Snowy Egret Vol. 69, No.2, p. 42-48. Autumn 2006
Photo by Mark Wilke
Taiwan's Vinaceous Rosefinch (Carpodacus vinaceus). Mark Wilke took this photo only a few miles from where my story took place.
by William R. Stimson
The university's Spring semester was over. My wife, Shuyuan, had stacks of student term papers to grade. She and I were holed up for the long weekend, working at home on the quiet campus, in the central mountains of Taiwan. The second day, after finishing my morning writing, I wondered about the outside world and went on the Internet.
The lead story on the New York Times site was that China had criminalized the coverage of any rapidly-breaking news event in the country that it had not authorized correspondents to write about. I'd followed the plight of Chinese writers closely for years. When a journalist in China was jailed for sending an e-mail, or when a newspaper editor there had his fingers hacked off by regime thugs for exposing the corrupt local party boss, I fired off op-ed pieces that came out in newspapers around Asia. This new measure would clamp tight official control over what 1.3 billion Chinese could know. And yet I felt nothing, one way or the other. The development left me numb. I closed out of the site and sat there empty and sunken in the chair, staring off into space -- wondering where my feelings had gone.
"Do you want to drive up to Chingjing Farm for just an hour or two?" Shuyuan called out from the next room. She'd spent the previous day and all this morning out at the dining room table grading student papers. From her voice I could tell she'd reached her limit and needed a break. She'd taken me to see Chingjing Farm three years back, the year I arrived in Taiwan.
There are more people in this small island nation than in all of Australia. It is more densely populated than any country in the world except Bangladesh. Almost all its twenty-three million inhabitants are squeezed into a narrow lowland strip along its west coast. On weekends, carloads flock in a steady stream up to Chingjing Farm, one site on the island where, amidst high mountain scenery they might walk bare grassy slopes plunging into deep scenic valleys and get a feeling of wide open space.
"O.K." I said. "Let's go." The mist outside had unexpectedly lifted, and bright sunshine burst in through the windows. Maybe a break would be a good idea. I closed down the computer. The first time I went with Shuyuan to Chingjing Farm, I saw trees were trying to grow back in places. The mountaintop pasture had once been forest. The sightseers from lowland towns were thrilled to see cows, goats, and sheep locked up in their pens. How much I would rather catch a glimpse of one of the many indigenous animals that had once roamed these slopes, endemic varieties of black bear, clouded leopard, sambar, serow, reeve's muntjac, or pangolin. I'd not seen a one. I might never get to. According to one Internet site, some already teetered on the brink of extinction.
All in all, I definitely wasn't too excited about going to Chingjing Farm again. We jumped in the car and headed out across campus. In place of the usual thick morning fog stood a stunning panorama of big mountains. The university lies outside the town of Puli, high up in a sizeable valley in Taiwan's central mountain range. We were headed down through the town and then up into the higher mountains on its far side.
When we reached the base of those mountains across the valley, the road began lazily making its way up along the flank of one of the slopes bordering a narrow tributary valley. I quickly recognized the landscape and along with it the feelings I'd had last time we came up this road. It had been my first time so deep inside Taiwan's central mountains. I felt they shouldn't have been so completely stripped of their forests. Most were now solid plantations of the slender betel nut palm and had no undergrowth of any kind to hold soil, retain water, or shelter wildlife. Many slopes, logged of their timber but too steep for agriculture, had never been replanted with trees.
I still saw all that, like before. Only, this time I felt nothing, one way or the other. A rich and complex landscape millions of years in the making with unique features and species found nowhere else had been eradicated and replaced with an impoverished and unstable one with features and species common everywhere all over Taiwan. How could I not feel anything about this? I wondered. Was it too big to keep registering? Nerve endings stop responding to the same stimulus over and over. Emotions adjust to what has happened, and eventually come to view the shocking as natural. Had something like this happened to me? I caught myself throwing appreciative glances at the big showy farmhouses down in the river valley and at the fairyland patchwork of gardens and fields around them -- and thinking that the people here had put the mountain landscape to good use.
The road snaked up higher and higher into the mountaintops. I remembered what I'd felt the last time I came. But this time I even caught myself marveling how completely the area had been settled and made productive. The thought made me fear I'd become a stranger to myself. We passed through a town sitting atop a peak. The slopes all around were contoured with hedges of carefully clipped tea bushes. Farther down where the slopes got steeper, the rows of tea hedges became more and more widely spaced. The big, empty swatches of exposed earth between the lowest rows, I could see, invited erosion. Somehow, though, it didn't concern me. That was just the way things were everywhere, all around. It was part of the price people had to pay to benefit from this landscape.
