural inheritance.

The counter-narrative of the unruly tree

FullSizeRenderFigure 4: The tree that grows next to our driveway.

When this tree’s roots began to uproot my family’s driveway, my father cut off its branches to curb its growth, but it now stands as a determined, undefeated reminder of its defiance against our control. Many Hadedas and Egyptian Geese perch there to wake us up every morning with their annoying, loud cries of victory against human order.


Interview 1: Deline (Gran)

The tree as a narrative of service

Growing up as a young child in Durban, my gran had a huge Avacado Pear Tree in a vacant plot behind their flats. It gave wonderful shade all year round, and produced the most enormous and delicious “butter avacados”, my gran recalls. The kids spent many happy hours climbing this special tree and having healthy outdoor fun and exercise. These days, my gran says that she realizes how Avocado Pear Trees can also be of service to the community, because she sees Vendors selling the avacados and earning a source of income from them. This edible and nutritious vegetable is one which most people relish, and their benefit, Deline concludes, extends past their flavor to their service to human kind.

The tree as a narrative of power and status

My gran spoke about a beloved memory and the way she spoke about it was too delightful to edit, so I recorded it and wrote it word for word:

“As an adult living in Pretoria, November was the month of the majestic flowering Jacarandas, and what a beautiful spectacle it is to see the streets lined with these stunningly colorful trees throughout the City. It’s a welcoming sight, and the birds and bees are in their element. A word of warning, however, is not to park your car under this rich canopy for too long, as the falling flowers leave a sticky substance on the vehicles, which is difficult to clean! Nonetheless, these Jacarandas symbolize wealth and bring an air of wisdom and superiority to one of South Africa’s Capital Cities.”

The tree as a narrative of heritage

 Proteas are famous for the strange beauty of their flower-heads, and as my gran pointed out, it is a recognisable symbol of our heritage as a nation since it is shown on the Coat of Arms, and on the 20 cent piece of the Rand. Our National Cricket side is even named after this tree, which is now exclusively linked to South Africa. My grandmother, an enthusiastic gardener, told me that at Kew Gardens, our South African proteas always win prizes, and are much sought after for their unusual beauty and long-lasting flowering ability. Deline also commented wittily that if she were a judge, she would award it as one of our best heritage trees.

The counter-narrative of the unruly tree

 Deline has a share in a beach cottage in Zinkwazi where there is a large rectangular swimming pool. The previous owners of this property planted a tall palm tree 1 meter from the pool in its own square of ground at the one end. Today, 14 years later, half the branches now hang over the pool. My gran recounts that every year, she and my grandpa would sit on the verandah and watch the male weavers strip the branch leaves whilst building their nests, and the females often discarded some of them, which fell into the pool creating quite a mess, whilst the long-suffering males continue building another one. She also mentioned that the tree provided a perfect nesting ground for many different birds, which meant noisy chatter at all hours of the day, which became a bit tiresome after a few days without rest.

Interview 2: Tracy Perrett (Mother)

 The tree as a narrative of service

 Tracy spoke passionately about how she has partnered her vision for her garden and the services that different trees provide to create a beautiful, satisfying haven. She planted trees that have a more dense canopy of leaves in areas where she planned to have family picnics and be sheltered from the Summer sun. These trees also served both her (as an avid bird watcher) and the more shy birds by providing them with a secluded space to build their nests. Tracy accredited the life in her garden to those shady trees, which serve humans and animals by bringing them into harmony with each other.

 The tree as a narrative of power and status

 The Japanese Maple Tree’s richly coloured foliage which make a statement of class and royalty. Tracy admits sheepishly that she planted one outside her lounge window with the intention of it being an impressive feature of the garden, which can be shown off to visitors. This tree definitely connotes wealth, Tracy concluded, because it was originally foreign yet was so magnificent that it was transported all around the world to be an eye-catching decoration.

 The tree as a narrative of heritage

 When I asked my mother about a tree that distinctively represents heritage, she immediately mentioned the Umbrella Thorn. As she put it, “an African sky would not be recognizable without the silhouette of an Acacia tree.” Tracy elaborated by saying that tourists travel from all over to go to the Savanna and see lions outstretched below them, or giraffe nibbling their tops. The Umbrella Thorn, despite its menacing thorns, is a central source of life to the veld and in Tracy’s opinion, a pivotal point of culture pride and character to Africans.

 The counter-narrative of the unruly tree

 At this narrative, my mother sighed hopelessly. She explained that one huge tree on the fence of our land has proven to be a nuisance since they bought the house. Its height and extensive branches interfere with our television reception. It also looms over our pool and drops spiky balls into the water and shades the pool unpleasantly. Tracy said that she had asked the neighbours to cut it down, but they could not afford it and did not want to remove it because it provides their property with privacy.

 Interview 3: Joshua (Peer)

The tree as a narrative of service

Josh spoke about a tree on their farm. Its roots form a part of the bank of the dam and serve as foundations to stabilize and keep the wall from breaking. He said that their dad attached a swing to one of its branches and they spent hours as kids playing in the tree and jumping from it into the water. For Josh, the tree was more than just functional, but served as a memory in his childhood.

The tree as a narrative of power and status

Josh felt strongly about the anthropogenic side of the narrative of power and how humans control and confine trees to show their superiority. A simple example he gave was from when he visited England a few years ago. He noticed that down all the alleys there were trees, caged in around the bottom. Each morning, a man would sweep up the leaves. According to Josh, this shows that man has to dominate nature and even the slightest hint of recklessness or untidiness, like fallen leaves, had to be cleaned up and perfected.

The tree as a narrative of heritage

Josh recalls a recent camping trip to the Richtesveld. The Kokerboom (Quiver Tree) was of enormous cultural and practical value to the Khoi San people. Josh remembers that the inside of the trunk used to be hollowed out and used as quivers for their hunting arrows. A local also told Josh that the Kokerboom has many old myths attached to it. For this culture, this tree is an inheritance and a rich resource out in the dessert.

The counter-narrative of the unruly tree

When Josh saw the photograph of the unruly tree next to my driveway, he remembered an avenue of small trees that run up the side of his driveway. He complained about how they had thick, sturdy roots, which also uprooted parts of their brick driveway, leaving gaping holes. His parents had cut them down a number of times, but they could never pull out all the roots from underneath the weight of the driveway, so if a little branch was left, it would just regrow, displacing even more bricks along the way.


Photographs facilitate dialogue during an interview because there is a shift in power from the interviewer to the interviewee, who is now empowered to interpret and react to something tangible in front of them, instead of being put on the spot without a point of departure. This is referred to as the ‘materiality of seeing’, whereby an interviewee can conceptualise a photograph before them, which is essential to their interpretation thereof. Photographs are a powerful tool to stimulate experiences, emotions and memories, which produce more widespread responses than a verbal interview could.

Sources consulted

Cox, H. 2008. The Tree of Life. Cultural Survival 32(4), Winter: 1-2.

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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