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Taking a page from the Broccoli Tree

by Nisha Balaram

A newly minted journalist finds herself in the story.

On the southern shore of Lake Vattern in Sweden, there is a tree.

One day, photographer Patrik Svedberg notices it. It reminds him of a stalk of broccoli and he is intrigued. He decides to take a picture of this tree and put it on his Instagram page.

On his daily commute, Svedberg continues to take photos of the tree, portraying different aspects of life under its branches. On one afternoon, there is a family gathering. A flock of birds fly by. And people take refuge in the tree’s shade.

The tree is an anchor, and life moves around it. On social media, the tree gains a following as Svedberg uploads photos each week. He prints out a seasonal calendar, and people gather at the tree as a tourist destination.

But one day, as he arrives to photograph the tree, he finds that something has happened. The tree has a large gash in its trunk; it has been cut in such a way that it won’t survive. Not long afterward, the broccoli tree is gone.

I came across the story of the broccoli tree online by chance (thanks to author and YouTuber John Green) and was immediately enamored. And, as a new student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, I believed there was a connection between the broccoli tree and the tenets of journalism.

Credit: Patrik Svedberg
Credit: Patrik Svedberg
Credit: Patrik Svedberg

    In our role as journalists, we develop intimate connections with sources. We debate what to share or not share, keeping in mind that our attention and words can have real consequences, with results sometimes beyond our power. Through sharing, things belong less to us and more to the world, and that always comes with a risk. With the case of the broccoli tree, Svedberg appreciated it, shared it and, ultimately, experienced loss. Had he not shared the tree with others, I wonder, would that tree still be there today? Did Svedberg and his audience regret their connection to an obscure tree, or did the loss make their lives more meaningful?

    I’ve always been a person with my head in the clouds. Growing up, I was in love with poetry and dreamed of becoming a writer. While it took me longer than others to eventually study journalism and documentary film due to self-doubt (and shhh, pessimism about the financial future of journalism), I felt fulfilled in UC Berkeley’s program. At the beginning of this year, given the tools that I acquired in law and ethics, narrative, audio and video, I believed that I could tackle anything. I would interview people with empathy. I would tell meaningful, life-changing stories.

    I don’t think I fully fathomed how much life had changed in a matter of months until I graduated on Zoom in May. While I was fortunate to be a graduation speaker, I remember feeling a creeping sense of horror at the loss of my expectations. Instead of spending time with family and looking out among the crowd of fellow graduates, I fumbled with an iMac borrowed from the graduate school and looked at my own nervous face. This was the same iMac that I had sat in front of for hours to finish my thesis film. And now, I stay glued to the same spot as I click on countless job posts, COVID-19 statistics, news articles, old Word documents filled with postgrad aspirations and Zoom screenshots capturing the moments in which my classmates and I abruptly said goodbye to each other before dispersing across the globe.

    The smallest details often have an immense capacity for beauty, revealing a larger truth about ourselves and the world around us.

     

    In 2018 when I first learned of my admission to graduate school, I was excited about the opportunity to work with world-renowned faculty — and they did not disappoint. They embraced their role as mentors. They not only taught us, but also inspired us with their own work, motivating us to think big and embrace our own voices. They especially instilled in us the importance of the role of story, even in the midst of an attack on free speech or a pandemic. Journalists have the skills as storytellers to add layers of meaning to what could be seen as insignificant moments, because the smallest details often have an immense capacity for beauty, revealing a larger truth about ourselves and the world around us.

    But I remind myself now that the pandemic is a much more emotional event in person than on paper. It has a subtle yet overwhelming way of forever altering plans for the future, perceptions of the world and personal feelings of safety. It’s a weird, isolating time. It’s one thing to wonder about your career trajectory, but how does that fit into determining whether or not you can see friends and family or being able to say goodbye to a loved one and constantly brainstorming creative ways to remain productive (and distracted) indoors?

    Back in May, I couldn’t help myself: I started my graduation speech with the story about the broccoli tree. Even if my future feels uncertain, one thing I do believe in is the power of authentic storytelling. Initially, I had connected with the story of the unlucky tree because I felt like I had the decision-making power to tell stories. I fantasized about discovering and learning and traveling. These days, I wonder if rather than being the photographer, I am the broccoli tree. While I do have the power to tell a story, I am also part of a larger story that I cannot control.

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