The road now climbed higher and higher along the summits of mountain ridges. In a valley far below I spotted a placid reservoir tinted blue-green. The landscape kept changing, but always it was the same in the sense that this whole area of high mountains was developed and inhabited.
"Should we stop at the Starbucks for coffee?" Shuyuan suggested as we began our final ascent to Chingjing Farm.
Three years back when we came, she brought along a newspaper clipping from the Chinese language daily she then subscribed to. It was a promotional write-up for a new mountaintop shopping mall that featured the "highest Starbucks in Taiwan." We'd had no trouble finding the place. We merely had to follow the traffic right into the parking lot. The Starbucks logo was prominently displayed and led us up several flights to the mall's top level. We waited in line, picked up our latte, took a seat, and began sipping foam from the top as we looked out at the mountains opposite and the valley below.
The traffic was heavier this time than it had been three years ago, and the area more built up. The knot of cars around the entrance to the mall was so thick that by the time we saw we were passing it there was no way we could turn back and go in. As we inched slowly along in the traffic, we came to a second mountaintop mall. This one had the Starbucks logo. That previous mall had been a new one. This mall was even more impossible to get into than the other one. The parking lot was packed solid with big tour buses. Row after row of them were mixed in with a tangle of cars wedged in anywhere they would fit. We were pushed on up the road by the crush of cars until we passed a third place that also seemed new. In the confusion of vehicles coming and going we couldn't exactly make out what it was.
"Next time let's don't come on a weekend," I said.
"No," Shuyuan agreed.
When we got to the vicinity of the farm's entrance, the traffic had become so dense and confused that we couldn't immediately make out which was the real entrance to the farm and which was just another tourist trap trying to draw people in. We ended up driving right past the entrance. The road continued on through the grassy slopes of the farm itself, and we could see all the sightseers up on the hills above, swarming the green sward like so many multi-colored ants.
"That was the farm," I said. "We'd better pull over wherever we can and walk back."
Parked vehicles clogged the road on both sides. Traffic crawled up the narrow lane remaining in the middle and even there had to compete with families trooping back from their parked cars to the farm's entrance. Then we got stuck in a standstill and the scene degenerated into chaos. Three traffic officers frantically waved their arms this way and that, directing the cars in any direction away from the bottleneck.
Shuyuan lowered her window. "Where can we park?" she called out to the nearest officer in Chinese.
"There is no place," the harried policemen snapped back as he waved us on.
We drove on up the road looking for a place to turn around. The throng of cars followed us around the bend and into a small mountain village of hotels -- all built in a Swiss style, with steep, pointy roofs and white plastered walls crisscrossed with exposed timber beams. Mixed incongruously in with these fake Swiss chalets were typical Taiwanese street houses, dirty and unsightly structures pushing right up against the edge of the road, as down in the lowland towns.
"Let's have breakfast," Shuyuan suggested.
One of the chalets was a breakfast stop. A single parking space remained in front of the door. No sooner did we pull in, turn off the ignition, and take a breath of relief than a sour-faced man rushed out to insist we move the car over to a sliver of a spot we hadn't noticed down at the far end. It didn't look wide enough for our car and right next to it, without a guard rail or protection of any sort, was a sheer drop down into the valley below. As we maneuvered out onto the road to get into that other spot, another car came backing into it first from the opposite direction.
"Let's just get out of here," I said. "There's got to be another breakfast place up that road that's not so crowded."
And so we drove on higher and higher up into the mountains but there wasn't another place. That had been the last one on the road. Finally we gave up looking and started trying to find a place instead where we could just turn around. At that point we came to a road sign in Chinese.
"This is Hehuan Shan," Shuyuan said in surprise.
"What's Hehuan Shan?"
"It's the next place farther along the road from Chingjing Farm. I've never been this far."
"Are we already there?"
"I don't know."
