The trees have stories to tell.


A photo elicitation makes use of photographs in interviews in order to ‘prompt discussion, reflection and recollection’ (Tinkler 2013:174). Tinkler (2013:194) maintains that photo elicitations are ‘percieved to encourage dialogue and the generation of useful data’. The dialogue and data that interviews that include photographs procure is useful for research purposes. This blog post aims to provide an account of the results of a photo elicitation that is centred on the four narrative categories for trees noted by Joanna Dean and my very own persistent tree narratives, which fit into the four respective categories.


Narrative of Service:


This is a tree that selflessly provides a service to the residents of a city (Dean 2015:162). This includes providing shade and cleaning the air of carbonic acid gas (Dean 2015:162). Oak trees, or Acorn trees as we used to refer to them, were abundant on the playgrounds of my primary school. Their purpose was to provide shade and shelter us from the sun’s rays and heat as we played during breaks. 

Narrative of Power:


A tree that serves to ‘pacify a city with beauty’ (Dean 2015:164), meaning that it is used for ornamental and aesthetic purposes, is one that has a narrative of power. The Jacaranda trees in Pretoria, around the University of Pretoria, are trees that are integral to the beauty of Pretoria. These trees, however, are not indigenous to South Africa, and purposefully serve as decoration. 

Narrative of Heritage:


The narrative of heritage belongs to a tree that is ‘a specimen associated with a historic person, place, event or period’ (Dean 2015:164). According to Dean, ‘the tree is a living symbol of the past’ (2015:164). My mother and father bought what is referred to as a ponytail palm when they moved into their first house together. The small tree is a symbol of our family and moves with us from house to house. 

Counter Narrative – The Unruly Tree:


An unruly tree is one that ‘[gets] in the way, [costs] money and [resists] human interaction’ (Dean 2015:162). According to Dean (2015:166), these can be trees that refuse to be managed and create a mess. At the aftercare I attended as a child, there was a Mulberry tree. It proved to be problematic for parents when it came to children going home with their feet stained black as a result of playing beneath the tree and stepping on mulberries, and wanting to keep silkworms as pets. Due to the dissatisfaction expressed by the parents, the aftercare considered cutting down the tree but could not due to the fact that it had grown in and around the jungle-gyms and became an extension of them.



Narrative of Service:

Catherine recalled her younger self playing beneath the branches of Breede River yellowwood trees at the Kirstenbosch gardens in Cape Town. The trees selflesslessly provided shade, and entertainment for kids in the form of a playground of sorts, which Catherine remembered to feel like a cave made of trees branches. As a child, she would imagine it to be a magical place in which supernatural creatures existed.

Narrative of Power:

Catherine has lived in Pretoria for the majority of her life and has, therefore, experienced the blooming of the Jacaranda trees every year. They are always in bloom around the time of her birthday, and purple is one of her favourite colours. Catherine noted that people are often quick to sweep up leaves that fall to the ground in order to keep the streets looking clean, but the purple blossoms that fall from the Jacaranda trees are left in the streets as they are aesthetically pleasing and one of Pretoria’s attractions. Their narrative of power lies in their use as ornamental trees that decorate the streets of Pretoria.

Narrative of Heritage:

What came to mind for Catherine when we discussed the narrative of heritage were the trees in the garden of remembrance at the Voortrekker Monument. The garden of remembrance serves as a commemoration site for the great trek, as well as a softening sight for the harsh histories accounted for at the monument. 

Counter Narrative – The Unruly Tree:

Catherine told me the story of how her grandfather once had a house near the marina in Port Alfred. The drainage system of the house was rather dysfunctional and when her grandfather decided to try remedy the problem, he discovered that the roots of trees had been growing within the network of pipes making up the drainage system.



Narrative of Service:

My mother smiled when I asked her about this particular narrative because she attended the same primary school that I did. Thinking about the acorn trees at the primary school we both attended brought her to idea that they represent a link between us as those very same trees that provided me with shade did the same thing for my mother when she was a child.

Narrative of Power:

When discussing this narrative of power with my mother, she mentioned that she thought that the ponytail palm tree, or our family tree, that I mentioned as my own narrative of heritage, she would consider to be a tree that told a story of power to her. She said this because it was a tree that her and my father took great care of as it grew, making sure to trim off any dead leaves and ensuring that the area in which it was placed, often near the front of our door, suited the tree by planting other plants around it that complimented it and made it the focal point. It was maintained for aesthetic purposes and to, in a sense, represent the status of our family.

Narrative of Heritage:

My mother spoke about the maple tree that stood in the park directly across from the house that we as a family had stayed in for the longest period of time without moving to another house. The propeller seeds from the maple tree would often blow into our garden. My mother found it strange that she associated the maple tree with mine and my brother’s childhood – she has fond memories of us playing with our dog beneath the tree and trying to make the seeds fly. My mother thinks of the maple tree as a symbol of the memories we made in that house.

Counter Narrative – The Unruly Tree:

My mother instantly thought about a tree that her and my father decided to cut down in order to expand our garden. The tree was successfully cut down; the stump and roots removed. She said that the tree could be considered unruly because the result of cutting down the tree was dealing with all of the bugs that inhabited the tree for several months after cutting it down.



Narrative of Service:

My grandmother recalled having a lemon tree in the back of her garden, and picking lemons from the tree with her five children and making use of them in various kinds of recipes. The lemon tree told a story of service due to the fact that it provided my grandmother and her children with both lemons and precious memories. In that way, it was both a functional tree and an integral part of the memories made by my grandmother and all of her children.

Narrative of Power:

The story and photograph I provided for my narrative of power lead to my grandmother and I discussing a memory of me explaining to her that I loved the feeling of driving on roads that had trees arching over it on either side when she would drive me to my extracurricular activities. She remembered telling me that a road that had trees on either side of it was referred to as an avenue. We talked about how it never occurred to either of us in that memory that someone had intentionally planted those trees in that way to create beauty.

 Narrative of Heritage:

The narrative of heritage that my photo elicitation prompted from my grandmother was that of the loquat tree that is still standing in front of the home in which she lives. My grandmother said that she associated the loquat tree with the history of her grandchildren. There are definitive age gaps between her grandchildren and the loquat tree served as a means of entertainment for each of the grandchildren when they reached the age at which they could climb the tree and play beneath it. To my grandmother, the tree represents the passing of time and the growth of her grandchildren. 

Counter Narrative – The Unruly Tree:

My grandmother lived across from a park in which there was a sycamore tree that would produce seeds in the form of balls that would break apart and if they came into contact with human skin, would cause irritation. My grandmother used to take her children to the park to play, and they would often throw the balls down the backs of one another’s shirts. This would cause fights amongst my grandmother’s children, and would sometimes cause them to breakout in rashes.


This blog post has provided an account of a photo elicitation interview I conducted, which revolves around Dean’s four narrative categories of city trees. The inclusion of photographs in the interview proved that photo elicitations do in fact encourage discussion and generate information or data. The photo elicitation acted as a catalyst for conversation about the persistent narratives of trees and allowed me, as the interviewer, to gain insight into the lives of others through the tree narratives that are part of their lives.



A silkworm feeding on a mulberry tree. 2010. Malaysian Herbals. [O]. Available:

Accessed 10 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: Routeledge:162-175.


Oak Tree and Acorns. 2003. Mother Earth News. [O]. Available:

Accessed 10 May 2016.


Ponytail Palm. [n.d.]. Palms and Exotic Plants. [O] Available:

Accessed 10 May 2016.


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

The trees have stories to tell.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s