Reading the Landscape of the Past: Jessica J. Lee’s Two Trees Make a Forest

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When I was in graduate school for geotechnical engineering, a professor summarized the field of geology into one sentence: “The tip of Mt. Everest is a glacial marine clay.” Geology tells the story of how the very bottom of our oceans could rise to the highest peak on the planet. Learning to read a landscape can reveal a deep history.

As a child of immigrants, I often felt like a grain of sand blown by wind and water across the globe, yearning to understand movements and migrations. As a geotechnical engineer, I logged samples extracted from the earth’s depths, and made cross sections, connecting the dots between boreholes. When my father passed away in 2003, I slowly began probing my family history, approaching it like one of my field assignments. I compiled fragments of information from various depths, times, and places to understand what it was like in situ. And so, I was immediately drawn to Jessica Lee’s memoir, Two Trees Make a Forest: Travels Among Taiwan’s Mountains and Coasts in Search of My Family’s Past, because it is a stunning reconnaissance effort to uncover and connect with family history through language and landscape.

Lee’s maternal grandparents, whom she calls Gong and Po, fled from China to Taiwan after World War II near the end of the Chinese Civil War. During WWII, her grandfather Gong was trained to fly as a pilot for the Flying Tigers, an American-led group of pilots charged with defending China from Japan. Her grandmother Po witnessed the Nanjing Massacre during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Once they left China, they were prohibited from returning to the mainland. In Taiwan, Gong became an instructor in the Republic of China’s Air Force, and later served as a director of political warfare at Hsinchu Air Base. After decades of making a home in Taiwan, Lee’s grandparents migrated in 1974 with their daughter, Lee’s mother, to Canada, where Lee was born. In Canada, Gong hoped to find work as a commercial pilot, but his flying credentials were no longer recognized, and soon he would be above the age limit to fly. Lee remembers watching her grandfather mop the floors of a Niagara Falls Chef Boyardee factory, where he found work as a janitor.

Lee later moves to Britain, where her father is from, and then to Germany. She wrestles with the language of identity: “We weren’t from a China that exists any longer—or Taiwanese. No single word can contain the movements that carried our story across waters, across continents.” No single word—memoir, travelogue, history—can describe the container Lee uses to carry her family’s stories either.

Lee, an environmental historian, embarks on a journey to understand the island her late grandparents fled to and later from, to better understand them. She hopes the process of scaling Taiwan’s peaks and getting to know its fauna and flora might bring her closer to her grandparents. The project is steeped in loss—the loss of her grandparents and the loss of their stories from memory and history. Even before Gong passed away, Alzheimer’s started to erode his memories. He returned to Taiwan and died there alone. After Po died in 2016, a decade after Gong’s death, Lee’s mother finds a mysterious undated, unsent letter from Gong, and a phone bill with calls to Taiwan. It is with these two documents that Lee begins this project. Gong’s letter was written while Alzheimer’s had already set in. “The story was just a series of fragments, circled and repeated— pieces of his life told to no one before, pressed to paper, and perhaps forgotten by him soon after writing,” Lee writes.

Lee’s translation of Gong’s letter as well as her translation of Taiwan’s landscape are the roots of this book. She probes her desire to know the mountains of this island: “My grief was displaced by deep affection. Does regret, by nature, transmute into longing?” Lee regrets not being able to be with her grandfather when he died. Researching and reconnecting with Taiwan, then, becomes a ritual of mourning.

The book is broken into four parts: Dao (island), Shan (mountain), Shui (water), and Lin (forest). Numbered chapters with travelogue and history are interspersed with the forest chapters, where Gong and Po’s stories are planted. In Chinese, two tree characters placed side by side form the character for “forest”—or a family, a group of like persons.

Through her luminous narrative, Lee provides an intimate history of an island, using all the languages available to her: English, Mandarin, Taiwanese, German, and those of an environmental historian. “And where I couldn’t find words, I fell to other languages: to plants, to history, to landscape.” What Lee recognizes, though, is that these other languages have also been shaped by colonialism. Cartography, geology, and botany efforts took inventory of the island for exploration and exploitation. Looking for books to guide her, she was dismayed to discover the problematic perspectives of the nineteenth-century British geographers, which othered the people and the lands and erased native knowledge. “These portrayals mingled beauty with fear, with curiosity and exoticism, occasionally with disgust,” Lee writes. Two Trees Make a Forest is an ambitious attempt to reclaim nature writing while questioning and deconstructing the colonial gaze.

