Thu, Feb 28, 2019 - Page 13 News List

What happens when sky lanterns fall?

Dreams go up in smoke in the hills of Pingsi District

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

Last Saturday, a lantern burns up on a tree. The hills and riverbed around Shifen are dotted with fallen lanterns.

Photo: Davina Tham, Taipei Times

An afternoon picking up fallen sky lanterns in New Taipei City's Pingsi District (平溪) with volunteers organized by Taiwan Adventure Outings, an outdoor education company, is a Sisyphean task that I won’t soon forget.

As we fill up trash bag after trash bag on the ground, the overcast sky reveals a continuing parade of lanterns making their inevitable descent.

The 21st Pingsi Sky Lantern Festival had just taken place over two days on Feb. 16 and Feb. 19, the latter being the 15th day of the Lunar New Year, which families traditionally commemorate by carrying lanterns and solving lantern riddles.

The sky lantern as an emblem of Chinese culture, coupled with an inexpensive price tag starting at NT$100, makes for a potent tourist attraction that the New Taipei City Government encourages as a must-do activity. The most popular and picturesque location from which to release a sky lantern is the train track along Shifen Old Street (十分老街).

WHERE DO LANTERNS GO WHEN THEY DIE?

So on a gray Saturday morning, I woke early and endured a whiplashing, almost hour-long, standing room-only bus ride on winding hillside roads from Taipei, to answer a question about which I have long wondered: What happens to sky lanterns when they fall?

My initial theories are sophisticated, because they accommodate naive optimism. Maybe lanterns rise high enough to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, so the ashes can float down and replenish nutrients in the soil. Maybe lantern manufacturers these days use 100 percent biodegradable materials. Maybe lanterns make landfall within a known radius of the train tracks, and cleaners are dispatched to locate and dispose of them swiftly.

There is a bit of truth in each hypothesis, but not enough.

Some lanterns burn up when their internal flames catch the combustible lining, but others fall to the ground intact. Some lantern parts are made of biodegradable paper and bamboo, but the paper is painted and treated with chemicals, and can take months to disintegrate. Everyone can certainly see where the lanterns fall, but city authorities and cleaners do not always have the resources to clear them, especially from less accessible locations.

When sky lanterns fall, they fall randomly, with no regard for the best of human intentions that have been written on their paper skins. They indiscriminately pepper hillsides and river banks, invade backyards and impale themselves on trees.

“The ink on this one isn’t even dry,” joked a fellow volunteer, as we picked up a pristine lantern. The tragicomedic quality of her words is striking. While besotted couples and excitable children penned heartfelt wishes on their sky lanterns, just a few kilometers and minutes away, we found them muddied on the ground, stuffing them unceremoniously into our trash bags. What a bleak metaphor for the futility of human aspirations.

One lantern had fallen squarely on a fish-shaped waterspout in a garden pond, smothering it. Another lantern descended with a flourish onto a tree branch right before us. Its red paper skin glowed, fleshlike, then tore away in charred black tatters. Within seconds, it had been reduced to a bamboo and metal skeleton.

Elderly residents collect the undamaged frames, each of which can be resold to the government-run recycling center for NT$8. It’s the rare environmentally-friendly practice that has stuck, because it makes business sense for the locals.

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