Qilan Mountain’s Divine Trees

Sometime during the last year, I read about Qilan (Cilan) Mountain in Taiwan and have been wanting to go there ever since. I’d read that there were large, old-growth trees of both Taiwan red cypress (Chamaecyparis formosensis) and Taiwan yellow cypress (C. taiwanensis) there, and had wanted to go there ever since. Somehow word of this got to my mother-in-law, who promptly booked a family trip for us; the family had been there before. The post on Luodong describes what we did on the first day of this trip. Many thanks to her for arranging all of this.

The area is called “Divine Trees.” It’s not wholly virgin old-growth forest; it has been logged, but many trees here were saved. Though it’s not far from Yilan or Luodong (maybe about 25 miles as the crow flies), getting there gives you plenty to think about. You start out in the valley (400m/1312ft). Here is the view from the forest recreation area there, next to the hotel where we stayed:

Then you head up highway 7. If you’re familiar with mountain roads, you probably have an idea of what this is like; if not, refer to C. W. McCall’s lyrics on Black Bear Road–”it looked like a bunch of Zs and Ws all strung together.” Unlike the Black Bear Road, highway 7 is actually paved, and you go up from the valley for about a half-hour or so. Then, around 1000m (3280 feet) or so, you turn off, go through a staffed controlled-access gate, and ride for another half-hour or so on an unpaved road that isn’t really any different in shape than the paved one. If you want to go there, it’s best to go on a tour. For one thing, a guide can tell you a lot about the place, and furthermore, I don’t know if they’ll even let you in without a guide.

During the trip, if you’re not battling motion sickness, you see the forest changing around you. In the valley, the forest is far more of a jungle, with broadleaved trees, fern-like plants, and vines all around (monkeys in the warmer months, too). But as you ascend, you start to see Taiwania (Taiwania cryptomerioides, an important timber species, but not the subject here). If it’s not a clear day, you reach the cloud cover and it becomes foggy. You start to see trees with the scaled foliage sprays that you see in so many genera/species in the Cupressaceae family. It’s a sign that you’re getting closer. Then you see hulks of grey, dead trees towering out of the forest on the mountainside:

At some point, you’re at your destination at around 1550m (5085ft). It’s time to get out and see some real trees. There’s a trail here with two variations; the longer one is about 2km long, with more than 50 trees, the other has a little less than half.

The first trees on the trail are among the largest and oldest in the area. Everything at the beginning of the trail is a red cypress. It’s hard to get an idea for the scale of these trees, especially when you look across to them from higher up on the hill:

A few notes about the Taiwan red cypress are in order:

  • It’s got a branching form, usually high up on the trunk somewhere. The branch forms seem to vary quite a bit; the example above has the vase-like form that you might see on an elm tree. Others don’t split quite like this.
  • It grows really slowly. Think “coast redwood or old-growth douglas-fir” really slowly.
  • In time, its bark and shape do not expel the elements as many other trees do. You can see all sorts of moss and fungus on this one, but did you notice the pepper tree growing high up in the crotch?
  • After about 500 years, the tree starts to become hollow; bugs eat from the pith out. They don’t eat anything younger than this. I didn’t catch what the relationship was to the sapwood, but in any case, the ideal tree for harvesting is about 500 years old because of this. Anything older was often spared because it was not high-quality wood. There are a few examples of 500-year-old trees in the area, and they definitely have a different look.

But I did mention that these things are big. When we got around to the trunks of the larger trees, you start to understand what the “Giant Cypress” part of Wilbur Pan’s blog name is all about. The preceding photo was a first impression of a particular tree. Then we got around to the other side of it and got a better idea at what was here:

It’s not only big, but it’s quite pretty, too. As with all of the big trees, it has a marker with its name and some information:

Most of the stuff on here should be pretty self-explanatory (DBH being diameter; breast height). It’s a little difficult to compare this to trees such as the giant sequoia and coast redwood, which are a little thicker and a lot taller, but the dimensions do generally match the historical record of a tree that we may be lucky enough to resurrect in time: the American chestnut. Botanically, of course, the chestnut is far different (being a fast-growing angiosperm and all), but now I finally have an idea for what the presence of those things was like.

(All of the large trees have names such as this; Szuma Chien was a famous historical figure in China that lived around the same time this tree sprouted.)

And so on we went through lots of red cypress (some even comical); here’s one that’s “only” about 1000 years old. You can see how its form at this age is far different than the older ones, and in particular, how much larger its crown is:

According to the sign for this tree (No. 31), it is 34 meters tall, 1.5 meters wide, and is named Shin-ma Kuang.