We drove a little farther to see if we could find another sign and suddenly found the road had narrowed abruptly to a single lane. Before, there hadn't been room to turn around. Now there wasn't room to pass if we ran into an oncoming car. We could see the narrow lane ahead ascending high up on a dangerously steep slope. The only thing we could do was drive higher and higher. Luckily, there were no other cars anywhere in sight. Eventually, we came to a spot where the road widened out a bit. Still there wasn't enough room to turn around. Further along, we came to another such spot. These wider spots, Shuyuan surmised, were placed at intervals for oncoming cars to squeeze past each other. Should we meet a car, we'd have to back up to one of those spots, hoping there wasn't a car behind us. This wasn't the kind of road we wanted to be driving along, especially way up on these treacherous slopes, but we had no choice. All we could do was head further uphill. A faint mist blew across the road now. We were moving up into the clouds. The mist turned into fog and the fog got thicker and thicker. We switched on the headlights. The edge of the road disappeared into a white haze. Ahead, something big lay on the pavement. As we slowly approached, from the fog emerged a boulder half the size of our car that had come crashing down from the heights above. Had it hit us, it would have crushed the car flat or sent it flying off the side of the mountain. We drove warily around it and on through the thick fog. The road snaked higher and higher. We came to a spot where the road was giving way. The outer part had begun sinking down the mountainside. The asphalt along that whole side was badly cracked into a series of parallel segments subsiding successively lower and lower towards the road's edge. The inner part of the road seemed intact. Could we get past? Would the damaged roadway hold under the weight of the car?
In this heavy fog we couldn't very well back all the way down the way we'd come. Turning in as close as we could to the inner strip of pavement, still undamaged, we zoomed quickly past the danger zone. As we drove on we wondered, what if a heavier car came along, or a truck? Would that segment of road still be there when we came back?
Further along, we came to a second spot, just the same, and got past it the identical way. We were way up inside the clouds. The visibility was near zero. Even with our brights on, we could barely make out the sharp curves as they jumped suddenly out of the mist at us. It seemed unreal that we should suddenly be in such a dangerous situation. We were both frightened. The only thought in our mind was to somehow get out alive and back to where it was safe.
Then, without warning, as we rounded the next bend, out of the thick fog there suddenly appeared the giant dark silhouettes of ancient conifers. The huge trees, indistinct in the fog, had the ethereal aspect of an exquisite classical Chinese brush painting. They were treetops really, remarkably close up, of primeval giants rooted somewhere on the steep slope far below. This one patch had been lucky enough to be growing in a place too inaccessible to ever get logged. The astonishingly massive trunks supported giant horizontal branches layered with an art more perfect than the greatest Chinese master of antiquity could ever have achieved with brush and ink.
With the intensity of a mystical vision, the giant trees flashed only for an instant before us and then, as we cautiously rounded the bend, vanished back into the mist. I was left feeling I'd been delivered up for just that burst of a moment -- like great artistry can do, or the majesty of nature -- to my own deepest and truest aspect, the part of myself primal and pure, never sullied, and out of which all the rest can unfold anew.
It was one of those magical moments that arrive without warning, where gazing outward, the glimpse is inward. In myself, at that moment, I recognized the source of Chinese art --the source, it even seemed, of China. And I knew that however successful China's usurpers continued to be in miniaturizing the spirit of the 1.3 billion in order to further their own small, corrupt ambitions; again and again in some one person or another, the real China would rise up -- full, complete, and all-powerful as it had so many innumerable times in the past. Not even this new law they'd passed, on top of everything else they were doing, could keep the truth out of that country because truth ultimately issues most purely from within and always in a unique and unpredictable way.
As we drove on around the bend, the landscape changed abruptly and the road began to climb now through a heath-like vegetation composed almost entirely of a bushy dwarf species of bamboo, not even waist-high. This kind of bamboo I'd never seen before in Taiwan. The clouds were thinning out a bit. It seemed we had risen above them. Here and there along the road flowered an indigenous lily that was also new to me. In dips and protected places grew small forests composed of a species of temperate-looking conifer that had the general aspect of fir or spruce trees I'd seen in the high Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. We seemed to be skirting the edge of timberline and finally had come to real native Taiwanese vegetation. It was the first time I'd ever seen anything like this. Then, all of a sudden, we drove into a parking lot. Here and there in the fog were a few parked cars and several camper vans with erected tents. A man stood by one of the tents.
"Is this Hehuan Shan?" Shuyuan asked in Chinese.
"No," he said. "It's a rest stop and camping place. There are bathrooms."
We parked the car and set out up some steps that were carved into the mountainside. It felt nice to have our feet finally on solid ground but a little strange to be walking through so much fog. The man had said the bathrooms lay across a second parking lot at the top of the stairs. As I reached the top, sure enough, I came to a gravelly space, empty as far as I could see in the fog, except for a single nearby car. As I was about to step up onto the gravel, a cute little red bird hopped out of the fog right into my path.
