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The Tree Lover: Jan Feng-chun, Taiwan’s First Female Tree Surgeon

This Araucaria pine was suffering from senescence, weakness and loss of vigor, greatly slowing the healing process when injuries occurred. Soil structure amelioration was conducted, beginning with treatment of the compacted surface soil. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

This Araucaria pine was suffering from senescence, weakness and loss of vigor, greatly slowing the healing process when injuries occurred. Soil structure amelioration was conducted, beginning with treatment of the compacted surface soil. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
 

Born into a farming family, Jan Feng-chun, whose father was a university gardener, has had a connection with trees all her life.

Jan, who has a PhD in environmental design from the University of Tokyo, not only holds a Japanese license as a tree surgeon, but is also licensed in ­Japan to work as a “nature restoration promoter” and to perform soil assessment and amelioration. She is Taiwan’s first fully qualified female arbor­ist.

Jan works to promote the concept of “the right tree in the right place.” If you love trees, you have to lay a good foundation that enables them to flourish. Advanced technology should be used to diagnose diseases, and eco-friendly natural thera­pies should be used to treat trees. In response to the current critical situation for trees in Taiwan, she believes that training people to provide on-site treatment is an urgent task, and that the emphasis should be put on continuing education courses that impart practical experience.

 

Seeing the souls of trees

“Trees are living things, and they too have emotions.” Jan Feng-chun, who has examined countless trees, not only can recognize every tree that she has diagnosed and treated, but can also tell each one’s physio­logical condition at a glance. “It’s issuing a distress call! It’s just that we are unable to understand it.”

Jan’s father was a university gardener, and from early childhood she watched her father prune trees. Through her long-term close observations, she developed an unbreakable emotional attachment to trees. “In Japan, I relied on sidewalk trees to figure out whether I was facing north, south, east or west.” “My father was the only person in my family who supported me in choosing to become a tree surgeon.”

It is extremely difficult to get an arborist’s license in Japan. Usually, only about ten candidates in a thousand pass the exam. Just to sign up for the exam you need at least seven years of clinical experience, and the subjects covered are broad and deep. “The written exam alone had 19 subjects.” It is a wide-ranging assessment that requires comprehensive training. “There are many people who keep resitting the exam all their lives, making it their mission in life to get an arborist’s license.” Many people who pass the test are nearly 60 years old, but Jan succeeded when she was only 32. “My greatest ­regret is that my father didn’t live to see the day when I received my license.” She received news of her father’s death right after passing the written exam.

After the essay and diagnostic report that were part of her written exam were accepted, there followed the even more rigorous practical tests. During a two-week period, every morning there would be a test on the two subjects covered in classes the preceding day. Anyone scoring under 60% on more than three tests would immediately be disqualified. “The pressure was enormous.”

At dinner on a day near the end of the examinations, a white-haired man in his sixties who was also taking the tests came over to Jan’s table and asked, “May I eat here?” She invited him to sit. The man looked at her and said, “You only eat one bowl of rice, one serving of natto [fermented soybeans], and one piece of tofu. I have noticed you always eat so little, so today I deliberately came to sit here because I wanted to ask you if you get enough food eating this way.” She said with a smile, “It’s very hearty and satisfying.” Then he went on to say, “I see that you have passed the exam despite being so young; that’s quite an achievement!” Thinking of her father’s ­funeral, Jan softly replied, “It’s because I promised my teacher, and also because I wanted to make my father happy, but it’s all too late now.” Moved by her remark, the man said, “How can you say it’s too late? Look at me: I’m taking the exam for the fifth time. If you were my child, I would be so happy! It’s not too late at all!”

At the final oral exam, the candidates were asked why they wanted to be tree surgeons. Jan replied: “I’m doing this to fulfill a promise I made to my professor to save the trees of my homeland.” She had previously earned a master’s degree in forest botany from the Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Tokyo, where she specialized in tree pathology and physiology. Living on a scholarship, she took great pains to hone her skills. After she passed the oral ­exam, when she saw her professor, Kazuo Suzuki, who had been like a father to her, her eyes filled with tears of gratitude, and she was at a loss as to how she could repay his kindness.

The right tree in the right place

“It’s very important to choose the right species for sidewalk trees.” Besides considering native species, you also have to be aware of the characteristics of different trees.

