A Key to the For­est

China Scenic - - Nature - Photo/

A short while af­ter leav­ing Fuzhou and its streets draped with those trans­planted, yet so at home, banyans, I was able to see these trees in their wild state at the Xishuang­banna Trop­i­cal Botanic Gar­den of Chi­nese Acad­emy of Sci­ences in Yun­nan Prov­ince.

The trails sur­round­ing the botanic gar­den weave del­i­cately through dense and un­touched primeval trop­i­cal for­est. And de­spite the bright midday sun pound­ing the canopy above, un­der its pro­tec­tive bar­rier the trails re­main locked in a dusky dim­ness; only a few slim pen­e­trat­ing shards of white light of­fer­ing a re­minder of the trop­i­cal sun above. The for­est is, and feels, trop­i­cal — heat and hu­mid­ity drench ev­ery cor­ner, in­tox­i­cat­ingly rich smells of de­cay­ing de­bris and fer­ment­ing fruit fills the air, and haunt­ing sounds from unseen crea­tures echo in the dis­tance.

I leave the trail and step on this sod­den ground. My feet land on a patch of moss, and the green blan­ket re­leases a drool of wa­ter that cov­ers my boots, re­mind­ing me that trop­i­cal forests are not just hu­mid, but truly wet — there is no dry sea­son, just a long drench­ing wet sea­son. Even in the midst of a spell of clear blue skies, like to­day, the world un­der the sun-block­ing canopy re­mains wet. Ig­nor­ing my soaked feet, I gaze at the for­est around me. To my left, a small lichen and moss cov­ered tree offers fur­ther re­minder of the wet­ness of trop­i­cal forests, its trunk and branches re­main­ing con­sis­tently wet enough to sus­tain such wa­ter-hun­gry life forms. All around me I see var­i­ous species of vines and lianas, equally wa­ter hun­gry plants that wrap their sin­u­ous bod­ies around

trees and rocks, tan­gling and grasp­ing their way to the canopy where they ex­plode in flushes of leaves and flow­ers. The trop­i­cal world is wet, thick, and burst­ing with life.

As I di­gest the for­est around me — the smells, the heat, the sounds, and the plants — it feels over­whelm­ing, yet calm­ing. A lone tree catches my at­ten­tion, a “stran­gler fig” known as the dye fig ( Fi­cus tinc­to­ria ).

The tree rises out of the ground, its trunk less a sin­gle stem than a col­lage of python-like trunks twist­ing and twirling, fus­ing them­selves into a col­lage of mat­ted woody chords. When my eyes reach the canopy I see these once in­ter­twined stems start to loosen, fi­nally widen­ing and flay­ing out­wards in an ex­plo­sion of long, leaf drenched branches. At the bot­tom of the tree these weav­ing stems again sep­a­rate and be­come a tan­gle of roots, each chord search­ing out in its own di­rec­tion and an­chor­ing the tree to the ground in their own way; some grasp tightly to rocks, oth­ers dig down into the soil, while oth­ers still trail off through the for­est and dis­ap­pear un­der the fra­grant matt of fallen leaves and fruit. There is more: from all parts of the tree — its skyscrap­ing crown, its twist­ing and anas­to­mos­ing trunk, its clasp­ing roots — drip fine root hairs, slowly mak­ing the down­ward trek to the soil be­low. In years’ time these roots will be­come new stems, fresh “ca­bles”. If the wind is right and they get

wrapped around the trunk be­fore then can root in the ground, they will be­come an­other twist­ing stem and be­come part of the trunk. If they are able to reach the ground un­en­cum­bered, they will grow into a new stem, giv­ing the tree a sec­ond, third, or hun­dredth trunk.

Then I re­al­ize some­thing strange about the trunk’s al­ready unique con­struc­tion — it is empty; in­side the “trunk” there is noth­ing but an empty void.

I stand, jaw agape, and my guide, trop­i­cal for­est ex­pert Dr. Wei from the botanic gar­den, an­tic­i­pat­ing my ques­tion, says: “The heart of the tree is empty, right?” I nod, and re­ply al­most un­be­liev­ingly, “The mid­dle is gone…” As I trail off he ges­tures to the canopy above, telling me the story of the hol­low, braided tree. There once was an­other tree stand­ing in its place, just as tall and grand. “That, the orig­i­nal tree, was over­taken by this, a stran­gling fig, and over time the fig won”. The fig started life as an epi­phyte, ger­mi­nat­ing on a branch of the host. Over time its vo­ra­cious lit­tle dan­gling roots, just like the ones I see hang­ing in mid-air, grew and wrapped around the hosts trunk and trick­led their way, mil­lime­ter by mil­lime­ter to the ground. When the wrap­ping was com­plete, the roots be­gan to grow thicker and tighten their grip — their “stran­gle” — on the host. “The host was stran­gled to death”, Dr. Wei con­tin­ued, “and now its body is only re­mem­bered as a ghostly empty space within the body of the fig”.