Lee’s lyrical prose is steeped in observation. “A green washes itself over Taiwan’s hillsides, a mottled, deep hue that reminds me more of lake than of land, of darkened waterweed more than tree.” As in her first memoir, Turning, in which she chronicled a year of swimming in Berlin’s lakes, Lee makes us feel we are experiencing this journey with her. Our hearts race, we catch our breath, our legs tire, and we take in the scenery.

With Lee as a guide, we see how human and nonhuman histories are entangled. “In shaping the world, humans shape the futures of fellow species,” Lee writes. We accompany her on her adventure to see endangered black-faced spoonbills, who winter in Taiwan. In the book, we also encounter Styan’s bulbuls, brown-fuzzed macaques, herons, feral cats, the Taiwan magpie—the “long-tailed mountain daughter”—and black headed ibises: “Like a parabola sketched into the sky, they rise and then descend in unison, a faint reflection looping in the glaucous pool beneath.”

Lee evokes all the senses. When describing Persicaria chinensis, or Chinese knotweed, labeled invasive on foreign shores, she notes “here in the upper reaches of its home range, it is a thing of beauty.” As a reader we are lured in “by the “smells of almonds and fresh-baked cakes—sweet and sugared.”

Lee drops wisdom, gleaned through meticulous research. As we scale the mountains with her, we arrive at sentences that are an apex of understanding. “Disruption is written in the island’s stone.” She hints at the disruptions in the lives of her grandparents, which parallel political and geological disruptions. Layered in meaning, operating on geologic, dendrologic and anthropogenic timescales, Lee unravels these multiple histories at once. “Mountains could be rattled all too quickly, their time lines fractured in mere moments.” Just as Lee examines the island’s fault lines, she also looks at the buried ruptures in her own family, navigating the silences around them— pain, rarely spoken, that inhabited the bodies of her grandparents.

We sit with Lee at the British Library, where she learns about the Second Sino-Japanese War. “The weight of it surprised me, the way words about a massacre my grandmother’s people endured could fuel me with rage and then a choking sadness.” Reading becomes an embodied experience: “As I read the words Po could never articulate, I scarcely touched the pages for fear of them.”

Lee recalls only two brief instances when Po shared memories of this time with her. While Lee discovers this historical account of an event Po experienced, she also notes her absence in the narrative. “Po’s stories aren’t in the military records or in the diaries of the lauded Westerners who saved so many millions. They exist only in that single moment when she opened her mouth and drew out an atrocity.” Lee poses the question: “How do you corroborate a memory?”

Two Trees Make a Forest seeks to understand the forces responsible for exile, and the deep loss associated with it. As Lee translates Gong’s letter—“an autobiography of his life, looping around and repeating his story”—she comes to understand that “Alzheimer’s brings another exile: from the imagined world of past and memory.”

In his letter, Gong writes about his time as a pilot, the loss of his homeland, and the deep sorrow that accompanies that loss. “Mother’s love was engraved on my heart,” he wrote. “I have since felt dissatisfied with all others.” This, Lee comes to understand, is the source of the pain Gong carried with him for the rest of his life after leaving China—the inability to care for his ancestor’s tombs. In his letter, Gong shares a Confucian phrase that torments him: “The forest wants to be still, but the wind will not relent. The child wants to care for its parents, but the parents are gone.”

Two Trees Make a Forest is Lee’s own lyrical pilgrimage to care for her ancestor’s stories.

Sangamithra Iyer is a writer, engineer, and environmental planner. Her first book, Governing Bodies, a lyrical reckoning of the ways bodies—human, animal, and water—are controlled and liberated, will be published by Milkweed Editions. She was an Aspen Summer Words Emerging Writer Fellow, an editor of Satya Magazine, a finalist for the Siskiyou Prize in New Environmental Literature, and the recipient of a Pushcart Prize. More from this author →