“I have always promoted the concept of ‘the right tree in the right place.’” Whenever Jan sees a dying sidewalk tree, she feels a great sense of loss. “Can’t we look at the world from the tree’s point of view, and learn how to understand and feel their plight?” Forcing trees into the concrete jungle goes against nature, and blindly using root guide plates or root barriers just makes matters worse.

With the assistance of technology, Jan has created a comprehensive approach to green architecture. “You have to start by modeling the microclimate.” Jan, who took part in the first vertical greening project for a high-rise building in Taipei City, used the concept of soil structure and the traditional Chinese classification of the five elements to arrange the plants in such a way as to overcome the problem of soil drying out and being washed or blown away, creating a unique example of coexistence with nature in an urban environment.

Revitalizing cherry trees

“The cherry trees on Alishan are ill, and I want to figure out a way to save them.” Facing generational replacement, and with the prime opportunity to treat the sickly old trees having been missed, Jan feels a sense of urgency and anxiety. “Witches’ broom disease cannot be managed with chemicals.” It can only be effectively controlled with proper pruning over three to five years. Over the past year, Jan’s team has treated more than 70 sick trees. At the same time they have drawn up a diagnostic report for each cherry tree, using systematic manage­ment, cohort studies, and record keeping.

Last year Jan did a demonstration of cherry tree pruning and soil improvement at the Zhushan Sunrise Observation Deck on Alishan. Today the trees are full of vigor and life, with luxuriant blossoms, and both residents and travelers look forward to the cherry blossoms in spring. The Alishan Forest Recreation Area covers 1400 hectares of land, and there are 2800 cherry trees awaiting recovery, spread across various locations; it is estimated that it will take at least three years to complete the work.

“Normally, improvement starts from the foundation.” Jan, who holds a license to practice soil structure diagnosis and amelioration, has adopted a policy of not using chemical fertilizers, instead preferring to gain an understanding of the soil’s physical properties, chemistry, and biology. At the same time, she understands the characteristics of the root systems of different tree species, and uses concepts of traditional Chinese medicine to undertake soil amelioration. “In Japan, the process is not usually open and transparent.” But in order to promote continuing education, Jan always allows students to participate on site.

“As for insect pests, you don’t need to use eco­logic­ally damaging pesticides.” Taiwan has a humid climate, and people use a lot of fertilizer, so many tree species are susceptible to aphids and scale insects. “Ensure proper ventilation, do appropriate pruning, and use less fertilizer, and insects can be effectively controlled.” Jan was invited to work with Fo Guang Shan Monastery precisely because her ideal is to protect the earth by not using pesticides.

Coexisting with nature

In the process of healing trees, what affects Jan the most is seeing the trees as family members who implore her to do everything she can to save them and extend their lives. “Old trees have spirits. When you open your arms and embrace them, you will sense a res­onance.” While she was treating a cherry tree at Taoyuan Elementary School, mobilizing the whole school to take an interest in the tree’s health proved to be the best possible way of teaching students about living things.

In order to fulfill her promise, Jan returned to Taiwan after having been away for more than 20 years to devote her expertise to the trees of this country.

“It takes a long time to become a tree surgeon.” Jan hopes to be able to train future arborists with practical experience. “If you want to understand a tree, you have to understand its native environment.” Concurrently working as an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at National Taiwan University, Jan is not the least bit hesitant to share information, whether in class or when doing outreach work to educate people in related industries. In order to try to introduce Japan’s arborist system into Taiwan, she translated the over-700-page-long Taiwan-Japan Arborists’ Handbook. Recently she also published Introduction to Practical Tree Pathology, enabling interested people to acquire in-depth knowledge in this field.

Having been in her profession for 20 years now, Jan has restored countless trees to health. In Japan she helped many thousands of trees, and several thousand more in Taiwan over the last five years, and she has been involved in a program in mainland China that has planted nearly 1000 trees. Based on an ideal of coexistence and shared destiny, Jan urges people to love and treasure trees. “If trees can’t survive, how will the natural environment get better?” Jan, aiming to bring about a better world for every­one, has continuously dedicated herself to trees and her ­vision of a sustainable green Taiwan.