Stran­gu­la­tion, while seem­ing cruel, is an im­por­tant fea­ture of trop­i­cal rain­forests. It is a re­flec­tion of the com­plex and dy­namic in­ter­ac­tions that op­er­ate to keep the forests alive and di­verse — in na­ture, death is nec­es­sary in order to keep ecosys­tems func­tion­ing, and stran­gler figs, by of­fer­ing death, pro­vide just one of the many ways to keep trop­i­cal for­est alive.

As the host tree dies, its trunk slowly rots and de­cays, fall­ing away and leav­ing the stran­gler alone. It

al­lows the sun­light above to pour in and drench the soggy trop­i­cal world in light. These are the ever im­por­tant “gaps”. Gaps are es­sen­tial for new, shade-fear­ing seeds and seedlings that are wait­ing pa­tiently in the soil to grow and par­take in an epic–al­beit slow and pa­tient — bat­tle for space in the for­est. Over time, the place where the host once stood will be re-oc­cu­pied by a new species, maybe more than one, and the for­est will be re­newed, re­gen­er­ated, and di­ver­si­fied.

Con­tin­u­ing along the trail we see a rare patch of sun­light glar­ing through an empty space — a gap — in the canopy above. A dif­fer­ent for­est has emerged in the sun-soaked gap: un­like the nearby de­cay­ing leaves and branches, the sun­lit gap has sprouted life. Small in­no­cent seedlings and herba­ceous plants, un­able to sur­vive in the shade just steps away, rise tall and sway in the sub­tle af­ter­noon breeze. I quickly count mul­ti­ple dif­fer­ent species grow­ing, and won­der if one of the seedlings is a fig; the pri­mary forests of Xishuang­banna are home to 46 species of fig, al­most half of all fig species found in China.

Figs are them­selves as rich and di­verse as the for­est they grow in: some grow as trees, tall and straight; oth­ers are epi­phytes or hemi-epi­phytes, start­ing their lives on a tall canopy branch and liv­ing al­most en­tirely sep­a­rated from the soil be­low; oth­ers are clim­bers, liv­ing a life op­po­site to the epi­phytes; and some, like the dye fig we just passed, are stran­glers. With their di­verse forms and pan- trop­i­cal dis­tri­bu­tion, they are per­haps the most di­verse genus on the planet and cer­tainly one of the most abun­dant ter­res­trial taxa.

We stop by a small lake and I close my eyes and face the open sky, bathing in the hu­mid glow of the sun. Af­ter a mo­ment Dr. Wei puts his hand on my shoul­der and says “over there!” Open­ing my eyes, I see that he is point­ing to an­other fig across the lake, an ex­tremely tall clus­ter fig ( Fi­cus­race­mosa ).

I am amazed — the tree is truly worth of its name. I have never be­fore seen a tree that can grow so much fruit, and in such a strange man­ner. Be­fit­ting of its name, the trunk is mat­ted with thick clus­ters of plump, red figs. Their rich red hue is al­most alien, as deep as agate, grow­ing in tight clus­ters spot­ted with a vivid green of the odd un­ripe fruit. The grey bark is painted red and green by the fruit, topped with a vi­brant green canopy. The tech­ni­color tree, sur­rounded by the sun­light lake, is sur­real. I have learned, how­ever, to ac­cept that in these un­touched trop­i­cal forests any­thing is pos­si­ble.

I am cu­ri­ous about their taste. Re­sem­bling juicy grapes, these mas­sive red figs are en­tic­ing; how­ever, I need not swim across the lake to test them my­self to get an an­swer. The tree is cov­ered with birds, large and small, vy­ing for their share. Some flut­ter chaot­i­cally around the trunk, gulp­ing and peck­ing the clus­ters, oth­ers scurry along the ground feast­ing on the re­cently fallen ripe figs, while oth­ers perch on the thick branches, ca­su­ally pluck­ing an af­ter­noon snack

from their hid­den fruit-filled trea­sure chest.

