Collecting the Great Outdoors—The Forest Culture Museum

(photo by Jimmy Lin)

(photo by Jimmy Lin)

Curator: Aliman Madiklan
Exhibits: “Walking trees,” tree planting
Themes: A day with the Bunun, life and ethics, environmental education, historic hunting trails
Location: Sazasa indigenous community, Yanping Township, Taitung
Time: By appointment


The secret password: Uninang

Before we visit the Forest Culture Museum, our guide, Long, explains the format of the visit. Because we will spend the day getting to know the Bunun people, he starts by introducing this indigenous tribe to us: “Bunun men must meet three criteria. First, they must be strong, so they can protect their homes and communities. Second, their calves must be thick, so they can hike through the mountains and hunt. Third, and most importantly, that thing must be firm. Listen closely and don’t jump to conclusions: What part must be firm? A man’s character must be firm! Among the Bunun people, the ideal body shape is just like mine—as broad from the side as from the front!”

“If you want to drink millet wine or our indigenous ‘sports drink’ [a ‘health tea’], you have to be able to say the ‘secret password.’” Long teaches everyone how to say “thank you” in Bunun: “uninang.” As everyone repeats it together, the pronunciation of some people sounds like a curse word in Taiwanese. And when someone asks how to say “how are you” in Bunun, Long responds with the English “how are you,” sending everyone into fits of laughter. In fact, Bunun for “how are you” is “mihumisang.”

“Since you’ve come here, there’s one person you need to know about,” says Long. “He was the first person from Sazasa to graduate from university. Seventeen years ago, he heard that a conglomerate wanted to buy this piece of land to build a columbarium, a temple, and a vacation resort, so he went all around to borrow money and buy the land before the developer could do so, so that it could serve as an educational site for the Bunun people. As he was doing this, a lot of nature lovers came here. Just take one trip around the ecological corridor and you’ll know why Aliman ­Madiklan wanted to save this stretch of forest.”

The curator: Aliman Madiklan

Aliman does not engage visitors with humor and charm in the way Long does. Instead he keeps a low profile, sitting quietly in a chair made of acacia wood in the palihansiap (a pavilion for discussion or negotiation), observing the vis­itors’ activities with a serious expression on his face.

In Bunun, palihansiap means “discuss” or “co­ordin­ate.” The palihansiap, which can be considered the largest thatched pavilion in Taiwan, was completed in March of 2020. Taking advantage of a decline in visitor numbers due to the coronavirus outbreak, Aliman and a team of workers completed the building without the use of power tools in just over a month. He says: “In the past when we Bunun went to war, and now when we undertake tasks like building a house, we have always proceeded with an attitude of palihansiap, consulting with community elders.”

Aliman’s thesis for his MA degree from the Department of Ethnic Relations and Cultures at National Dong Hwa University was a study of the history of the former Bunun village of Isdaza from a local perspective, based on first-hand information he gathered by interviewing many local elders. The study explored how, during the era of Japanese rule in Taiwan, the Japanese compelled the Bunun living in Isdaza, which was located in coniferous forest at an elevation of 1000 meters above sea level, to relocate to foothills of 500-600 meters elevation in today’s Yanping Township, Taitung County. At the time there was violent resistance to this forced relocation.

Aliman’s understanding of his own people’s history is profound. He has variously worked as a reporter at Taiwan Indigen­ous Television, a research assistant at National Taitung University’s Center for Environ­mental Education, and a culture specialist at Austronesian Community College. In the process of drawing maps of indigenous communities and producing indigenous news programs, he witnessed how Aboriginal people often yielded to the temptation to sell off their land, and ended up with nothing. There was also rapacious development by big corporations that were snapping up land everywhere. That is why 17 years ago, when he discovered that a company had made a visit here with construction plans in hand and a fengshui master in tow, Aliman decided that there should be no repeat of the past. He took the loan he had just got from the bank to build his own house, as well as additional money he borrowed from the Luye Farmers Association and the Taiwan Business Bank, and bought the land that is now the Forest Culture Museum.

Origins of the forest museum

Aliman, who originally wanted simply to save the forest, at first only thought about using the land as an educational site for Bunun people to pass down their disappearing culture.

In 2004 the Taiwan Ecological Stewardship Association decided that they wanted to hold an ecological education course here, and they sent a sum of money to Aliman and asked him to provide meals. This inspired Aliman to think about whether developing the land into a forest museum might offer a solution to the problem of how to make a living and pay off his debt. Through activities like visits to old trails and educational tourism in the indigen­ous community, he attracted support from environmental organizations such as the Taiwan Permaculture Institute, the Shumei Natural Agriculture Network and the Taiwan Environmental Information Association, and the income that trickled in eventually solved his debt crisis.

