Tall Tales


Trees make up an important part of our environment and our lives. Humans enjoy telling stories and sharing memories of trees, particularly city trees, that are significant to them and that have brought them joy. This blog aims to discuss the four different types of tree narratives outlined by Joanna Dean (2015). An example of a personal story and photograph will be provided for each narrative. Personal tree stories from three other people collected from photo elicitation interviews will also be provided.

A photo elicitation interview can be defined as an interview where the interviewer presents photographs to the interviewee. The interviewee is then encouraged to engage with the photographs. The purpose of this is to initiate a discussion between the interviewer and the interviewee (Tinkler 2013:174). By providing photographs to the interviewee, it makes them more comfortable and open to sharing their thoughts. The interviewee is provided with something that has the potential to spark a thought or remind them of a memory, thus taking the attention and pressure off them (Tinkler 2013:174). Therefore, photo elicitation interviews are valuable as they foster conversations that generate useful data (Tinkler 2013:194).

Personal Narratives:

A Narrative of Service:

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This is a story that involves a tree tending to a human need. When I was growing up, trees provided a source of enjoyment for me. I enjoyed climbing up them. One day, my father and I decided to try build a treehouse in a huge Mulberry tree in my garden. This ended up being a simple platform in the tree. However, I would often go sit there and watch the birds on the branches. This brought me much happiness.

A Narrative of Power:

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This involves a story about a tree having a symbolic or semiotic function. My narrative involves trees becoming a symbol of the control humans have over nature. There is a beautiful road in Johannesburg I sometimes drive down and it always catches my attention. What is so beautiful about this road is there are lines of Oak trees on either side of the road. Considering they are all the same type of tree and are growing in a straight line, this is symbolic of man’s involvement in the growth of these trees. These Oak trees also give the idea of wealth and are often seen in fairly wealthy suburbs, lined up along the road.


A Narrative of Heritage:

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This is a story that involves a tree reminding one of their history and traditions. It can also include a tree as a prominent community landmark. When I was very young, my sister and I decided to carve a special message to our grandparents on a tree in their garden. These messages have stayed there ever since, moving higher as the tree grows taller. This tree now serves as a reminder of our history, our youth and our special visits to our grandparents house.


A Counter Narrative of the Unruly Tree:

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This involves a story of a tree that has caused a person trouble. My garden wall is situated next to some very tall, ugly looking trees that are on the verge. These trees make a mess on my driveway, dropping their thorny leaves everywhere. They have also grown at a slant due to the slope of the verge. This has become a concern as these trees could easily get struck by lightning, given how tall they are, and fall on the wall. After appealing to the authorities to remove them due to the safety hazard and offering to plant safer, indigenous trees in their place, the authorities refused. Thus, they continue to be a worry.


Photo Elicitation Narratives:

After narrating my own stories and showing my interviewees my photographs, they told me their own tree narratives:

18 year old Emma Coppings:

For a narrative of service, Emma told me about an avocado tree that was in the garden of the house she grew up in. It lived in the corner of the garden which was always a very busy corner. She spent a lot of time playing in the shade of that tree, had all her outdoor parties under the tree and she ate the “delicious, buttery avocados” it produced. The Guinea Fowls also loved that tree as they spent a lot of time together and around that tree, pecking in the grass during the day and sleeping there at night.

My narrative of power reminded Emma of the Bonsai’s her friends own. These are beautiful, miniature trees that require a fair amount of attention. They are ornamental living trees that “are quite an art in themselves”. She sees this as an example of human control over trees because through human intervention, one is not letting them grow to their true size. She believes these trees become a symbol of something that is endearing as well as a symbol of wealth and an art, allowing a person to own a variety of different trees whilst not needing a huge garden. It also is a hobby and a skill, becoming something that people can show off.

Emma’s narrative of heritage reflects on her school trip to Victoria Falls. On the way there they made a stop for the night in Botswana. On a walk with her friends, she came across a huge Baobab tree. Five of her friends could fit around the base of the tree while hugging it. She explained that this narrative of the Baobab links to heritage as the Baobab is an important tree in African culture and history. It is believed to be a link to the ancestors as it was tradition that the dead would be buried underneath them.

