Two Trees Make a Forest

Jessica J. Lee’s beautifully titled Two Trees Make a Forest is part ode to Taiwan – a place that might have been home –, part loving meditation on the natural world, and part investigative journey into a family’s lost histories. In gentle prose that takes its time, Lee’s non-fictional account invites her readers to muse on memory and migration, on family and place, on loss and determined hiking.

The book’s base is biographical, as Lee sets out to navigate a maternal family history shrouded in mystery. Her grandparents, born and raised in China, found themselves swept by the tide of history to Taiwan, and on to Canada, where Lee herself was born and raised. Lee’s search for their lost stories starts with just two clues: a letter written by her grandfather before his death but not before the onset of his Alzheimer’s; and a phone bill, discovered in her grandmother’s home after her death, which records calls to two unknown numbers, one in China and one in Taiwan.

Lee’s filling in of the missing details of their story is interwoven with experiences gathered during a stay in Taiwan. These include to particular effect a number of hikes, as well as city trips and a birdwatching cycle-tour. A qualified environmental historian, Lee is particularly adept not just at spotting the finer details of the exceptionally heterogeneous flora and fauna she encounters in Taiwan, but also at delineating the histories of its recordings. She is able to give a wonderfully textured sense of how people have produced a body of knowledge on the island’s smorgasbord of natural variety. These histories of knowledge production are entangled in its multiple, complex colonial histories – be they European, Japanese or Chinese.

The book is also a reflection on language, and particularly perhaps, how language inflects a relationship to the natural world – as the book’s last part’s title 木木 suggests (and in which are perhaps discernible those two trees that might make a forest):

木木

lin

n. forest; woods; grove

or

n. a group of like persons.

It’s a book that rewards patience. While at first I found myself yearning for a clearer drive forward, a desire for plot was soon eclipsed by an appreciation for the meandering walk through Taiwan and history the book was taking me on.