“Two Trees Make a Forest: Travels Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts in Search of My Family’s Past” by Jessica J Lee

Jessica J Lee (photo: Ricardo A Rivas) Jessica J Lee (photo: Ricardo A Rivas)

On a map, Taiwan does not seem very remarkable as a small island off the coast of China. But despite being smaller than the Netherlands and neighboring countries, Taiwan features Northeast Asia’s highest mountains and a rich biodiversity. In Two Trees Make A Forest: In Search of My Family’s Past Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts, Jessica J Lee explores this natural landscape, while tracing her family heritage and history. 

Born to a Taiwanese mother and a Welsh father in Canada, Lee’s maternal grandparents were born in China but fled to Taiwan after the Communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Her grandmother was from the southern city of Nanjing, then China’s capital, and would live through the infamous killings and pillaging committed by Japanese forces, in what became known as the Nanjing Massacre. Her grandfather, a country boy from the northern province of Hebei, was a pilot in the famed Flying Tigers and later flew dignitaries while continuing to serve in the air force in Taiwan. They then emigrated to Canada with Lee’s mother, where Lee would be born.

After her Taiwanese grandmother passed away in Canada, Lee and her mother discovered a mysterious note written by her grandfather (who had died years earlier). Lee then decides to go to Taiwan to stay for a few months, hoping to unravel the mystery while exploring the island.

 

Two Trees Make a Forest: A Story of Memory, Migration, and Taiwan, Jessica J Lee (Catapult, August 2020; Virago, September 2019)
Two Trees Make a Forest: Travels Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts in Search of My Family’s Past, Jessica J Lee (Catapult, August 2020; Virago, September 2019)

As an environmental history scholar and nature writer, Lee brings a fascinating perspective to Taiwan based on an immersive connection to the land. Lee eloquently describes Taiwan’s landscapes and natural history from Qing times, when modern scientific methods were first developed, and impresses upon readers the magnificence of its mountains that climb to almost 4,000 meters from sea level.

Lee goes on mountain expeditions, day-hikes, wetland trips and does some bird-watching, exploring and describing the different facets of Taiwan’s landscape, as well as its frequent quakes, owing to its position on the meeting point of two tectonic plates. Lee also writes about Taiwan’s complex colonial history incorporating the Qing, Japan and the Dutch, as well as the aboriginals, the original inhabitants who have been in Taiwan for thousands of years.

There are some fascinating bits of information about Taiwan: for geologists, it is a relatively new island at just 6-9 million years old. The volcanic ranges of to Wales’s Snowdonia, by comparison,  date back 500 million years. Taiwan once contained so many rivers that a Qing official crossed 96 rivers while traveling from the north of Taiwan to the south. Rapid industrial development in the 20th century reduced many of these rivers to highly polluted streams while others were redirected to dams or reservoirs. Also, in a belated attempt to deter illegal logging of its mountain cypress and cedar trees, Taiwan has created a DNA database of these trees.

Sometimes it’s what you see along the way and not the final destination that matters.

Lee is noticeably more at ease with navigating the forests, rivers and mountainous landscapes of Taiwan than the intricate history of her family relations, though she does get there in the end.

The human component of Taiwan, its urban landscape, is portrayed as developed and laid-back, one where Lee knows part of her roots lie, but at the same time, does not fully belong. This concept of never belonging is reversed for her mother, who despite decades in Canada, still regards Taiwan as home. As a child, Lee was also conflicted about her identity, especially the complex differences between “Chinese” from Taiwan and “Taiwanese”, stemming from political, cultural and historical factors. Lee does not delve too much into these factors, but her reluctance to choose is understandable, because even in Taiwan, this issue still lingers, though the debate is increasingly one-sided.

Lee is also open about family issues, such as that her grandparents drifted apart emotionally, and that her grandfather, afflicted by Alzheimer’s, was unable to recognize her when she was 18. Soon after, he was sent back to Taiwan to a nursing home where he passed away. The family mystery is not after all terribly compelling although the history of how Lee’s family came from China to Taiwan is interesting enough.

The pacing can be a little slow at times, especially due to the alternating sequence of the family- and nature-driven parts. This makes it somewhat like the literary equivalent of following a meandering route, where sometimes it’s what you see along the way and not the final destination that matters.


Hilton Yip is a writer currently based in Hong Kong and former book editor of Taiwan’s The China Post.