Whether the fruit is truly de­li­cious is an in­ter­est­ing but un­nec­es­sary ques­tion. The fact is that figs are a vi­tal food source in trop­i­cal forests, de­li­cious or not. “Figs play an im­pres­sive role in the rain­for­est food chain”, Dr. Wei ex­plains as we watch the birds feast. “They are more than just a food source, they main­tain bal­ance and the bio­di­ver­sity of the en­tire ecosys­tem”. He again points across to the clus­ter fig, say­ing “that is more than a tree with fruit, that is a key species in these forests…it is what keeps the forests alive”.

From the first time I saw banyan tree in the streets of south­ern China un­til now, stand­ing in vir­gin pri­mary for­est sur­rounded by a wealth of nat­u­rally grow­ing fig trees burst­ing with fruit, there was one thing I never saw — flow­ers. Do they bloom? These weirdly wind­ing, droop­ing, as­tute, pow­er­ful, beau­ti­ful trees with a kalei­do­scope of col­or­ful fruit…if they don’t have flow­ers, how do they make their ever im­por­tant fruit? How do they make seeds? How do they re­pro­duce?

Well, they do have flow­ers. It’s just that only one in­sect — a diminu­tive lit­tle wasp — ever gets to see them. Dr. Wei told me that the flow­ers of fig trees are the most unique of all the plant king­dom. All the fruit that I see adorn­ing the trunks or branches, or even roots in some unique species, are the “figs”, and from the mo­ment they grow on the tree they ap­pear solid, smooth, and jus­ti­fi­ably fruit-like; how­ever, in­side they are ac­tu­ally a densely packed bou­quet of flow­ers. The flow­ers are there; we just never get to see them.

But that wasp does.

When the fig tree is flow­er­ing, a small open­ing at the bot­tom of each fruit, called the os­ti­ole, be­gins to open, widen­ing just enough to al­low a special pol­li­nat­ing wasp, a “fig wasp”, to en­ter. This wasp, al­ways a fe­male and loaded with pollen and eggs, squeezes her way through with the ex­pressed goal of lay­ing her eggs in these flow­ers. How­ever, there are more flow­ers than she has eggs, and as she moves through­out the tight in­ner sanc­tum of the fig de­posit­ing her eggs, she in­ad­ver­tently pol­li­nates some. Usu­ally about half. She will then die, for­ever in­cased in the fig. Later, when the fig is al­most ripe, the eggs will hatch and the new­born fig wasps will scurry around col­lect­ing fresh pollen and mat­ing, even­tu­ally ex­it­ing through holes they chew through the fruit wall.

These minis­cule wasps are the only way that fig trees can re­pro­duce, and like­wise the fig trees are the only way that the fig wasps can re­pro­duce. They are a unique pair, wed­ded by what ecol­o­gists call “ob­li­gate mu­tu­al­ism”; they need each other to sur­vive. Lose one, and the other will fall.

When de­scrib­ing banyans, Chi­nese peo­ple of­ten use the phrase “one tree can make a whole for­est”. Dr. Wei takes me to a special tree to help ex­plain what that means. The trunk is twisted around it­self with myr­iad rope-like trunks in­ter­min­gling and form­ing a rugged and bul­bous stem. But this tree is not alone — it is ac­com­pa­nied by hun­dreds of other sim­i­lar trunks, all meld­ing to­gether into what ap­peared to be a grove of banyans.

Hang­ing from the col­lec­tive canopy are more of those fine, beard-like aerial roots. Some have grown long and have al­ready latched on to the wet soil be­neath, while oth­ers dan­gle in the wind. I step back and take in the scene. The roots fall­ing from the air to the soil ap­pear as col­umns, act­ing as pil­lars hold­ing up a grove of mys­te­ri­ous, yet beau­ti­ful, banyans.

Dr. Wei asks, “How many trees do you see?” “Thirty or forty”, I guess aloud as my eyes try to take in the mass of tan­gled stems, trunks, and roots be­fore me.

“One”, he tells me with a smile, “it is a for­est…of one”.

He points to a large stem near the mid­dle of the grove. “That is the mother stem…that is where it all started”. I walk to­wards it and touch it with my hand. “All the other stems you see here are aerial roots that have found the soil and grown big and strong”. Over time the spread­ing canopy dropped more and more roots, un­til even­tu­ally it created a for­est. It is said that this tree was orig­i­nally planted by a farmer who sim­ply threw a few branches into the river bank in 1618. Those branches sur­vived, and to­day the tree — a sin­gle ge­netic in­di­vid­ual — cov­ers al­most ten thou­sand square kilo­me­ters.

