Like the foolish old man who removed mountains in Chinese folklore, a Hakka woman in Miaoli County has single-mindedly pursued an obsession to save felled trees around Taiwan in a task that many, including her children, once believed was sheer folly.
Hsieh Fen-yu’s (謝粉玉) task may not be as intimidating or improbable as the old man of lore who wanted to level two mountains, but she has needed every bit of his indomitable will over the past 25 years to maintain her pursuit, withstanding a lost fortune, condemnation from her children and heavy debts.
Today, the 63-year-old Hsieh has six small plots of land around Miaoli County that hold more than 1,000 big, rare and ancient trees — trees that were once threatened with destruction by developers.
Though she has accumulated NT$20 million (US$600,000) in debt to support her obsession — with no indication she will be able to clear it anytime soon — her passion to save trees has never waned.
That passion began in 1983, when her husband died. Hsieh’s friends tried to cheer her up by taking her on nature walks at home or on trips abroad, and these changed her worldview forever.
Seeing the importance other parts of the world placed on environmental conservation, Hsieh found that Taiwan lacked respect for trees, leading to her eventual transformation into a full-time conservationist.
A natural businesswoman with a strong work ethic, Hsieh amassed a fortune in the 10 years following her husband’s death by operating a food wholesaling business and working as a timber dealer and real estate broker. During that time, she became increasingly committed to putting her wealth into saving trees.
She intervened whenever an old tree needed to be saved, and there were — and still are ‑— plenty of the trees in danger in a country where few share Hsieh’s concern for the natural environment.
Many old trees around Taiwan were being chopped down to make way for new roads, parks or farmland. Others were unnecessarily felled because of feng shui — a big tree in front of a door may be removed, for example, because it blocks a house’s qi, or energy, and is thought to bring the occupants bad luck.
“Old Tree Mother,” who says she “can’t stand it” when she hears an old tree might be cut down, became the person to call when trees were about to be felled.
Environmentally aware developers would inform her well before groundbreaking to move threatened trees, but she would also get last-minute calls from bulldozer operators at other job sites telling her to rush over because several big trees were about to be chopped down.
At that point, Hsieh would scramble to the site, sometimes hours away, to assess the manpower and equipment needed to remove the trees, and then accompany her crew to the site to complete the job.
The trees are carefully handled. Workers trim a tree’s branches except for a few at the top to make it easier for them to lift and move the tree onto a truck. Hsieh then applies a protective coating agent on parts of the tree that were cut, while packing the roots in thick, wet mud.
She then wraps the trunk in a soft fabric imported from Japan to protect the tree’s bark from being damaged during transport.
The process, along with buying land to replant the trees, is of course expensive.
“Just cutting it down is the easiest way to get rid of an old tree,” Hsieh said.