A family history in trees and flowers: A biologist’s memoir

Part memoir, part travel narrative, and part nature writing, a biologist visits Taiwan – her ancestral homeland – and unravels her family history.

Courtesy of Catapult Publishing
“Two Trees Make a Forest: Travels Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts in Search of My Family’s Past” by Jessica J. Lee, Catapult, 304 pp.

Mingling memoir, travelogue, nature writing, and political narrative, “Two Trees Make a Forest: Travels Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts in Search of My Family’s Past” is a thoughtful exploration of lineage and place. Upon visiting her ancestral homeland of Taiwan, Jessica J. Lee pieces together fragments of her family’s past while delving into the island’s “wealth of habitats.” The book’s title speaks to the natural landscape of the country, where the author finds cypress and cedar trees at a scale so impressive that “two trees would make a forest.”

“Two Trees Make a Forest” is the author’s second book and follows her 2017 memoir “Turning: A Year in the Water.” A British-Canadian-Taiwanese environmental historian, Lee spent three months traveling throughout Taiwan. Described as “a living world on a fault-ridden terrain,” the geography of the 89-mile wide island is mountainous and biodiverse. “Of more than four thousand vascular plant species on Taiwan, more than a thousand are endemic,” writes Lee. “More than 60 percent of mammals on the island occur nowhere else.” 

When not absorbed in the language of plants and landscape, the author casts a critical eye on the formation of geological sciences and the “impetus for exploration concomitant with colonialism.” She points to Western sciences arriving in Taiwan by way of colonial expansion, tracing the first record of botanical study to a Scottish botanist famous for pilfering Chinese tea plants for production in India. Looking at contemporary Taiwan, Lee comments on the effects of climate change and the clearing of land for plantations and mineral excavation, creating environmental hazards she defines as “anthropogenic.”

At the center of “Two Trees Make A Forest” is the author’s exploration of family identity and the political dimensions of Taiwan’s past. Lee’s maternal grandparents were originally from China. At the end of the Chinese Civil War, they left for Taiwan, along with more than 1 million other mainland Chinese. Unable to return, her grandparents lived on the island for four decades. In 1974, they emigrated to Canada, resettling on a foreign continent far away from their home country. 

While born and raised in Canada, Lee writes that “Taiwan and its past had inhabited my imagination for most of my life.” Her extended stay in the country in 2017 came after her grandparents’ passing. A stray phone bill listing calls made to Taiwan and China led to the discovery of long lost family members; an autobiographical letter written by the author’s grandfather provided a family backstory shaped by political turmoil. 

“Political migrants. Exiles. Colonists. Diaspora. The past has many words for my grandparents' generation, all of them containing a grain of the truth,” notes Lee. She writes of China’s May Fourth protests, an anti-imperialist movement sparked by student activists in Beijing in 1919. The Second Sino-Japanese War – precipitated by the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 1937 – led to Taiwan being ceded to China in 1945 after five decades of Japanese rule. In 1949, the Nationalist Chinese government declared martial law in Taiwan. It lasted for 38 years, one of the longest periods of martial law in history. 

In modern-day Taipei, Lee juxtaposes the city with its surrounding environs. She describes wandering “above the city my family called home,” watching “the gray streets rolling out into the hills, the city expanding at a rate faster than the movement of mountains.” When writing of nature, the author fluctuates between different interpretations of time – arboreal and lithic; dendrological and geological. While “Two Trees Makes A Forest” is full of graceful prose, general readers may have difficulty grasping some of the author’s more specialized descriptions of scenery. For nature enthusiasts, however, this book offers an abundance of landscapes to imagine.   

Lee’s delicate integration of genres sets “Two Trees Make A Forest” apart from the conventional memoir. The author’s introspective storytelling avoids the standard pitfalls of travel writing, and she crafts a multifaceted narrative of dislocation and reconnection that escapes simple definition.

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