Tree sign located along a hiking trail at the Intervale Center in Burlington, VT, U.S.A. Photo by Tatiana Marquina, July 2019.

By Tatiana Marquina, Rachelle Gould, and Duncan Murdoch.

Read the full article here.

People value nature in multiple ways – for example, because it provides water, air, food, or places to recreate and connect with forces larger than themselves. Studying different ways people value nature is important to make equitable decisions – it is hard for environmental decisions and policies to account for values that are not documented. However, some values can be difficult to measure – for example, nonmaterial values like beauty or spirituality. In this exploratory study, we test whether writing letters to non-human organisms (trees) can help people express the values they hold towards these elements. For this study, we partner with a local community farm (the Intervale Center in Burlington, VT, U.S.A) to design and implement a project that invited people to write letters to trees.

We placed signs in front of ten trees at the Intervale Center and assigned those trees individual e-mail addresses. The signs took the voice of the tree and asked people to write to the tree, rather than about it. Building on work in psychology, we speculated that writing directly to a tree might help people reflect on the importance of trees in their lives. 

The project lasted for one year and we received 45 letters. Even though the prompt was extremely general (and did not mention values), more than half of these letters discussed values associated with trees. Our results thus suggest that letter-writing has the potential to be a valuable method to study environmental values. Like any method, it has limitations – for example, low response rates and poor accessibility to people who do not read English. However, the method also has numerous benefits – for instance, it offers a novel space for relational thinking and expression of relational values. Our findings underscore that nonmaterial values represent a central way why nature matters to people, so research should ensure that these values are captured and included in assessment of environmental values.