Eco-tourism hasn't yet taken root in Taiwan, but for the Atayal tribe of Hsinchu County's Smangus (司馬庫斯) the roots were put down some 2,500 years ago -- a grove of Formosan cypress trees that spent its first two millennia in utter isolation has become something of an economic boon for the remote Aboriginal village since being discovered in 1991.
The grove stands silently beside a stream high in the mountains near Tapachienshan, the mountain sacred to the Atayal as their place of origin, which graces the back of NT$500 notes. The trees are not only among the oldest on the island, they're among the biggest. According to a 1996 report by Taiwan's Forestry Bureau, the grove is home to the nation's second and third largest trees, respectively 20.5m and 19.7m in girth.
No wonder then that these giants are known in Chinese as divine trees (
The irony is that the Atayal of Smangus have long benefited economically from hardwood trees, albeit in a less ecologically-friendly fashion. The Japanese relocated many Atayal tribes from their ancestral home in Nantou County in part to disband them into smaller groups that would not pose a threat to the colonizing forces and in part to conscript their help in felling the acres of hardwood that once crowned Taiwan's mountaintops.
Although hardwood trees traded at a premium, the Atayal, like many other Aboriginal groups, refused to cut down the oldest of the trees, believing each possessed a spirit that would haunt them if the trees were felled.
Their refusal to do so -- and the fact that this particular grove of majestic giants had purportedly never before been seen -- means that many remain standing today.
That's not to say that Atayal reverence for the trees is beyond reproach. Long after the Japanese left Taiwan and conservationists began demanding curbs on logging, the Atayal of Smangus continued felling the highly prized trees to earn a living, although they never touched the ancient giants.
"We had no option," said Masay (
Masay tells a story of KMT officials in Hsinchu County demanding that the residents of Smangus stop harvesting hardwood. "They would come up here and become very angry at us, yelling at us to stop cutting down trees," he said. "This was before there was a road to Smangus, only a [15km] trail. So we said: `you build a road and we'll stop cutting down trees.'" In 1994 they got their road, and with it the start of a burgeoning tourism industry.
But, as Masay tells it, the government's ultimate willingness to carve out a road on a mountainside and build bridges where there was previously only trail was not so much to see an end to logging as to see the ancient trees themselves. "After we found the trees, it didn't take long for interest in them to grow and for people to want to come see them. The government knew that without a road that would never happen."
Searching for the past
According to the story that has now become legend among the residents of Smangus, the discovery of the ancient grove and the subsequent development of their local economy was hardly happenstance, but the product of a visit to another Atayal tribe and ancestral intervention.