Since the dawn of man – in fact, way before the dawn of man – trees have been the driving force of our very existence. Be you a Christrian, or a believer in evolution – maybe even a combination of the two – the fact remains the same: trees were here long before man set foot on this earth. Many people see the value of trees, but don’t truly understand their worth. To truly understand the worth of trees in our everyday lives, it is iomportant ro try analyse their role in our modern day living as more than just the creators of the air we breathe, but as the symbols of heritage, the dutiful service providers, and the emitters of power. In today’s blog, I am going to use Joanna Dean’s three tree naratives to try understand the true value of trees, and the selfless sacrifices they make for the human race.

The Narrative of Service

The Mulberry Tree

According to Dean this narrative involves the tree “selflessly providing services to the human residents of the modern city” (Dean 2015: 162). This basically means that without actual intent, the tree provides a selfless service of either convenience or even joy, of the modern day human.

The Mulberry tree was a huge fascination to me as a child. I can’t speak for many other people, but there was a period during my primary school days when silkworms were all the rage. All the little grade fours would arrive at school, R5’s at the ready, preparing to become silkworm parents. However, what I remember most fondly wasn’t the actual act of  buying the silkworms, bur rather of taking the adventurous walk up the street with my parents to pick Mulberry leaves to feed the little fellas. It became a little daily tradition — hat on head, tekkies on, silkworms at the ready. Then when we would reach the trees, we would pick the necessary leaves, as well as splurge on a few delicious mulberries. Those are some of the fondest memories I own, and they’re all thanks to the wonder that are Mulberry Trees.


Heidi Taylor: When I reminded my mother of our weird and wonderful fascination with silkworms, she simply chuckled  and hugged me. She says that she remembers those trips to the Mulberry Trees being one of her highlights of the day. She went on two tell me all about her life growing up the farm. She used to get into all sorts of trouble climbing the trees and not being able to get down again, but they provided her with so much pleasure. She went on the tell me that when she was younger, she, too, used to be fascinated with silkworms, so felt extremely nostalgic when taking us when we were younger.

Amber Taylor: My dear sister just laughed at my reminder of the silkworms. She says that at the time — seeing as she was much younger than I — used to find the silkworms extremely gross, and couldn’t quite understand my love for them. But despite her squeamish disposition, she used to love our trips to the trees, and thinks that those thrips are what solidified the iron clad relationship her and I have with one another.

Caroline Enslin: My grandmother grew up on a farm, meaning that her very source of food was based solely on the surrounding trees and vegetation. She speaks about her farm days with complete happiness. She says that her walks through their tree clad land was one of the most liberating feelings — she says that she felt like “a proud mother walking through the fruit of her labor.” The way she revels in the days of her tree growing days makes me wish I could have experienced it myself.

The Narrative of Power and Status

Grape Vines

In the narrative of power and status, Dean theorises that “long lines of identical trees, alike in age and in type, speak of the human control of nature, and of a grace born of power” (Dean 2015: 163). The first thing that came to mind was a quote from the movie Prometheus by character Charlie Holloway when they arrive on an alien planet to find trees planted in a perfectly straight line, “God doesn’t build in straight lines,” suggesting the influence of an outside, intelligent being. The reason that this quote rang true to me was because I remember thinking the same thing the day I went to visit my Aunt and Uncles grape farm in Stellenbosch. I was perplexed at the way us humans have created a dominance over the surrounding plant life by planting the supposedly wild and free trees in a perfectly straight line.

The new grape trees planted in a perfectly straight line


Heidi Taylor: When I asked my mother what she thought about the play of dominate presented by these straight lines, she completely disagreed with the notion of trees being planted in straight lines presenting dominance. Having had grown up on a farm, she felt that whenever she say the straight rows of plants or trees, it presented an element of growth and prosperity, not of dominance or of a play on power. She felt that if anything, this supposed “play of power” is actually just us as humans putting plants to the best use of their capabilities that we can, meaning that we’re actually helping nature thrive as apposed to dominating it.

Amber Taylor: My sister believes that straight lines in nature are a definite play of power in our society. She brought forward the fact that in very upper class or “rich” areas, the land will be covered in various forms of trees and vegetation. But when you take a drive to a lower class or “poorer” area, you are greeted by a desolate land that lacks the any form of vegetation. This is interesting in presenting plants as a form of class, seeing as trees have no monetary value, and yet here we see a definite parallel between trees and money.

