An extract from Jessica J. Lee’s Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan, our Book of the Month for November.
There is a motif in Chinese myth that transmutes and shapeshifts depending on the tale and the teller. The ‘sky ladder’ could be a mountain, but at other times it was a rope, a rainbow, or occasionally a cobweb. In my favourite tales, the ladder is a tree, impossibly high, a bridge between the earth and the heavens. What might I see, at the crown of such a tree? The tree spanned the distance between mortality and immortality, the profane and the sacred. Climbing it was a feeble grasp towards godliness. I thought of my mother’s dream, and wondered what my grandfather, Gong, had known of the sky, of height. He had been a pilot, after all. He had never had need of such a ladder.
A song cut through the woods, a sweet-toned trill that rippled on the rustle of the banyan leaves. I glanced up to see a small flock of white-masked, black-mustachioed birds flitting from tree to tree. Their wings glistened in the afternoon light, bellies quivering with the staccato, pitchy tune they piped without end. I settled beneath the trees and watched them, Styan’s bulbuls. Endemic to the island, while they are common in the south, they are disappearing elsewhere, edged out of their habitats by construction, cities, and encroachment by other mainland species. Already gone from the northeast, they are found only on this peninsula and the eastern coastal mountains. But here they gather in busy flocks, tittering despite the threats, with a wholehearted mirth in their music.
A short walk uphill, the scent of crushed leaf and rainfall permeated the air. The dusty peaks of limestone coral smelled of dried chalk mingled with the woody scent of the banyan aerials creeping over them. The aerials wound their way into the crevices and pools of shadow, and the trees were just as delicate, hanging precariously atop the fissured outcrops. Banyan roots secrete an acid to erode the coral, enabling their near-acrobatic perches on the rock walls. Between them hung the leathered green-grey of musk ferns and other clutching, epiphytic growths from the trees, and along the paths I saw fine fingers of maidenhair ferns. Having risen from the sea, the ground in the forest was uneven, climbing at once to precipitous cliffs here and then to sunken trenches there, with caves burrowing beneath the damp soil. Stalactites dripped in the darkness of the earth, but we could only peer down towards their caves, filled from winter storms with clouded pools of rain.
We clambered up the hillside, past branches occupied and guarded by brown-fuzzed macaques, silent and watchful. The hum of insects could be picked out from the forest noise only when I focused, training both my eyes and my ears to spot them amidst the green. Sound preceded sight of the bumble bee – a drone from which they take their Latin name, Bombus – which emerged enormous amongst the delicacy of violet flowers. The electricity of cicadas faded to the background as I listened, watching the bee’s clumsy flight from blossom to blossom.
At the end of the steady uphill path, we reached the cleft in the rock known as One Line Sky. A crack in the tableland rent open by quakes – just wide enough for a person to pass through – it ambled through the coral, a single bright strip of sky visible above the trench. It seemed, on first glance, like a corridor to another world, to something elemental and eternal, rather than simply the other side of the hill. Sunk down into the mortal world of stone and soil, its walls reached towards the heavens. I gazed vertically to the vast ceiling of the world, and with one hand pressed to rough-worn walls and the other clasped in my mother’s, we ventured through that narrow passage.
With the founding of geographical societies, botanical gardens, and scientific groups in Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, there emerged a strong impetus for exploration concomitant with colonialism. It would take some decades for efforts to gather at a pace in East Asia. Exploration, in part, then became a process of exchange: China was opened to Western scientists in the last half of the nineteenth century, and so too was Japan, with travellers returning samples to the collections and botanical gardens of Europe, or working with local surveyors to gain a grasp of the vast lands of the Asian continent. Within years, Chinese and Japanese branches of a range of sciences – cartography, geology, botany, zoology – began to emerge and thrive, with their scientists venturing to Kew, Berlin, Paris, and Edinburgh to survey and study lands and scientific collections distant from their own.
By the 1860s, British scientists were travelling to Taiwan, too, working the island into the Western cultural imagination, alongside the Chinese gazetteers who for centuries had conducted local surveys, often in traditional Chinese cartographic styles. But as the workings of government began to demand the mathematically grounded mapping style of the West, the process of scientific exchange explicitly served political and cultural aims. In cataloguing territory, map-making was a tool of colonial governance. The difficult terrain of Taiwan’s mountains became a vital target: first, under Qing administration in the late nineteenth century, and then under Japanese rule.
In this same period, islands became an ideal object of biological study. They had long transfixed poets and writers and informed mythologies, but their hold on science was just as potent. Such famous isles come quick to mind: the Galapagos Islands, Darwin’s muse; Madagascar, beloved by botanists. They were and remain of curious fascination.
Islands can form in a multitude of ways: as land masses attached to continents before becoming encircled by water; at sea, risen from the depths of the ocean by forces tectonic or volcanic; or as accumulated barriers of sand, coral, or glacial remnants. We speak of islands of waste – though the trash vortex does not have the density of ground – and these unseen places enter our collective dreaming of the sea and its familiars: kelp and plastic, intermingled. Still other islands are made in our time: artificial islands, like those military installations hunkered along the coast of China, facing Taiwan, and the contested islands in the South China Sea.
What islands offer to science is as incalculable as their coastlines: species endemism – when a species is unique to a particular place, having adapted in isolation – is a common feature of islands. Many therefore make a contribution to global biodiversity that is disproportionate to their landmass. Think of the Chinese character for island, 島, built from a bird 鳥atop a lone mountain 山. It is on islands that life most strays from the continents. ‘Isolation’, after all, takes its root from the Latin word for island: insula.
Of more than four thousand vascular plant species on Taiwan, over a thousand are endemic. More than sixty percent of mammals on the island occur nowhere else – the Formosan black bear, deep in the Yushan ranges, or the Formosan macaques, clumsily strutting throughout the south. Nearly half the amphibians and a fifth of birds, like Styan’s bulbuls, are unique to this place. On mountain ranges, in particular, the rate of endemism increases: though the number of different species decreases with elevation, as the air thins and grows cold, the singularity of those species increases. Lifeforms arrange themselves in these ways. Swinhoe’s pheasants and shrill-voiced flamecrests flicker in the middle ranges. Long-lived Formosan cypresses steady themselves on gentle slopes, and montane angelicas frill the thin-aired plateaus.
The range can be dramatic: forest surveys are ringed and banded things that follow the growth of mountains. Oaks and laurels cling to the lower slopes, with cypresses making their languid growth in the damp middle ranges. Above the fog are hemlock and endemic fir, growing upward until snow dusts the shrubs of the highest peaks. With a changing climate and a warming world, for many species there is little place to migrate but skyward. Treelines creep ever higher, and the realm of the cold-loving species shrinks. Bound to the summits, these species can live a lonely life. And in this way, mountains become islands of their own.
Two Trees Make a Forest is out now, published by Virago, and is available to buy here.