“Now that”, I stam­mer out as I try in vain to count the stems, “is im­pres­sive!” Dr. Wei agrees, chuck­ling, adding that banyans may be the most vig­or­ous and adapt­able species in the world. They not only ex­ist, but per­sist and thrive, ev­ery­where — along stone walls, on newly ex­ca­vated road­sides, within rock crevices — it seems that the banyan seeds can ger­mi­nate and sur­vive no mat­ter where they land. Their well-de­vel­oped root sys­tem is well adapted to op­ti­miz­ing their en­vi­ron­ment, ef­fec­tively ne­go­ti­at­ing the rock or tile or pave­ment or what­ever they land upon to find nu­tri­ents and wa­ter. Their drip­ping aerial roots, those trunks wait­ing-to-be, are also able to suck mois­ture from the air, sup­port­ing not only their own growth but the health of the en­tire tree. Once these roots touch the soil, they trans­form and be­gin grow­ing thicker and stronger, form­ing pil­lars that sup­port lat­eral growth of the crown. The crown grows wider, more aerial roots drip and even­tu­ally for new trunks, and the cy­cle con­tin­ues. These sup­port­ing roots — called “prop roots” — not only sup­port the tree, but in ur­ban ar­eas they be­come play­grounds for chil­dren, swing­ing and hang­ing like mon­keys on na­ture’s jun­gle-gym.

In the for­est, it is not the chil­dren that play in the tan­gled ca­coph­ony of prop roots and trunks; banyans are im­por­tant habi­tat for many wild species — an­i­mal and plant. Their criss­cross­ing roots are par­tic­u­larly rough, pock­eted with lit­tle cav­i­ties and notches that col­lect wind­blown soil and wa­ter. These count­less lit­tle nurs­eries are quickly taken over by var­i­ous species of epi­phyte; in a sin­gle banyan in the Xishuang­banna for­est botanists dis­cov­ered 36 species of fern, 37 species of or­chid, and 36 species of ivy. Given this bounty, the fra­grances and ex­plo­sions of col­ors make the tree ap­pear as not only a tree, but a “hang­ing gar­den”.

Fig trees, banyans in par­tic­u­lar, have for thou­sands of years pro­vided pedes­tri­ans with shel­ter and a re­fresh­ing shade, and be­come ecosys­tems of their own deep in un­touched trop­i­cal forests. To the Chi­nese, banyans are not just trees, not just habi­tat for plants, and not just a food source — they rep­re­sent peace

and safety. For this rea­son, the Chi­nese name for banyans is 榕树, or rong­shu ; 树 ( shu ) means tree, while 榕 ( rong ) re­sem­bles a sim­i­lar char­ac­ter, 容, pro­nounced the same way, which means tol­er­ance or con­tent­ment. Banyans — the tree of tol­er­ance, the tree of con­tent­ment.

On my last day in Xishuang­banna, Dr. Wei sug­gests that we go visit one special banyan, known to the lo­cals the “banyan king”.

We drive to a nearby vil­lage and park next to a clus­ter of small trees of­fer­ing a slight refuge from the al­ready scorch­ing morn­ing sun. Get­ting out we walk to­wards the vil­lage. Dr. Wei stops, waits for me to catch up, and then points to a small hill. At its top I can see the un­mis­tak­able trap­pings of a small Dai tem­ple.

The hill is not tall, and a path of stone steps leads all the way to its sum­mit. It is not far, but I am un­able to see the top of the tem­ple, its roof hid­den amongst the en­gulf­ing for­est. As we walk I im­me­di­ately be­gin to feel the heat. In a meek at­tempt to com­bat it. I lean close to the over­hang­ing trees that tease us with their fee­ble shade. Ahead of me Dr. Wei does the same, and then stops. Reach­ing down he picks up two large leaves.

He passes me one and I in­spect it. It is heart shaped, with an ex­ag­ger­at­edly long and slightly curved tip. I imag­ine the morn­ing trop­i­cal dew col­lect­ing on the leaf and drip­ping off this sharp tip, re-

peated thou­sands of times within the tree cre­at­ing a dew rain be­low its crown. “Bodhi tree?” I ask. He nods. “Yes. The Bodhi tree ( Fi­cus­re­li­giosa ) is close to the hearts of the Dai peo­ple. This…this is the King of Xishuang­banna”.

I sud­denly re­al­ized that I had heard the name so many times and saw the tree of­ten, but never re­al­ized that it was a banyan!

Like many eth­nic groups through­out South­east Asia, the Dai Peo­ple be­lieve in a unique In­dian form of Bud­dhism known as Hi­nayana Bud­dhism. Hi­nayana Bud­dhism has a guid­ing prin­ci­ple of “five trees, six flow­ers”; these are the “divine plants”, and they plant these species around their tem­ples to grant them a special, pro­tec­tive aura. Peo­ple take great so­lace in the sight and fra­grance of these lux­u­ri­ous trees and flow­ers, as if them­selves a gift from the heav­ens.