We saw a few other types of trees, but then, somewhere near the end of the walk, we stopped at a big tree and I knew immediately that there was something different here. First, the bark was different; it was shaggy, not unlike a shagbark hickory. It also didn’t hurt that the trunk had a fence around it:

The guide explained that this was a Taiwan yellow cypress (“hinoki”, sometimes classified as the C. obtusa hinoki cypress, but otherwise known as C. taiwanensis). It is principally famous for its aroma, the fact that bugs hate it (unlike the red cypress, they do not hollow with age), and that they have a remarkable resistance to rot. The wood has a tremendous number of uses. It’s also extremely rare because the lumber is so valuable that most of it was logged. There are only five old-growth examples in the entire area! Think of our own C. lawsoniana (Lawson’s cypress, or “Port Orford-cedar”).

And of course, the fence is necessary to keep people from picking at the bark when they learn what this tree is.

Looking up at a yellow cypress, you can see that its form is more excurrent than the red cypress. It’s hard to relate the sort of effect this imparts in words or a photograph.

(If I were into sayin’ profound stuff, I’d say that the tree is saying “The cypress tree on the mountain” to us. But I’m not, so I’ll just say that the tree is telling us that trees don’t talk.)

This tree, named Chu Hsi, is about 900 years old and 1.8m in diameter. I don’t know why I found this one particularly nice-looking, but I did.

Coming up: Back to woodworking and tools! Of course I went shopping for tools when I was in Taiwan.

Luodong Forestry Culture Garden

I learned a lot of stuff when I was in Taiwan during this past trip. For example, there’s a Taiwanese douglas-fir!

It’s supposedly pretty rare. But rather than expand on how much I like douglas-fir, let’s talk about one of the little trips we took.

The Luodong Forestry Culture Garden is a relatively new combination park and museum. Luodong was a busy hub of activity for logging in the early 20th century, and this park represents the elements that comprised the industry.

The log pond, fed by a natural spring, was a storage facility for logs. Today, you can find a kingfisher perched on the driftwood if you look closely:

It is also the location of the terminus of the former narrow-gauge logging railway, including several museum and workshop buildings, six steam locomotives, and rolling stock that were in use on the line.

Such large-scale logging was made possible the by the railway. The Japanese had attained much experience at rail construction by the end of the 19th century. Now in control of Taiwan, they were quite interested in its vast forest resources, and completed the Yilan line (from Taipei) in 1924, though logging operations were well underway before this time. Luodong is where the narrow-gauge line met the Yilan main line, and the park is the site of the station.

Below, you can see a partial reconstruction of a ramp that was used to roll the logs into the pond:

There’s a photo in one of the buildings that shows a larger-scale ramp. That white speck to the right of the log is a person. These are big logs–we’ll see more of that later.

The forests are located in the mountains, which are quite rugged in Taiwan. One method used to get logs off the hill was the slide (notice the large sculpture in the rear; there are several at the park):

The sled was used for dragging logs across horizontal surfaces where the railway didn’t go:

So far, it was an interesting place, all right. But then, in the Forestry Exhibition Hall, we hit galoot pay dirt. It took a lot of self-restraint to refrain from jumping up and down like a kid in a candy shop upon seeing this:

I’d been wanting to see one of those large saws for a long time. It was as large as I expected, but one thing that took me by surprise was just how big the handle was. Compare the handle size with the one below it–this sawyer must have had large hands. Another interesting note is that the larger teeth don’t end in points; they’re flat at the top. I would suppose that this is to provide extra strength.

The labels say 大剖鋸, for big rip saw. Below, there are a few more saws, including some crosscut saws, with the label 五齒孔鋸, meaning five-tooth hole saw. Basically, that means there are five teeth, then a gullet for raking out the sawdust.

Check out the rake angle of second saw! The saw below the large one also featured progressive rake along with the progressive pitch commonly found on a saw of this type. Here’s a close-up–the rake changes from positive to negative.

In this building, there was a timeline of when various operations were done by hand versus machine. Doofus that I am, I didn’t take a photo of it; all I can say is that I was surprised at how long things were done entirely by hand, even ripping logs into boards. It was well, well into the 20th century.

