Photo Elicitation

Tree Narratives

Son: Father, What is a tree?

Father: My, young Samuel, A tree is a like a wooden history book with branches and fruits. It has a legacy and a history encapsulated in its grooves and branches. Each one has a story, each one has a narrative and a voice. It is a living natural entity that holds the idea of life, and gives life.

Son: What would happen if trees no longer existed?

Father: Well, my dear Samuel.

Neither would we.

The concept of a Photo Elicitation Interview

For this assignment, I have had the pleasure and honour of conducting a photo elicitation regarding tree narratives. The key word to remember with tree narratives is ‘meaning’, specifically the “meanings we find in these stories” and how, consequently they change the way “we trim and control trees” (Dean 2015:162). A photo elicitation intertwines photographs into interviews for research people, and encompasses communication and creates data imbued with memories and emotions.

Throughout the ages and eras of time, there have been certain aspects of life that are like fixed stones in the rivers of the ever-growing Anthropocene. However, these stones are withered and torn by the erosive forces of mankind’s hands and deeds. Trees have existed from the beginning of time, and it is necessary to evaluate what they meant to us in the past, what they signify for us today, and what a future would be like without them.  The first important thing to note is the relationship we have formed with trees in our urban environment. Four narratives will be discussed and visually represented: Narratives of service, power, heritage and finally counter-narratives.

“And I’ll show you fear in a handful of dust.” T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland

A tree in service is “selflessly providing services to human residents of the modern city” (Dean 2015:163). The tree which really reminded me of this was a tree that used to stand tall (a small willow tree) on the corner of my road. This tree used to hold up signs and boards for drivers and pedestrians, to keep them safe. Over time however, it started getting permanent damage from the constant nailing of boards into its bark. Then, eventually, the carelessness of mankind engulfed it. There was a fire meant to burn the grass in the surrounding area so that it would grow again, but this tree was not considered, and its foundations burnt. However, it still stood, still held on. But as the picture below displays, it couldn’t take the abuse anymore. This tree rendered it services for years, but only got desolation in return, selfless and giving.


The Power to Give, and Take

A narrative of power will “Speak of the human control of nature, and of a grace born of power” (Dean 2015:164). From when I was as small as I can remember, the tree on the plot, known as the “Poplar tree”, stood tall and unhindered by its often disastrous environment. Planted by the river, this gigantic tree withstood the torrents of the river during a storm, as well as the wind and thunder. This tree is very large, and ranges with its branches extremely long in width. The reason why this tree represents power, or a form of power, is because not only is it massive in size and stature, but it is absolutely a symbol of endurance and strength which emanates onto everyone who sees it and was planted specifically where it was, where it can tower with absolute grace.


Covered in a Blanket of Lilac

Historic trees show “the beauty of an individual specimen and its associations with human history” (Dean 2015:164). I grew up with Jacaranda trees in Pretoria, and more so, they stood as a symbol for my family and culture. Now that I am studying at University, they have a deeper meaning for me. My mother used to tell me so many stories of when she studied at Tukkies; about how all the students knew exams were approaching because the Jacarandas were in bloom. These beautiful purple blossoms keep my mother close to me as her voice constantly encourages me through the blossoms of the historic Jacaranda trees.


Kindred Souls

For my narrative of an unruly tree I thought of Hawthorn trees. I did this because they reminded me so much of the unruly part of myself. These trees provide the most beautiful red berries of the surrounding people and animals, but also have the thickest thorn and are very hard to get through. They are trees that provide protection and security, safety and a sound mind. But they also are very hard to get through to and reach. I feel like these trees and I are kindred souls, both fighters but also caretakers.


Interview with Dr. Louise Nieuwmeijer

I spoke with my mother-in-law regarding these narratives, and she provided to me her perspective and input. She stated that for her, a tree of service, reminded her of hawthorn tree. She said that they provide protection and security, especially if you live on a big, open piece of land. Hence they also provide a certain soundness of mind knowing that you are protected. Hawthorn trees grow beautiful bright red berries, which feed the birds in the surrounding areas, but also have big, thick thorns and tightly knit and intertwined branches that are very difficult to get through.

Her favourite narrative to discuss was that of power. She mentioned the various rose bush trees that she had grown for many years. She also said that they don’t grow easily, are hard to maintenance and require much attention and care. These bushes don’t just grow by themselves, they take a lot of work, and she stated being quite an expert with them. She stated that they give her a sense of status and refinement, as most of them are grown next to the office buildings giving off a very attractive look to the clients. They represent beauty and peace to her, and are formed my constant pruning. 

