A Key to the Forest
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