I froze with one foot in the air so as not to startle it. Slowly I lowered my foot back to where it had been. The little bird stood there in front of me so close that if I kneeled down I could have reached out and touched it. It seemed so tame that it would let me.
"Look!" I whispered to Shuyuan, who now came up beside me, "A little cardinal."
Ever since I was a child, I'd felt the appearance of a cardinal a special occasion. A red bird is a rare and wonderful thing. This little bird, though, wasn't the crimson American species with the pointy tip to its head. Surely it wasn't a cardinal at all but some kind of Asian bird I would have no way of knowing about. Its red plumage had dark streaks running through it. Its crown feathers were puffed evenly up all over, making its head look larger than it was. I know nothing about birds, but I do take an interest when I see a special one; and this kind I'd never seen before in Taiwan. I guessed it must be, like the unique plants in these high mountains, endemic to this specific area -- and rare.
The little bird took another hop and came closer still. At the same time a crunch of gravel sounded, and a Taiwanese man stepped out of the fog right in front of me. From his clothes and arrogance of manner, I guessed he was a privileged and powerful man. He paid no attention to me at all. His eye was on the little bird. The gravel crunched again as he took another step closer to it. The bird hopped across my path now and farther away on the other side. While the little bird appeared strangely unafraid of me, it did not want this man to get close.
I stepped to the left so as not to get in the way of the bird lover and his discovery and found myself face to face with a woman, who now stepped out of the fog and followed silently behind the man. I moved to one side to let her pass and turned back to reach for Shuyuan's hand. Out of the corner of my eye, as I did so, I caught a rear glimpse of the man following the bird. He held one hand behind his back. In it was a stone.
"He's got a stone," I cried out in alarm to Shuyuan.
She ignored me and continued on towards the bathroom.
I let go of her hand and stood there. I wasn't going to let this pass. "He's going to throw the stone at the bird," I cried out in a more insistent voice. "Ask him in Chinese why he would kill a little bird like that for no reason," I demanded, hot with feeling.
She stood there looking at me blankly, as she does when she can't make sense of what I'm saying.
"That man is going to kill the bird!" I spelled it out to her point-blank.
I needed for her to witness this. It wasn't a man killing a bird, or a people, an island; but the tyranny of values that held the whole culture in its iron grip. Money it respected, and power. Authority and position were real to it, as was status. But for the small, the true, or the free it had no concern whatsoever. This was too big not to see. And yet Shuyuan looked at me with uncomprehending eyes.
"The man is going to kill the bird!" I demanded that she comprehend.
Unconvinced, she turned back to look for herself. Just as she did, the man, in slow motion, so as not to startle his prey, reached down with his free hand and grabbed up another stone from ground.
The bird took another hop away. The man stepped cautiously closer to it. The woman followed silently behind.
Shuyuan still didn't get the picture. The bird hopped around the lone, parked car. Seeing his chance, the man hurried around the car to surprise it.
"Why would anyone kill a little bird like that?" I cried out.
The mist engulfing us on all sides might as well have said the words, the mountain beneath our feet, the high forests, or the giant trees. The words seemed to come from something so much bigger than just me. Hearing them spring from my own throat, I could know myself a part of that larger body and feel it united me with the bird, and the bird with the fog, the fog with the mountain, and the mountain with the forest. This was what I had been missing. I could recognize it. It was what I saw back in those big trees. It was what I was. I was grateful to be alive again inwardly and to feel it once more.
Coming quickly around the car, the man abruptly surprised the little bird and emerged almost on top of it. He flung his stone from point-blank range.
The stone missed. The bird took wing.
"Why did you do that?" Shuyuan cried out at the man in Chinese, in a way that made me proud of her.
Later she told me when she was a child growing up in the countryside outside Yuanlin she'd often seen little boys with slingshots going around killing birds. But the idea that a grown man would do something like that -- this caught her completely off guard. She couldn't imagine it until she'd seen him throw the stone.
The man flung the other stone. He missed again. The bird vanished into the fog.
"Why would you have done a thing like that?" Shuyuan lashed out at the man. There was derision in her voice, and censure.
The man, without raising his eyes to meet hers, turned and slouched away quickly down the stairs with lowered head, fleeing the scene.
His woman hurried along behind. "Yes," she called after him in Chinese, "Why did you do that?"
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