“We like to tell stories about city trees. The stories shape our thinking, but more materially they shape our management of the trees. 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”
Trees are all around us, they are part of our daily lives and play a massive role in the environment. The following blog post is about the act of photo elicitation. Photo elicitation refers to the act of inserting photographs into a research interview. The photo elicitation will consist of four narratives, mainly trees that provide a service, trees that illustrate power, trees that are part of a places heritage, and lastly trees that are unruly.
1: Narrative of service
Providing services to the human residents, i.e.: shade, food, wood.
When I spoke to my little sister about the fig tree, and how it provided a service to our family, by giving us fruit, she immediately had a story of her own. Her story wasn’t about figs specifically, but what she called ‘wild figs’ known as prickly pears. I remembered this story well, because I was there. Jene and I together- with grins on our faces- recalled the time we visited a family member in Warmbad. We were kids and didn’t know much about these ‘wild figs’, only that our dad would bring them home on occasion.
My sister and I, and our two cousins, set out to go for a walk on my uncles farm. We were bored to death in the house, and wanted to get away from all the ‘adults’. It wasn’t far until we saw these funny looking fruits. Our cousins didn’t recognise them, but my sister and I knowingly informed them that our dad brings them home and eats them. Our cousins features scrunched up and they said ew! Who would eat that. We explained to them that you cut them open and eat them, like figs. Our little hands closed around the fruits, picking them from the cactus. Lets just say our day ended with our hands full of butter and our moms trying to pick the almost microscopic thorns from the prickly pears out of our hands with tweezers.
2: Narrative of power
Human control of nature; aesthetic purposes; symbols of race, class and status
Gran Marieta 70
When I showed my grandmother the picture of one of the trees in her garden, and explained that these well fashioned trees can be seen as a status symbol, she agreed and said that she took great pride in her garden. She secretly loved it when her friends admired her garden and complemented her on how neat and beautiful her skills with a gardening scissor is.
3: Narrative of heritage
Prominent community landmarks; trees associated with a historic person,place, event or period; a tree associated with local folklore, myths, legends, or traditions; trees tocommemorate historical events.
To my compatriots, I have no hesitation in saying that each one of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld. – Nelson Mandela
The Jacaranda tree
A fellow student at the University of Pretoria was the next person I interviewed. She thought this topic was strange, and dubbed me a tree hugger. I explained to her what this project was all about and why we were conducting the ‘research’, and she smiled, starting to tell me about her brother’s experience with the Jacaranda. He was in his third and final year of studies, and a friend told him that the Jacaranda had a myth attached to it. Her brother, always the curious one, was intrigued. His friend explained to him that if he walked underneath a Jacaranda tree, and a blossom fell on his head, he will pass his final end year exams. When the trees were in bloom, he walked a specific rout back to res everyday, and hoped for a blossom. On one occasion a blossom landed on his shoulder. He exclaimed to his friend the next day that he would at least pass his end year exams. His friend just laughed and they both got their degrees. Maybe the Jacaranda really has some sort of sacred power.
4: Counter narratives: the unruly tree
The above narratives subordinate trees to human needs; we need to move beyond narrowly anthropocentric narratives and consider the unruly tree in the urban landscape.
Wild Pear tree
My mom Melene 47
When I showed my mom this photo of the Wild Pear tree, she sighed in frustration. She told me the way those tiny white blossoms cause her eyes to feel thick, and how she’s sure these flowers are what causes the elegiac reaction. She also tells me all about the sticky leaves that fall from the tree in fall, and that there are masses of them and they sticks to everything, even our dogs. The stick to our two fluffy Schnauzers and bring these leaves into our house. My mom also comments that the tree is growing out of control now because its limbs are growing in every direction and that it is blocking the sun and making our house cold in the winter.
It is evident that, with the help of photographs, one obtains a better interaction from the person being interviewed. It encourages dialogue and generated useful data like evoking feelings and memories from people.
- 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.