'hey, tree. you are my Friend': assessing multiple values of nature through letters to trees.
The values associated with nature are a central component of human-nature interactions, but their assessment remains a challenge. In this exploratory research, we examine the potential of a creative data collection method to elucidate the multiple values of nature. We invited visitors to a natural area to write letters to non-human elements of the ecosystem (trees), then analysed the letters to determine whether they provide information about values. This project involves collaboration with the Intervale Center in Burlington, VT, U.S.A., a peri-urban site with both forest and farmland. We received 45 letters from 25 letter writers. The majority of letter writers discussed relational values associated with trees or benefits from ecosystem services that trees provide to humans and non-humans. Others asked questions about natural elements at the Intervale Center. We explored whether the letter writing method, which invites (although does not require) a more interpersonal approach to communicating with non-humans, might facilitate the expression of relational values. Our findings support this assertion. We found that people expressed diverse relational values towards nature and asked many questions (mostly ecological) about the site and tree species. We encourage future work to consider data collection instruments that provide opportunities for diverse ways of conceiving of human-nature relationships (especially, as in this case, ways more conducive to personhood as not confined to humans). Benefits of this project include an unconventional framing of human-nature relationships (i.e. one that invites but does not require expanded notions of personhood), the open-ended nature of the prompt, relatively low costs and flexibility in when and how participants respond. Drawbacks include convenience sampling (and low response rates) and poor accessibility to people who do not read English. We conclude that letter writing method has the potential to elicit data about multiple values of nature, as well as create an engaging experience for visitors of natural areas. Read the free Plain Language Summary for this article on the Journal blog.