Emma’s narrative of an unruly tree looks back on her walk to School Mass one morning. While walking, she did not notice a stick-like tree growing in the middle of the path in front of her. She ended up walking into the tree and scratching herself on it’s bark. She believes this is an example of an unruly tree because of how it decided to grow in the middle of the path, defying the man-made structure and becoming a hazard for those walking there.

47 year old Kathryn Coppings:

Kathryn began by telling me about a beautifully shaped tree she had in her garden growing up. It links to the service narrative as, just like my treehouse Mulberry tree, it was perfect for play. She used to play cops and robbers, cowboys and red indians and use this tree as the base camp. They also built a platform in this tree as well as a swing and this became the focal area around which her play with siblings and friends commenced.

My narrative of power linking to human control reminded Kathryn of a couple of trees she has in her garden. They have been shaped to create a certain look and effect. They are regularly pruned into their lollipop shapes to create uniformity and structure. She believes they become a symbol elegance and organisation. This shows the power Kathryn supposes over the trees as they would not naturally grow into these rigid shapes. Lollipop trees can also be considered a symbol of wealth as one often sees them in wealthy suburbs.

Kathryn linked her narrative of heritage to the idea of trees reminding one of a tradition. Growing up, her parents always liked to use real Fir trees for their Christmas tree. Fir trees have now become a landmark and part of the families’ traditions for this special holiday. They never use plastic Christmas trees. She had a faithful Fir tree growing outside her house and every year at Christmas time, her dad would chop a large branch off the tree, pot it and place it in the lounge. The whole family would then spend time decorating it together.

According to Kathryn, trees are always the ideal place to park under on a hot summer day. At her work, this was the choice instead of in the hot, searing sun. The only problem was, when she returned to her car, it was covered in little drops of sticky tree glue. This was a job and a half for her to try remove. Therefore, she believes that this tree is the perfect example of an unruly tree.

76 year old Maureen Yardley:

Maureen was very excited to tell me her stories and began with telling me about her tree narrative of service. On her grandparents’ farm there was a forest of Gum trees. These trees served as a wind break and provided cool shade to create respite from the heat of the sun. As a child, she played under them, creating fairy gardens and using the acorn-like seeds to create small tea gardens.

After narrating my power narrative, she started telling me about the trees in her garden she cropped quite often, to keep them within a reasonable height. Her family felt that she was unfair to keep them within her idea of the final height she wanted. However, the effect was to her requirements. For example, the Leopard Tree in her garden never attained the height it was supposed to eventually become. This symbolised human intervention.

According to Maureen, the three Jacaranda trees she had growing on the periphery of her garden were symbolic of the Pietermaritzburg area. The beautiful, purple flowers in Spring were an indication to students that it was time to study for upcoming examinations. Sadly these trees are becoming extinct in that area of the country because they are not indigenous and are now considered a nuisance factor as branches break and cause damage. They also drink lots of the water in the area. The Jacaranda trees can be considered a narrative of heritage as they have become a landmark for certain areas in the country.

My narrative of an unruly tree reminded Maureen of a lemon tree she had in the garden of her old house. It was fairly old and was not bearing the necessary fruit she required from it. She was told by an old lady that she should, in Maureen’s words, “cut its skirts and then beat it with a stick whilst warning it verbally that it would be uprooted unless it bore lemons.” Her children thought she had lost her mind when she duly carried out the advice given by the old lady. One month later this unruly tree bore prolifically and surprised everyone.


This essay aims to create an awareness of the importance of trees in our lives and in our cities and urban environments. This essay also shows the wealth of information that can be generated through a photo elicitation interview. The photos helped the interviewees to comfortably share their stories and memories. It is hoped that the awareness created through this blog post will encourage readers to also relate to the photographs provided and share their own narratives and experiences they’ve had with trees, with others. The more one emphasises the importance of trees, the more people will start to appreciate and look after them.

Sources Consulted:

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.


0 thoughts on “Tall Tales

  1. Pingback: Theme 5: Tree Narratives and Photo elicitation | Digital Environmental Humanities

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