Trees represent something resilient, solid, anchored and resolute. They are old and ageless; many have seen the transformation of the world play out before them. These fortified giants who have taken root amongst us colour some of our fondest childhood memories. This blog post aims to recount the relationship between human and tree by exploring three different narratives as proposed by Dean in “The Unruly Tree: Stories from the Archives” by mean of a photo elicitation interview.
A photo elicitation interviews can be described as the use of photographs to encourage the interviewee to reflect and engage with the content. Photo elicitation interviews promote interaction, spark dialogue and produce expedient information (Tinkler 2013: 173). Furthermore they aid in recollection; they act as a visual cue when asking the interviewer to remember something from their past (Tinkler 2013:174). Photographs are also a useful point of entry when stimulating dialogue. In today’s visually directed world a photograph carries a lot of semiotic weight. Photographs also offer new perspectives that the interviewer might not have considered.
According to Dean there are four narratives embedded in the history of trees namely the narrative of service, power, heritage and finally the counter narrative of the unruly tree. The following provides four photographs and captions illustrating the above. The four photographs were presented to three interview candidates in order to elicit their respective perspectives and experiences of the narratives.
The Narrative of service refers to the tree that provides an advantage to its residents. These advantages include shade and clean air (Dean 2015:163). Trees such as fruit trees are planted for the purpose of eating or harvesting. The photo included acts as both a food source- the avocado tree gives fruit and is also a treehouse location. Even though the trees house has become quite derelict- as children we used to climb in it and pick the avocados.
Narratives of power are often present in long lines of duplicate trees which convey a sense of power and human domination. Dean describes it as lulling the city with beauty (2015:163). It serves to create an impression of balance. This means that they are often trees that speak of wealth, symmetry and order. The trees planted in the Union Buildings garden are an apt example of the narrative of power. They are planted in a long line and trimmed habitually. The Union buildings themselves represent a monument of power and authority and thus the garden follows suit-it conveys a strong sense of human control over nature.
Narratives of heritage are embedded in trees associated with local folklore and myths. They are trees that are tied to certain tradition and rituals, associated with a time and place and can represent a link with ancestors. The Baobab is reflective of Africa; it is incorporated in architectural design and corporate identities to connote the idea of Africa. According to traditional folklore ancestors and kings would hold meetings under the baobab tree.
Photo Credit: John Duff
The Unruly tree represents the counter-narrative-the tree that resists human discipline and subjugation (Dean 2015:166). The photographed tree is an example of a tree that grows wildly and freely, its stem is gnarled and leaves unpruned. There is another tree growing on it and it grows over human walls, having no regard for boundaries and entering the neighbour’s space-making it a nuisance.
Altie recalls that he grandfather had peach trees growing up and how most Afrikaner communities in Rustenburg also had peach trees. She remembers how her grandfather used to pick peaches for them and her grandmother would make peach jam. She even acknowledges that they used the peach tree in their “kattekwaad” (pranks); she and her friends would put rotten peaches on their neighbours’ front porches, ring the doorbells and run away to a safe hiding place to watch the trouble unfold. Because the peach trees served as a food source and source of entertainment Altie identifies it as an example of a service tree.
Upon viewing my photograph of the Union Building trees Altie identifies the similar use of symmetry and uniform lines present in the planting of palm trees in suburbs, casino’s and schools. She believes that palm trees connote a certain lifestyle of luxury and wealth. The uniformity of the single lines of palm trees also exhibit human’s control over trees as an aesthetic prop, meant to decorate lavish places.
When prompted about an example of a heritage tree Altie thinks of her days spent in the bush veldt and her association with the Acacia (kameeldoring) as a landmark of the African landscape. She is still surrounded by soetdorings at the high school she works at which serve as a reminder of growing up and the tradition of spending time with extended family in the veldt. Eagle owls have also nested in the fever trees at the school which further remind her fondly of the interaction between animals and trees, a relationship which is a prominent theme in African heritage and as old as time itself.
Altie mentions a massive pine tree in the front garden as an example of an unruly tree. The tree is tall and takes up immense space, often getting in the way of the electric cables. It also covers the front garden with a prickly carpet, making it unpleasant to walk in that part of the garden. On more than one occasion she has been asked to trim it. However Altie regards this unruly tree fondly because it is a home to many hadedas. To Altie they represent a snippet of the untamed, unbridled and untouched natural world.