For heritage trees, she spoke of wild thorn trees which are native and thriving in the South African landscape. She also relates them to Pierneef’s beautiful landscape artworks of thorn trees, which also creates a cultural connection of these trees to South Africa. The final narrative, of the unruly tree, was one that was quite undecided for her. She said that for her it would be the bay leaf or laurel leaf trees planted by the front entrance. She says they are a pest in that they grow over everything. She thought at first, long ago, that the small tree would stay small, but over the years it grew to be quite gigantic in size, hanging over everything. She says however, that this tree reminds her of her childhood, specifically of her mother’s cooking, where she always put the leaves into dishes and it acts as a memory for her.

Interview with Mr. Johan Nieuwmeijer

My father-in-law had quite a different take on these narratives. He stated that for him, a tree in service made him think of fruit trees. Specifically the ones he gew up with. He says that by his house, there were always fruit trees, with peaches and lemons as well as vines. His mother grew up on a farm with mulberry trees as well. He said that these trees provided food for animals and people. With lemon and orange trees, big and small ones, they remind him of his childhood years.

For power, he spoke of the two poplar trees by the river. He says that they remind him of power and stature, as these trees could withstand the worst and harshest possible conditions, in storms and floods. He also added that the olive trees that they planted on the plot also represent power, but through a kind of grace. Form olive trees come olive oil, which is a very precious commodity, and also an indicatin of fertility and wealth. He says that these trees do not require much maintenance, and become strong trees, always providing fruit and leaves. They also remind him of Israel, which he has visited a few times.

On heritage trees, my father-in-law though of Protea bushes. He says that one of them by their beach house in Kleinmond, Cape Town, is called a “Wagon Tree” from a family of proteas where the bark is hard a flexible and used to be used to make wagon wheels. He also thought of large oak trees which grow on many farms in the Western Cape and grow acorns. For the unruly tree, he mentioned that they make him think of trees that are not really welcome in South Africa, such as trees form Australia and Brazil. His first thought was Jacaranda trees, which have been removed because of being pestilent. He also mentioned that in the Cape, there is a tree named “Port Jackson”, which kills fynbos, which are trees that are inherently the heritage of the Western Cape.

Interview with Shevon Deetlefs

I interviewed Shevon on the Gautrain, and so she provided me her narrative. A tree in service brought to mind for her a tree  that grew outside her house. This tree was quite small and she and her sister always played under and around it when they were young. This tree provided safety and protection for them, as well as shed. They had a very playful connection, as they build forts around it and used their imaginations to play games. She said that when they were upset they would go sit under his tree, and it provided emotional support for them. It also drew and took care of many birds and small creatures.

A tree representing power reminded her of an event that happened at her high school, Eldoraigne. She said that the school wanted to put up sports buildings for the athletes of the school. She said, however, that they wanted to remove more than 30 trees in order to do this. She and her schoolmates tried to protest against it, but to no avail. She said that this made her think of the power of humans to decide whether a tree can live or die, and that as humans, we shape our own environment and that she was absolutely horrified that they actually cut down those trees.

Heritage trees reminded her of thorn trees. She said that animals, like a giraffe, live off of these trees and that these trees remind her of the tough, arid landscape of South Africa. She says that it makes her feel truly South African, also associating these trees with a kind of ‘toughness’ that we have as a nation and that she is very proud of it.

An unrulty tree took her back to her highschoo. She says that there was this one tree that was so big, it was higher then three story classrooms and that this trees’ roots would grew in and over the pavement lifting it up. She said that this tree provided shade for the students and protection even though it grew against buildings. She said that they could relate to this rebellious tree that grew in strange shapes and sizes.

 Conclusion: The Greatest Impact.

Photo’s integrated in interviews are “tools for social and historical research” to “prompt discussion, reflection and recollection” (Tinkler 2013:173).  The most fascinating part about conducting these photo elicitation interviews was the value that they added to conversation and reflection regarding a set topic. IN this case, that topic was of utmost importance, trees. Photos create the sense of a conversation connection, an “icebreaker” (Tinkler 2013:174) so to speak. It was an absolutely enriching experience and a very interesting way of doing research on a specific topic. But more than that, it was opportunities to take the knowledge I have learned, and share and apply it will others, and that dialogue and sharing of ideas, ultimately had the greatest impact.

18774_abandoned_house_in_the_forest_1920x1200_fant_by_merieth-d8oqr7j (1).jpgSources Used:

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.

Many thanks to Dr.Louise Nieuwmeijer, Mr. Johan Nieuwmeijer and Shevon Deetlefs