Also included in the display is a handy diagram of how the tools are used. There are no surprises here–the hewing axe (鉞斧) is used for hewing, the crosscut saw is used for crosscutting, and the big rip saw is used for ripping:

Now, you might think that the log above might be a little large for that fellow to handle. That is, until you get to the “mountain life building” and you see a photo of this veritable he-man getting to work:

Notice how he has a second, smaller saw at his side. I’d guess that he started the cut with this thing. What’s particularly fascinating about the way these guys worked and their saws is that they could do it as a single-man operation–no pit saw needed, no pit needed! It’s remarkable how the saw did not need to be wider than the log. I’m going to speculate that they’d saw from one side, then the other, then back, all the way down the log.

There is “DIY” building in the park where they apparently let people mess around with wood and tools, but it was closed when we went there. Too bad.

An Antique Eastern Cabinet

On last year’s trip to Taiwan, I encountered a cabinet at the in-laws’ place that I found interesting. This year, I got to take a closer look and some photos.

It’s probably about 90 years old. My grandmother-in-law says that her husband bought it before they were married, and he bought it from a Japanese friend or vendor (at this time, Taiwan was a territory of Japan).

It was likely not the most expensive cabinet that you could buy at the time, but its construction clearly indicates that it was a good quality item and that it was primarily (if not completely) made by hand–I don’t see any machining marks on it, and at this time, machine tools were not in common use in the area.

The design is pleasant and streamlined. It consists of two pieces–the upper part shown in the preceding image, and a base with two more drawers on the bottom. The base has a kickboard that matches the overall design, and is well-moulded:

Last year, what I noticed first about this piece was that the doors had the mitered-face mortise-and-tenon joint that I wrote about (and made) last year:

The tenon (like most of the ones I’ve seen here) is a through tenon. It’s very common in furniture here, and I now know the Chinese name for it–but I’ll save that for later.

The drawer construction would bring mixed reactions to some western joinery enthusiasts–the sides are tacked in. Though our first reaction might be to poo-poo this, remember first, that dovetails are not common in eastern furniture, and second, that this thing is 90 years old, and these drawers are still very solid. The humidity differences it has had to endure have been quite extreme–from very humid and sticky summers to a life in an air-conditioned environment.

It’s all solid wood construction. The face is a good-quality light-colored hardwood that’s been lacquered, the rim around the face is an expensive dark wood (don’t know what, but it has large pores). The rest is a quick-growing softwood of some sort.

The rest of the drawer is also quite solid, in spite of violating “rules” of drawer construction (tacked together from the bottom, bottom panel grain runs along the front-to-back axis rather than side-to-side):

Notice the “rear deck” on the back. It’s not of a consistent width. It serves as a drawer stop–I am speculating that the builder intentionally let this protrude and then simply trimmed the end to get the drawer to stop flush with the front of the cabinet.

Here’s the hardware on the lower drawers. I don’t know if this is the original, but it’s kind of cute:

[Edit: It’s not original; in the picture at the top, you can see where the original hoop handles were. Thanks to Daniel for putting a finger on this.]

Now, with all of this said, there’s a further story with this cabinet. Over the years, the wood has moved in such a way that made the drawers very difficult to close. It was even said that they might have to get rid of it because it was so difficult to use. So I said, hey, this is the best piece of furniture in this house, and I could get the thing in good shape.

I didn’t have any appropriate tools (even after a ritual tool-shopping trip that I’ll talk about later), or any I could borrow, so of course, I decided to go buy something. I went down to the tool shop in search of a chisel and some sandpaper to sharpen it.

The sandpaper was easy enough. But I wanted a Taiwanese-made chisel, and got one. However, it looks like this:

Yeah, it says “Miki Japan” on it, with a name. This is one thing that sometimes drives me up the wall with Taiwanese manufacturers. An example of this is that you’ll often see labels like “Boozoletti Italy” in stores on clothing that’s made in Taiwan, on really decently-made stuff. (Yeah, you can get not-so-well-made stuff too, but that’s another story.) It’s almost a very strange parody of the knockoff concept. Some companies have wised up and created their own unique identities, but that’s another story, too.

In this case, the chisel is made of the laminated (laid) steel that you’d expect from something like this, and it takes and holds an excellent edge. The grinding was excellent–it took only a few minutes to flatten and polish the face. Perhaps it doesn’t hold an edge as well as the famous Japanese chisels (not sure about how to test that), but it’s as good as any mass-produced western manufacturer of the past such as Union or Pexto.

And it cost a grand total of about $7.50. Best of all, it got the old cabinet in great shape in very short order.