The Unfolding Geological Language of Taipei
Jessica J. Lee Climbs Back Into Her Childhood
Taipei was a city that belonged to my childhood imagination. Built of words spoken quietly to me by my mother, its streets were paved with her longings. The air was made of memories. In this place, Taipei was a single hillside, a school at its crest and a tenement block at its base. A packed-dirt road cut a straight line between them, bustling with street-food sellers in carts that looked uncannily like the Toronto hot dog vendors of my youth. There was no wind, and there were no trees. The light was yellow, and the only smell was that of the choudoufu my mother missed most after leaving Taiwan.
“But does it really smell like poo?” I would ask her, having never smelled choudoufu before.
“Not at all! It smells delicious,” she would reply, tucking me into bed.
“Then why is it called stinky tofu?”
She would shrug, smiling as if a morsel of that memory had just passed her lips.
Every day as a schoolgirl my mother would linger on the hillside buying snacks, avoiding going home after school. She loved to eat, so her face was rounder then, her body plumper, like the one black-and-white photograph I had seen from that time. She bought tofu and spring onion pancakes and sugarcane juice with handfuls, I imagine, of silver coins.
By the time she would make it home, it was sundown. The apartment was green-gray and dark, with bars over the windows and plants everywhere. Dust hung suspended in the air. She would sneak in quietly to avoid getting into trouble. But she wasn’t quiet enough. My grandmother had been angry that she had taken so long to come home. Worse, she was getting a bit fat. Po waved the meat cleaver. There were angry words, and my mother was bundled into her bedroom. The door locked.
She told me about Taipei in fragments, and sometimes I wondered if this was all she could remember. Taipei in 1960 was home to nearly one million people, but the past she reconstructed for me was a small picture: my grandparents, herself, and a wok full of deep-fried tofu. An entire city reduced to a single road of street vendors.
In adulthood, my time in Taiwan relieved me of this naive picture. I found a city unfolding from the flatlands of the western coast, a web of aging concrete apartment complexes towered over by glassy high-rises. Elevated highways spiraled, ensnaring the scooters that pollinated the thoroughfares with fumes. Tiled walls were caked with algae, and on every old building the signs of nature’s tenacity showed themselves: ferns growing from brick-thick ledges, flowers springing skyward from the joints of old awnings.Many of my days roaming these slopes were shrouded in trees, and on the occasions that I rose beyond them, I found myself in cloud.
Tucked into a river basin with leaf-laden slopes on all sides, the city center was flat and uniform. The stark, lonely hillside of my childhood imagining was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the green hills that surround the river basin were the dark background to my every movement.
I walked Taipei’s streets—with my mother and alone—in search of an anchor, my map a jumble of transliterations and characters pressed into the too-small spaces of the lines of roads. I wanted to learn the island by its landmarks, the way my mother had once done, but the open stretches of rice paddy and field that she had once known had become part of the city, with broad avenues and famous skyscrapers.
Once, we found one of the old city gates stranded in the middle of a roundabout, and my mother knew immediately where she was, despite the new road. A hundred meters beyond it, she was lost again.
I found myself drawn to the island’s backbone. In forests and on mountains, the urgency of time receded and the pacing minutes I’d grown accustomed to in the city stretched molten until they evaporated, small and inconsequential things in the face of arboreal and lithic time.
It was on trails that I ceased to check my phone, turning my attention instead to the multitudes that arrayed themselves at my feet: the compression of ages, packed tight by many walkers, the patient growth of moss on weathered stones, and, when I was very high up beyond the tree line or on some rocky outcrop, the layered stones that tell the story of a mountain. I moved from the human timescale of my family’s story through green and unfurling dendrological time, to that which far exceeds the scope of my understanding: the deep and fathomless span of geological time.
Many of my days roaming these slopes were shrouded in trees, and on the occasions that I rose beyond them, I found myself in cloud. The tree line here was a good thousand meters higher than on the European mountains I’d grown used to, up to 3,500 meters altitude, a remarkable thing when traveling the island’s short span from sea level to the mountains.
The geology of Taiwan tells a complex tale of emergence into air and compaction over time, of magmatic flows and stark coral limestone thrust from salt water. But on shattered slopes—made worse by tree clearance, mining, and mono-crop plantations—I saw the damage wrought by typhoons and quakes, the slow steadiness of stone diminished to scree, the tracks of graveled mud left in the flow of landslides. Mountains could be rattled all too quickly, their timelines fractured in mere moments.