In particular, each year a university in the US state of Pennsylvania arranges for its students to come here for four or five days to experience the “wisdom without electricity, and civilization without writing” of the Forest Culture Museum. For students who have eaten chicken meat but have never seen a real chicken, it is a shocking lesson for them to have to kill and pluck a chicken in order to be able to eat the meat. As they make a fire while crying and sweating, Aliman says, “They don’t eat simply to fill their bellies, but with a sense of gratitude.”

Exhibition space #1: Walking trees

For visitors on a one-day tour of the Forest Culture Museum, the first stop is the “walking trees”—large ever­green trees of the family Moraceae, known as weeping figs (Ficus benjamina).

At first sight, the giant weeping fig awes with its tangled roots and majestic stature. It has aerial roots that grow very rapidly, and once they touch ground and penetrate the soil, they gradually thicken and become prop roots that support the mother tree. Moreover, the branches grow out in all directions, constantly extending themselves and producing more aerial roots, so that the tree begins to “walk.”

Exhibition space #2: Avatar forest

Visitors are welcomed with barbecued meat and a “health tea” concocted from sugar cane, turmeric, fresh ginger, and fresh cinnamon leaf. Before entering what is the best-preserved grove of giant Ficus and Machilus trees at middle to low elevations in all of Taiwan, the polite vis­itor will first reverently stand before the altar covered with the skulls of wild boar and pay respects to the ancestors with a bottle of rice wine and a bag of betel nuts.

In the forest, the soft, damp soil gives off a refreshing scent, while beneath the trees—crape myrtle (Lager­stroemia subcostata) and parasol leaf (Macaranga tan­arius)—one can see giant sword fern (Nephrolepis bi­serrata) and spikemoss (Selaginella) everywhere. Mottled sunlight filters through the leaves, and when you hear the cry of the crested serpent eagle you can look up and see it circling above.

The first challenge is a steep slope, and as you walk up it you must step over tree roots as solid as rocks and wind your way between branches that twist down from above but are still very tough and firm. Next you have to turn sideways to pass between two giant rocks, an example of the characteristic terrain of the Coastal Mountain Range, which was thrust up from the ocean floor by the movement of the Philippine Sea tectonic plate.

After passing between the two great rocks, you find yourself in a stand of weeping figs and sea figs (Ficus superba). Straight ahead is a towering weeping fig, which you can clamber up with hands and feet, holding tight to the ropes, to a height of about seven meters, enjoying the same thrill as rock climbing. Long aerial roots are reaching strenuously down toward the soil or extending freely upward, and as you climb among them, your hands can physically feel the brushstrokes of nature and the smooth outlines of the branches.

Class #1: Life ethics

After completing their walk of the old hunting trail, visitors whose stomachs are beginning to rumble with hunger must take a class in life ethics before they can eat.

Guide Long emphasizes: “We Bunun pay particular attention to four women. First, you must listen to what your grandmother says, because grandmothers pass down the stories and traditions of the clan. Second, you must be filial to your mother, as no one in the world can replace her. Third, you must love your wife. Who do you think the fourth is?” Someone guesses “your daughter,” but Long earnestly replies; “Daughters will marry out of the family and never come back. All you elders must respect your daughters-in-law. These women are not from our own families, but are other people’s daughters who have married into ours, and we must treat them well.” That is why a caring modern man will serve food to women, and do it with a smile.

Each visitor to the Forest Culture Museum not only brings their own reusable bowls and chopsticks and is strictly forbidden from littering, but also has respect for others and upholding proper human relationships instilled in their minds through the serving of food.

Class #2: Environmental ethics

Finally the visitors get a taste of Bunun cuisine. Streaky pork belly, studded with segments of kanduhzah vine stem, has braised to a rich color without needing to add soy sauce; enoki mushrooms, wrapped in fireweed leaves (Crassocephalum crepidioides) and deep fried, have a crisp and refreshing texture; and a-bay, made from millet and streaky pork wrapped in khasya trichodesma leaf Tricho­desma calycosum), is a festive dish. Aliman stresses: “For the Bunun, the forest is our refrigerator. Every bit of food we eat is a gift generously provided by the land beneath our feet.”

The forest is also a source of materials for the daily life of the Bunun people. Even the building materials for the kitchen and other structures are locally sourced, with pillars made from lengths of Taiwan zelkova and chairs crafted from acacia wood.

Before leaving, everyone joins together in planting a tree, hands overlapping as they sing a prayer for the sapling in Bunun eight-part polyphony. In response to vis­itors’ appeals, Long chants in the Bunun language: “When the fog finally disperses and the sky clears / And the moon hangs high in the sky / Hunters carrying prey on their backs / Walk the hunting trail!” The vocalized sound, rising from the diaphragm, reverberates through the forest, making the visitors reluctant to depart.