Botanically Adrift: Writing Ecological Estrangement in Two Trees Make a Forest— On Memory, Migration and Taiwan
Keywords : Ecobiography, nature writing, Taiwan, ecosystems, Indigenous people
This essay contributes to literary criticism on ecobiography through
an analysis of Jessica Lee’s Two Trees Make a Forest. A genre of life writing
which reflects on the imbrication of a human and their ecosystem, ecobiography
can be defined through two main themes: the dissolution of the
human and non-human, and attention to local environments and ecosystems.
However, Two Trees Make a Forest challenges the first of these themes
through the obvious disconnect between Lee and the natural environments
of Taiwan. Lee attempts to uncover her Taiwanese history following the
deaths of her grandparents, and travels to Taiwan for three months to learn
the language and explore the island’s natural environments. Throughout her
ecobiography, she continually reflects on her unsettlement in Taiwan given
her estrangement from her history, and expresses this through reflections on
Taiwan’s geology and plants. More subliminally, her disconnect from her
maternal family’s culture is expressed through the way she chooses to write
about Taiwan’s natural history. Her accounts privilege writing by travelers
and colonizers, rather than Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples. This may be
attributed to language difficulties—Lee’s main language is English and she
accessed translated, printed material—and because of her Western education.
Lee also aestheticizes the environments through which she moves, dwelling
on their obvious attractions (particularly the plant life) rather than the
incursions of human habitation and industrialization. This necessarily leads
to a rewriting of one of the themes of ecobiography, in that ecobiographical
texts are not so much about representations of the dissolution between the
human and its ecosystem, but about the desire for dissolution, and how this
can be attained, or not.
The essay closes with a meditation on whether one can simply belong
to a place by accessing that place’s language, and on the need for time to
acquaint oneself with an ecosystem and the cultures that it supports. It concludes
with the suggestion that arboreal companions can prompt us to think
about human relationships with local ecosystems on a much longer scale.