While all five trees and six flow­ers are con­sid­ered spir­i­tu­ally im­por­tant, it is only the Bodhi tree, one of those five trees, that is ab­so­lutely in­dis­pens­able. In the Dai peo­ple’s minds it is the god of all spir­its. As such is the only species that must be planted on tem­ple grounds. As a tes­ta­ment to the im­por­tance of this banyan, there is a Dai say­ing that goes: “You never give up on your par­ents, and you never cut down a Bodhi”. An­cient laws also for­bade the des­e­cra­tion of such a sa­cred tree — cut­ting down a Bodhi tree, along with des­e­crat­ing a tem­ple or killing a monk, would be pun­ished by death.

Reach­ing the tem­ple, and feel­ing the wel­comed shade of the pro­tec­tive Bodhi tree cas­cad­ing around it, we take off our shoes and en­ter. The or­nate cor­nices and del­i­cate sculp­tures in­side are dimly lit by the in­trud­ing sun and bathed in sub­dued songs sung by monks. In the mid­dle peo­ple kneel and give of­fer­ings.

The King­dom of Bal­hae (698–926) was the first regime in an­cient China to span the north­east re­gion, and over 1,000 years ago achieved very high lev­els of eco­nomic and cul­tural pros­per­ity. Through­out China’s north and north­east re­gions there are sev­eral lo­ca­tions whose names per­tain to “Bo­hai (Bal­hae in Chi­nese)”. In order to un­der­stand the his­tory of these places, I de­parted on a jour­ney of this mys­te­ri­ous ter­ri­tory.

To tell of the ori­gins of the King­dom of Bal­hae, we must first touch upon the an­cient King­dom of Goguryeo (37 BC–668 AD, lo­cated in north­east­ern China and the Korean Penin­sula), which had an enor­mous in­flu­ence on the course of Chi­nese his­tory. It was the royal court of the Cen­tral Plains’ at­tempt to con­quer Goguryeo that led to the rapid down­fall of the once pros­per­ous Sui Dy­nasty ( 581– 618), re­sult­ing in Em­peror Yang of Sui’s de­scent from am­bi­tious hege­mony to ruler of a dy­ing na­tion. These events also in­di­rectly “aided” the Li fam­ily of Jinyang (present-day Taiyuan, Shanxi) in their rise to power, upon which they es­tab­lished the world-renowned civ­i­liza­tion of the Tang Dy­nasty (618–907).

The pre­cise ori­gins of the peo­ple of Goguryeo re­main a mys­tery and the topic of great de­bate among schol­ars of a few coun­tries. His­to­ri­ans from the Korean Penin­sula tend to sup­port the claim that the peo­ple of Goguryeo are the di­rect an­ces­tors of the peo­ple of present-day Korean Penin­sula, while Chi­nese his­to­ri­ans of­ten de­scribe them as a fish­ing and hunt­ing peo­ple from the Chi­nese bor­der re­gion, who are un­re­lated to an­cient Korea. A more neu­tral stand­point is that the King­dom of Goguryeo was a con­glom­er­a­tion of servearl peo­ples.

From the end of the South­ern and North­ern Dy­nas­ties (420–589) to the early Tang, the other peo­ples in the north­east re­gion were ei­ther ab­sorbed by Goguryeo, or con­trolled by them. This was a re­sult of Goguryeo’s own power, as well as the long-term sep­a­ra­tion of the South­ern and North­ern Dy­nas­ties.

Af­ter the Sui Dy­nasty put an end to this di­vi­sion, they sought to cre­ate a new order with them­selves as the cen­tral dom­i­nat­ing force, for which end they were re­quired to re­or­ga­nize the po­lit­i­cal struc­ture of the en­tire greater re­gion of East and North­east Asia. How­ever, Goguryeo re­mained as ar­dent as ever in the north­east, not will­ing to bow their heads in sub­servience, and thus trig­gered off three east­ward at­tacks by the Sui Dy­nasty. The Sui ex­pended enor­mous amounts of hu­man, ma­te­rial and fi­nan­cial re­sources on the at­tacks, con­se­quently lead­ing to a rapid de­cline in their con­trol. The wars lasted many years, with Goguryeo wounded greatly as well, thus cre­at­ing the con­di­tions for the rise of a later power, the King­dom of Bal­hae.

The founders of the King­dom of Bal­hae were

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