Photography by Zengxiao Lin

The Coffin Trees

WINTER RAIN in Taiwan’s mountains seems to hang in the air, getting into every seam of my clothes. The weather was warm when I left the city, but two thousand meters up, in the cloud forests near Alishan, I am shaking with cold.

I was told the trail would be fairly easy. A worthwhile distraction from my grief over my grandfather’s death. I’d spent the autumn tracing his past in Taiwan, restlessly trying to close the gap left by my family’s migration to Canada and my own moves throughout Europe. In hiking, I found a way of connecting not just with my family’s culture but also with the land they loved.

The trail rises gently for the first few hours. A narrow track traces a ridge past a disused logging road, then enters swathes of silver grass so high it brushes against my lips. It is a day of muted color, the green and gray of dull coins and steamed-up windows. It hasn’t been difficult, but the rain has left me exhausted, sensitive to every movement of my body.

Reaching the cypress forest, where soil springs back underfoot, I feel somehow energized again. The trees plunge me from the immediacy of walking into a much longer timescale. I scan the periphery for cypresses the girth of a car or a house, something slower and bigger that I can focus my mind on. Sound is muffled by the fog that hugs the ancient trees. I cannot hear my footsteps.

But the moment I lose myself in the calm of the forest, I am forced back to attention: forty minutes of scrambling down a wet slope toward the lake. When I finally reach the shore and the trees I’ve come to see, the sun has dipped low in the evening sky. My own sense of time and scale has been rattled entirely.

In 1999, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake reeled across Taiwan, toppling buildings and killing thousands across much of the center and north of the country. It was the strongest earthquake in sixty-four years, hurling landslides on mountain towns, exposing subsoil along fault lines once deep underground. In the foothills of the Central Mountains, one of these landslides blocked a river. And it was here that the (Shuiyang Senlin) was created: an earthquake-dammed lake in the middle of an old-growth cedar forest.

The forest is predominantly cedar and false cypress, and the logging roads were cut in the early half of the twentieth century as Japanese colonial forestry served to source trees for temple building, furniture, oils, and medicines, and to map the land, thus effectively colonizing it. One of the species, Taiwania cryptomerioides, is known in English as the “coffin tree” for its use in coffins.

In 1906, a young Japanese botanist named Bunzo-Hayata published the cedar’s name after examining a sample taken from the slopes of Yushan in Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range. With drooping, scaly fronds, the tree looked quite similar to the enormous false cypresses that grew nearby. But on closer inspection—particularly of its seed cones—Hayata found it more closely resembled the Japanese Cryptomeria (meaning “hidden parts”). Hayata—keen to establish Taiwanese flora on the world stage—named the species Taiwania for the island, cryptomerioides for its resemblance to his own native cedar.

But the coffin trees were not, in fact, endemic to Taiwan, nor were Hayata’s the first samples collected. Specimens had been gathered in Yunnan, China, and northern Myanmar, and since Hayata’s naming of the species, small populations of Taiwania have likewise been identified in Vietnam.

In every place the cedars have been found, a demand for its timber has followed. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the English botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward wrote of timber yards set up deep in Chinese forests, cutting planks from the trees directly where they were felled. By the 1950s, Taiwanese foresters were forced to take inventory of what few old-growth cedars remained.

Taiwania is a tree that remains rare today—the IUCN lists it as vulnerable. Where it has been planted as an ornamental, it fails to reach the maturity it has known in the wild, growing lanky and distorted instead. But once, this tree thrived. Fossil records of it have been found as far away as Alaska, from 100 million years ago, and Europe, some 60 million years ago, across the continents my family now calls home.

The coffin trees, left to their own devices, live unimaginably long lives—up to two thousand years. This longevity is matched by height. In the Indigenous Rukai language, they are known as “trees that reach the moon.” And so it is that the cedars stretch time, growing higher than every other tree in the canopy, two hundred feet toward the sky. No seedlings crowd the forest floor. To survive, the Taiwania waits, instead, for disturbance.

IN THE YEARS SINCE the earthquake flooded this forest, the cedars have grown bare, and their needled crowns have disintegrated. The tree trunks now stand literally dead in the water: bleached in the sunlight, bared of their bark. As years pass, water level recedes, and soon, I am told, the lake won’t be here at all.

But where the coffin trees once grew, new life is emerging: at the break between wood and water, moss and grasses grow, frilling the old tree trunks with green. Silver fish dart in the shallows, and freshwater crabs and shrimp dance in the sediment.

What might grow here years from now, I cannot say. It is busy with hikers like me, setting camp on the lake’s shore. The old trees are decayed and fall every so often, so we take care to set our tents far from the standing wood.

I cannot count how many years have brought the cedars to this moment. The sun sets behind the distant hills, and the once-forest and its lake are cast in shadow. At this border between old and new growth, I sleep.


This essay originally appeared in Old Growth, which can purchased at here.

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Jessica J. Lee is a British-Canadian-Taiwanese author, environmental historian, and winner of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature, the Banff Mountain Book Award, and the RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer Award. She is the author of Turning, Two Trees Make a Forest, Dispersals, and the children’s book A Garden Called Home, and co-editor of the essay collection Dog Hearted. She is the founding editor of The Willowherb Review and teaches creative writing at the University of Cambridge. She lives in Berlin.


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