Once upon a tree, Taiwan's natural wonders revealed to the world

2017/11/30 17:43:36 fontsize-small fontsize-default fontsize-big
An Australian team and Taiwanese volunteers spent 17 days in Qilan Mountain to produce a full-length portrait of three Taiwania trees. Photo Courtesy of The Tree Projects.

An Australian team and Taiwanese volunteers spent 17 days in Qilan Mountain to produce a full-length portrait of three Taiwania trees. Photo Courtesy of The Tree Projects.

By Lee Hsin-Yin, CNA staff reporter

The landscape of Qilan Mountain in northern Taiwan bears an eerie resemblance to the Fangorn forest created by J.R.R. Tolkien in his novel "Lord of the Rings," blanketed in ancient, gigantic trees that have seemingly transcended time.

Now a few of those natural wonders, located in one of the least accessible parts of Taiwan, are gaining global exposure thanks to an Australian team determined to educate people around the world about forest ecosystems and promote their conservation, one tree at a time.

"Traveling so far to see a tree was a nervous gamble," said Steve Pearce, a photographer who runs an organization called The Tree Projects. "We were very nervous when we first met the tree, but as soon as we stepped out of the car, we immediately knew we had a winner."

Together with his wife, ecologist Jennifer Sanger, Pearce founded The Tree Projects with a simple mission: to raise awareness of the world's forests by capturing full images of their biggest trees from a level view point without distortion.

The inspiration for the initiative was National Geographic's 2009 portrait of Californian redwoods, which opened people's eyes to those giant trees.

Pearce and Sanger believe that "the simple experience of seeing a giant tree for the first time can break down preconceptions" and that showing people forests in all their magnificence is more effective in building appreciation for them than telling people about them.

"We simplify our message, we simplify the forest to one picture, to just one tree," he said.

Having set foot on swamp gums in Tasmania, Australia, and rimu trees in New Zealand, Pearce and Sanger came to Taiwan in April on a new mission.


(Documentary about how the Taiwan project was made. Video courtesy of the Taiwan Environmental Information Association and The Tree Projects)

They spent 17 days in the wild to produce a full-length portrait of a massive conifer, known as a "Taiwania" tree, using arboreal rigging techniques. Except this time they got three for the price of one, "three sisters" to be precise.

The "three sisters" are three massive Taiwania trees growing close together at the end of Forest Road No. 170 (170號林道) in Hsinchu County, which is only accessible from Yilan County via Provincial Highway 7 and Forest Road No. 100.

Pearce told CNA they had no knowledge of Taiwan's landscapes and trees until they met Rebecca Hsu (徐嘉君), an assistant researcher at the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute, at a canopy science conference in London last year.

After learning about the Australians' endeavors, Hsu invited them to come to Taiwan to undertake their next project using Taiwania trees as their model.


(The final portrait. Photo courtesy of the Taiwan Environmental Information Association)

Hsu said the three sisters emerged as the best candidate thanks to the restoration of Forest Road No. 170 last year after it had been partly damaged by a typhoon.

That allowed the team to reach the location without having to trek some five kilometers as Hsu had to do back in 2014 during her first encounter with the trees.

Well aware of the beauty of Taiwanese forests, Hsu "wanted to help deliver a striking image of Taiwania to the world so people know how unique they are and how diverse Taiwan's ecosystem is."

The conifer species that bears the name of Taiwan often grows to an impressive size, with its trunk up to four meters in diameter, and is listed as "vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of threatened species.

Pearce and Sanger had their eye on "big sister," towering 70 meters into the sky, but also captured its two sisters growing next to it that measure 63 meters and under 50 meters tall, respectively.


(Sanger on the tree. Photo courtesy of The Tree Projects)

As anybody who has ever tried to take a photo of a massive tree knows, getting a full, realistic likeness can be an impossible challenge. Pearce's organization uses composite photography to achieve the goal.

In this case, Pearce and Sanger were joined by a Taiwanese team of some 30 people and used 1,140 meters of rope to create an aerial rigging system suspended horizontally between another tree and a weather station near the target trees.

Cameras were then pulleyed vertically to take a total of 1,200 photos of the Taiwania trees from different perspectives, with climbers, including Hsu, in the trees as a reference of scale to highlight how grand they really are.

While installing the equipment was challenging due to heavy rain, the rest of the shooting and climbing was a breeze, said Pearce.

"It's funny, but to us, climbing up a giant tree and shooting lines between them isn't difficult. We had more trouble getting around in Taipei!" he said.

Being able to work with three trees with very different characters effectively growing together compared with other projects featuring a single tree was something particularly special, Pearce said.

"It was like they each were individuals but together were something supernatural," he said.

They were also heaven for Sanger and Hsu as scientists.

"Taiwania trees are so tall, it is impossible to see what plants are growing up in the canopy from the ground," Sanger said. "I was surprised to see that there were some beautiful orchids up in the canopy of the trees."


(Hsu studies the canopy. Photo courtesy of The Tree Projects)

Climbing and studying the trees up close was all fun for Pearce and Sanger. Their real work began after they returned to their office in Tasmania.

They had to choose the best photos from the 1,200 shots, overlay one on top of the other and then blend each pair of photos together using a digital brush to create a full-length portrait without any distortion.

A total of 43 photos were used for the composite shot. Pearce said it took him three weeks of editing 10 hours a day to get the tree structure right, followed by another two months to smooth out the great light variation between the top and bottom of the trees and other features.

"It wasn't really work as it felt like I was climbing the tree, and it's a great subject to have occupy so much of my mind," he recalled. "But I'd still rather be out climbing the tree for real."

Once the final portrait was complete, Hsu worked with the Taiwan Environmental Information Association to set up a local fundraising campaign centered around the photo, turning it into a 1-meter-high poster with the blessing of the Australians.

Since it was launched in August, the campaign has raised more than NT$2 million (US$66,670) to support the dissemination of environmental information.

Sun Hsiu-ju (孫秀如), the associations' deputy secretary-general, told CNA that the campaign has been successful because it has resonated with people.

"Human beings are only humbled when they confront an immense being," Sun said. "This artistic approach is extraordinary because it has helped us engage different groups of people in our work."

Pearce could not agree more.

"This is easily our best project yet," he said. "We had the best people, we had the best equipment, we had the best climbers, we had the best scientists, and we had, I have to say, the best tree."

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