Caroline Enslin: My grandmother agrees with my mother, seeing as she was also the owner of farm land. However, despite her agreeing with my mother that she personally never planted trees to in any way show dominance and power over the vegetation, she understands where that notion comes from. She agrees that before the influence of man, trees were able to row as free as they wanted, but that they are now almost repressed by the hands of humans.

The Narrative of Heritage

According to Dean, the narrative of heritage “emphasises the beauty of an individual specimen and its associations with human history” (Dean 2015: 164). This lead me immediately to the Wonderboom tree, a unique 1000 year old fig tree found North of the Magaliesburg Mountains in Pretoria. This tree, I feel, is a symbol of the immense traditions and culture of our country. This tree, now a national monument, signifies the strength of the nation. Scenery_Wonder_Tree_Pano


Heidi Taylor: My mother feels that a tree of immense heritage to her is the Acacia tree. She says that to her, that is the tree that signifies our nation

Amber Taylor: My sister feels that the tree that best fits her personal heritage is he thorn tree (the very unfortunate victim mentioned above). In the estate we live in — Silver Lakes — there are countless throrn trees planted everywhere. She says that even though the memories might not always be the best, she does’t have a memory that doesn’t include a good old thorn tree.

Caroline Enslin: My grandmother feels that the tree (or pant rather) that pops into her mind is the aloe plant. Growing up she was taught that the aloe plant can cure absolutely any ailment, and is no doubt the tree that she best connotes her heritage with.

The Counter-Narrative of the Unruly Tree


The Unruly trees, according to Dean, are “nuisance trees, the invasive trees, the weed trees, and the dangerous trees” that cause trouble in the modern day cityscape (Dean 2015: 166). The very first thing that pops to mind is the Jacaranda tree littering the streets of Pretoria. These trees are absolutely beautiful, covering the streets in their beautiful purple flowers just before winter time. However, the alien tree has become somewhat of a nuisance to the surrounding trees. The tree, that grows into a monstrous tree towering up to 15 meters high, needs excessive amounts of water, meaning that surrounding plant life can sometimes dwindle due to these big bullies stealing all of the much needed water. Not to mention the fact that any car parked underneath one of these beauties must be aware of the fact that their car will end up adorning a stunning purple pattern that might damage the paint on your car.

The beauty of the unruly Jacaranda tree


Heidi Taylor: The most recent topic of an unruly tree to have an impact on the living arrangements of my parents were the three giant thorn trees rooted in the front garden. The trees were massive, so would thus shade the entire front lawn, causing the grass to slowly start dying due to the lack of vitamin D. Not to mention the terrible thorns your feet would find when taking an innocent walk on the lawn. My mother says that despite her love for nature, the decision wasn’t hard: the naughty trees had to go. So after a lot of chopping, mess and cleanup, the grass is now thriving.

Amber Taylor: One of the main unruly trees adorning the garden of my sisters flat is that of a lemon tree. As was fairly noticeable above, my sister gets very squeamish around worms, With this said, the very little lemon tree in our garden attracts way too many hungry worms for her liking, so much so that she refused to go outside out of fear of the poor little things. It was then that the decision to get rid of the cause of the problem. Poor little lemon tree…

Caroline Enslin: My gran completely rejects the notion of any plant being “unruly”. She believes that all plants and trees have their place and hat it is not our place to unroot a tree that might be causing a small amount of irritation. “If it’s not poisonous, if its’s not dangerous, if it’s not going to kill you, it stays.” Ever the farmer.


The above blog made use of various photos that were used as a tool of understanding. According to Tinkler, Photo Elicitation allows for the communication between the interviewer and the interviewee to be opened up and allows for  much easier interaction between the two (Tinkler 2013). This essay is the perfect example of such a process. All of the above mentioned interviewees found it much easier to come to a consensus due to the images I was presenting them with. The interviews along with the use of images allows for a much richer understanding of the value of trees. Trees are such more than just oxygen-creating-machines, but provide us humans with many more things, such as services, heritage values, a little bit of trouble, and even immense pleasure. Trees are the driving force in the development of human beings, and we have a lot of un expressed gratitude to share with them.

Author: Coral Taylor (15195024), Published: 12 May 2016

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.



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