It is 2017, and I have come alone with a plan to stay for three months to work on my Mandarin, to write, and above all, to hike. It is October. I’ve taken an apartment in the east of Taipei, the last house on the last lane before the mountains curve along the southern edge of the sprawl. In the shadow of that lithic presence, it is a home akin to the one in my mother’s memories.
An old concrete building—tiled in white that has grown thick with mildew—with bars framing the few small windows and jade plastic awnings reaching out from the balconies on every floor. It is dark inside; the glassy towers of new construction have not yet come to this stretch of road.
From here, I watch the streetlights blink into life, casting a yellow gleam on the asphalt. A dog sleeps outside the temple next door, curling amid the scalene patches of light that fall from the windows above. In time he will come to know me. The scent of choudoufu carries down the lane from the hawker who sets up his stall each night next to the 7-Eleven on the corner.
It is easy to see the traces of the city around me in the snares of polyethylene bags strewn by the roadside, discarded umbrellas, bald tires and spare pylons, and scooters lined up for the evening. But there is more than these human relics: leathered leaves of Osmanthus and fig, the frilled skyline of acacias and banyans looming in shadow. Cicadas sing a susurrus in hiding, amid the swell of growth that patterns the end of the lane, the bracken and grass and the small inklings of banana leaf reaching above the asphalt’s fringe.
Beyond the lane, the green rises into the hills. Xiangshan—Elephant Mountain—is one in a series of four small peaks stretching across the southeastern edge of Taipei. Together, they make up the Si Shou Shan (四獸山, Four Beasts Mountains), forest-covered and undulating, sleeping beyond the edge of the Taipei Basin’s at valley.
Reaching only a modest elevation, the smaller slopes seem a gesture of welcome from the mountain’s heights. From their vantage, I hope to see the low-slung flatness of the basin, to sense the geological grammar of the cityscape below.
This is a young-enough place that uncertainty still prevails: geologists and seismologists continue work to explain the intricacies of the island’s formation, and the scooped-out center of the Taipei Basin garners steady attention. Early 20th-century studies surmised that the basin had formed when a volcanic eruption led to the collapse of the subsurface, the layer of rock and soil beneath ground. Others have suggested that the basin may be a drained lake, dammed by the spoil of volcanic eruption.Steps mark the early reaches of the trail, and I take them two at a time, childlike, scarcely watching my footing on the aging stones.
Still others have thought it a fallen hanging wall, the upper block of land remaining when a fault line fractured the ground. But today it is believed to exist, in part, because of the flexure of the earth’s crust as orogeny—mountain building—has taken place, through the slow-motion crumpling of the ground ahead as mountain ranges have advanced. The land dipped, the way a small valley forms at the base of a wave rushing forward.
Roaming into the hills surrounding the basin, it is more humid than on the streets. Steps mark the early reaches of the trail, and I take them two at a time, childlike, scarcely watching my footing on the aging stones, which are worn down as much by weather as the tread of climbers. A short distance up, I begin to peel off layers of clothing. It has been raining, and small puddles have formed at the edge of the path like tiny moats between the walkers and the forest.
The first plateau slows my pace, a more leisurely gait made possible by the widening of the trail. The scent of soil hovers above the hill, released by rain and by the consecutive footsteps of hikers churning the stone and ground. Mosquitoes rise like pollen from the clusters of damp growth. Taro leaves as wide as newspapers unfurl, their water-filled mouths open to the sky, green pools suspended in the air. The younger leaves are a lime color, curled upright as if pointing my way on the trail.
At the peak of Xiangshan, where a number of boulders cluster at the precipice, groups gather to take selfies. I roam onward to where the hill slips away and a view of the city opens outward: a checkered beige of tower blocks speckled with dark windows, the metal-blue glass of Taipei 101, once the world’s tallest skyscraper, stretching above them.
Hushan, Tiger Mountain, is to the east, its trail-head emerging near the end of my road. On quiet days I amble its slopes, idly, umbrella held tightly over my body to stave off the rain that falls from the canopy. It is here that I wander above the city my family called home and that I watch the gray streets rolling out into the hills, the city expanding at a rate faster than the movement of mountains.
Excerpted from Two Trees Make a Forest. Used with the permission of the publisher, Catapult. Copyright © 2020 by Jessica J. Lee.