Two Trees Make a Forest: In Search of My Family’s Past Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts
Catapult, 2020. $16.95, 304 pages.
What better medium to express the deepest thoughts and feelings about family and belonging than the natural world from which we spring? In her second book, Two Trees Make a Forest, Jessica Lee brings natural, political, and family history together in a deft combination of scientific and political facts, environmental and political observations, and most poignantly, personal and family reflection.
The layered natural history of Taiwan’s terrain—the impact of weather and geological unrest and how it has shaped the land—parallels the impact of exile on three generations of Lee’s family. The story of Taiwan provides a larger arc about how earthquakes, colonialism, and displacement leave lasting traces on the landscape, the built environment, and in our families.
Lee divides her book into four sections that mirror the island’s geologic and natural story: Dao (island), Shan (mountain), Shui (water), and Lin (forest). Her careful explanation of the Chinese character for “forest” brings us the title of her book—the character is made of the wood radical “mu” repeated twice—two trees make a forest.
Taiwan is situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire, and tectonic action is foundational to its beauty, terrain, and development. Historically, the mainland Chinese viewed Taiwan as a place apart—“a place between civilization and wilderness, heaven and earth, sea and mountain.” Taiwan’s colonial history is written in the names of the plants and animals and on the destruction wrought on the land. Indigenous people are written to the farthest unknown areas of maps, and in a tale told around the world, Taiwan’s natural resources are exploited by Japanese, Dutch, and Chinese colonialism.
The complexity of Taiwan’s history serves as an analogue for the tragedy of her Gong (grandfather) and Po (grandmother), and the twists and turns of their life—moving from China through Taiwan and finally to Canada. Lee writes with palpable fondness for Gong, a lifelong pilot for the Kuomintang who of necessity became a janitor in Canada. At the end of his life, as Alzheimer’s was taking his mind, Gong wrote a letter full of memories that sparked Lee’s trip to Taiwan: “The letter spanned twenty pages but never concluded.”
Lee’s memories of Po are more nuanced, and readers come to learn from where Po’s anger stemmed—a privileged childhood that turned into a hard life of privation and separation. “The communists were winning the civil war, but Po’s family was slow to realize their precarious position as wealthy landowners in a changing nation.” Gong and Po’s poverty diet of rice and bean sprouts created a template for Lee’s understanding of what Chinese food is: “I had believed that Chinese people didn’t eat bean sprouts, that they were a filler added by chefs catering to North American tastes, when in fact, simply owing to Po’s bitterness, they had been banished from our tables.” Po’s family sorrow and secrets grew into family mysteries that can never be recovered.
A key lesson in Lee’s book is that reclaiming the culture and landscape you have lost is hard work. Her mother, revisiting the land of her childhood, finds that familiar places have been overwritten by development. And Lee herself, trying to learn Mandarin names, says, “I turned their names over in my mouth, stretching their shapes into my mind, and found in them a longing to remember the things I had not known.”
One of the most delightful things about Lee’s writing is her tendency to sprinkle tiny, lyric poems throughout her prose. “The city birds have made me optimistic.” These light and beautiful moments leaven the heaviness and sorrow in her story.
Ultimately, there are no answers—there is a futility in trying to find yourself in a landscape, much like the futility of trying to find meaning in Gong’s unfinished letter. “Everything in my education has inoculated me against this kind of anthropocentrism: to resist the idea of nature as for us alone, of a forest providing arboreal answers to very human predicaments.” Lee teaches us that there is value in the journey.