Rory Spence names a tree from his childhood namely the Syringa Berry Tree in which he and his father built a treehouse. When he had friends over they would use the berries as catapult ammunition. This story is another testimony of how trees have stood in service as the playground for imaginative stories and games to take root and grow. Rory also talks about a Willow tree in his garden that was connected to a French Drain, absorbing most of the water and thus flourishing illustrating a beautiful symbiotic relationship as Rory would spend hours swinging from the branches of the tree. When the French drain was removed the willow withered which upset Rory significantly.
When showed the photo of the Union building trimmed trees Rory suggested poplar trees as a narrative of power. He recounts that they are quite popular for lining the driveways or areas of wealth. Poplar trees do not require extensive maintenance making them ideal as cohabiters. Upon a recent visit to Clarens he saw the town surrounded by these ranks of poplar trees, which complemented the clean and pruned look of the arty town, appeasing the viewer with its ordered lines.
Rory names the Jacaranda tree as an example of a heritage tree because of its reputation as a community landmark in Pretoria. Having spent most of his young adult life in Akasia and Sunnyside juggling jobs and adapting to adult life Jacaranda’s have been a steadfast herald of a new spring. The Jacaranda’s are an integral part of the identity influencing the culture and beliefs of its residents- Rory recalls how it was always considered lucky if a Jacaranda flower fell on your head. He also states however that Jacaranda’s can also be considered as a narrative of service as it provides shade and timber useful for furniture.
Upon thinking about an unruly tree, Rory tells of a tree which he had pruned recently because its pods had been littering the entire garden. The seeds also attached to the fur of their cats, bringing it into the house. He also wincingly tells of the destructive nature of palm trees whose seeds litter the swimming pool and huge leaves can create quite an impact.
Frederik also resonates strongly with the Willow tree. He grew up with one on his plot which meant that his friends were mostly dogs and trees. The Willow struck him the most because it was oddly shaped and it provided ample shade. Secondly he recalls the Baobab tree on his father’s farm. It was 900 years old and functioned as a meeting point for friends, a setting for ritual and fellowship. People travelled far just to see the tree and carvings of people’s stories over the years were present on its hide leading to interesting forms, shapes and patterns. . The stem also grew in the shape of a window which captured the imaginations of all the cousins believing that fairies inhabited the Baobab. Finally Frederik also reminisces a bit wistfully on the white stinkwood that he had planted and how they grew up together, how it gave him a strong sense of accomplishment to nurture a tree and how they eventually parted when he moved.
Frederik is an architect student and likes relating all his answers to the built environment. For the narrative of power Frederik recounts the story of a lane of trees he discovered on Google Earth which are built on an axis that line up with the Old Arts building on campus. The trees are currently hidden on the Girls High grounds but he deduces that they were originally planted to serve as an impressive lane of trees leading to the entrance of the Old Arts. To him this illustrates the narrative of power-how trees served as emblems of authority and as signposts attesting to the impressive institution or building that they lead into. Frederik also mentions his first ever design, a small doringboom which he reared as an example of human control and order imposed on trees.
Upon reflecting about heritage trees Frederik tells of The Wonderboom, a 1000 year old fig tree residing in the Magaliesburg. He considers it an apt example of a tree which has seen various epochs of human history.
Frederik was quick to think of an example of an unruly tree. He describes an abandoned factory in Mosselbaai close to their holiday home and the giant tree growing on top of and through the cracks of the factory. The factory is in disrepair but the tree is flourishing. This is a poignant image of the unruly tree sequestering the very buildings man had erected on its territory, possibly removing trees to build it in the first place.
Conclusively Dean states how trees have a rocky relationship with humans, where trees have been subservient to human need and whim (Dean 2015: 162). These include trees that provide food, shade, act as a playground and contribute to cleaning the air. However the most intriguing tale is that of the unruly tree which scoffs at the human hand and grows wild and untamed. As Dean promulgates the objective should be to move beyond the anthropocentric narratives of humans and their imperial relationship to trees and uncover the narrative of the maverick tree which defies human crafted symmetry and order. Trees are much more complex, not only occupying spaces on ground level but a level underground (Dean 2015: 166).
Exploring the narrative of the unruly tree exposes the conflict between people and the trees they occupy a space with (Dean 2015: 178).During these interviews it was interesting to note how quickly people pruned unruly trees or were prompted to do so. Furthermore the use of photo’s aided in clarifying some of the theory of the narratives and made the interview a more immersive experience. I did find that it could easily distract the interviewee as Tinkler warns but overall it produced rich and detailed answers (2013:175) which gave me some insight into the teeming, interwoven narratives that are growing around trees.
Duff, J. 2015. Learn more about the familiar baobab tree. [O]. Available:
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.