Monday, July 15, 2013

Korea #9 The Korean Minister of Beauty

This is the first lengthy piece I’ve written after a handful kept intentionally short and visual, unlike India, as a explored what is worth saying.  It is 2,000 words so relax and come to Korea with me for ten minutes or so.

"The heavens, the earth, valley, spirits; each achieves oneness and in this way gather's strength." Lao Tzu, #39

Somewhere in the recent past, Korea must have been governed by an aesthetic dictatorship.  There must have been a Minister of Beauty or a Secretary of Loveliness who enjoyed a wide mandate.  She—or most likely he—must have issued a proclamation which had the force of law, the effect of which can be seen today.  It might have read something like this:

“It is hereby proclaimed that Korea’s greatest beauty will henceforth be found in how we preserve and cultivate our country.  It will, from this time forward, be our purpose to avoid that which is careless or disrespectful and seek to lay a gentle hand upon the land.  When we must disturb it for a greater good, and therefore do hard things such as cutting through mountains or tunneling under them or channeling our streams, we will remember that Beauty must remain when we are finished.

Since our country is 70 percent mountains, we will seek to preserve the trees which grow thick upon it from shore to shore, thereby saving our soil and improving the clarity and good taste of our water.  Aware of how profoundly limited are our resources and how we depend upon energy collected in other countries, we will harness the sun at every opportunity and direct it to good purpose.  Where once we were forced to cut our forests to stay warm, now they will be allowed to grow and protect us.

Korea will practice and preserve the artistic expression of times past--with its great poetry and calligraphy, dance and theatre--and will join other nations in exploring the human condition in every modern artistic form.  We will become known and respected for how we depict our land, our farms and  those who till them. We do will this in with a diversity, a profusion and a balance which comes naturally to us, remembering from Gang Se-kwang 300 years ago that was is actual is what is important. 

At times we Koreans will be on our knees working under heavy skies, as we have done for generations. At times we will be behind a modern vehicle and use plastic to cover the ground or the space above, the better to provide us with food and fiber.  We will, for example, cultivate ginsing root in this manner through five years of hot summers and snowy winters. To the best of our ability, Beauty and abundance will not be in conflict.

We will grow few crops alone or in vast fields, unlike other countries.  Rice will be grown in abundance but most frequently in fields which are of human-scale compared to modern industrial agriculture.  This is because our rice fields must not only be level but follow the contours of ever-changing elevations.  Our fields will thus often run at angles to one another and curve with the terrain, a most pleasing effect, made more pleasing as closely spaced rows reflect light differently and as some fields are young while others are ready for harvest.

We will often line such fields with a single row of corn, or small trees, fencing our fields naturally.  On even a small slope between fields we will plant vegetables and vines.  We will also grow an abundance of corn but in companionship with peppers and squash, flowers and onions, a family of things green and lovely.

We favor many crops within a given space rather than few.  Visitors will consequently see tiers and cross-hatching, variety and a constant changing of shape and texture. Visual excitement will be theirs even when viewing small city plots. 
 Fruits will grow side by side with vegetables and small trees with crops that lie close to the ground.  It is our way. For us, the gracious plants are orchid, chrysanthemum, bamboo and the plum, which will be close at hand.

Ours is a land of abundant rain, low clouds and mists and this, too, is part of Beauty and makes us glad.  Waterfalls and cascades rushing from our mountains and rivers will, at times, carry soil away to the ocean.  But not for long.  Our husbandry will be such that rivers will quickly run clear again.

Ours will be a county made modern in a single generation and this will mean finding shelter for millions of people within reach of their places of work, a feat almost without precedent.  Dwellings will consequently climb ten, twenty and twenty-five stories above the ground.   We will build them by the tens of thousands, a staggering number, and at no small cost to those whose heritage has been in small villages for centuries.  Our elders may mourn the loss.  However, as if in consolation, we will plant, plow and harvest almost to their elevator doors. Hard and soft lines will lie side by side. Where else on earth will this be the common practice?

Koreans will be able to see from their windows where they came from and will walk in green neighborhoods, sharing space with the food they eat.  We wish the eyes of our people to fall upon hills still covered with trees and land still tilled nearby.

Our ministry honors those ancient screens, paintings and poems which capture times past throughout the East; you will find them in our museums.  However it will henceforth be the ministry’s purpose to create new expressions which will become classic in future days, a digital record of how Korea appears in the present age.  To fly over our land, to hover above it, to drive by it, to walk through it will be to experience Beauty no less than in times past and this we will capture.  In the humble opinion of the Ministry this will, in many ways be superior to the past, since it will depict our abundance being shared widely and democratically.  

This we hereby decree and set our seal in solemn commitment and dedication.”     

This little essay seemed the best way for me to express how Korea continues to excite my respect and please my eyes.  Specifically, it was mentally written while on a a bus speeding  from east to west Sunday night on the remarkable Yeongdong Expressway, coming back from a weekend on Korea’s east coast.  Rain was falling and mist clung to one dark valley after another.  Waterfalls jumped at me and disappeared under the bus every minute or two.  

My cameras’ batteries had already been exhausted on lesser subjects, of course, but then, in any event, they could not have begun to captured my mood or the scene outside.  The Minister of Beauty would have to convey the feeling as best possible.

Nine of us had taken off on a journey only a madman after my own heart, Stan Steiner, would have proposed: six hours each way with our butts on a bus, plus time waiting for connections.  Taking off at 9 Saturday morning we arrived in time for 90 minutes at the beach, then a fine dinner and
finally off to a Jim Jil Ban:  another spa with hot and cold pools, saunas wet and dry, a couple beers smuggled in for a nightcap, then off to sleep on a mat and square pillow, unisex sleep-uniforms for unisex sleeping.  The cost of this luxury?   Eight dollars.

We wished for one such in Boise, knowing it would never be possible.  Maybe in Seattle.

We were at Saechuk, a good-sized city, seaport and fishing village on a coast that might have been Oregon or Maine.  We became tourists, which meant boarding a bus Sunday morning, listening to tour-director none of us could understand, and going to one unlikely tourist enticement after another. 
The first was a giant museum that looked like a sloppy wedding cake and which specialized in caves, of all things:  imitation caves, caveology displays and an IMAX-experience about exploring a Korean cave some distance away.  Then the city museum.  Then “the world’s largest rose garden,” which was fine except that the roses in the long arbor were made of plastic.  All the time it was raining. 

Then we boarded a “bike railway.”  You get in cute little cabs on rails and peddle your way three miles along the ocean.  Koreans going the opposite direction whoop greetings at you one after another.  You’ve gone through a tunnel dedicated to Korea distance runners just as you’re getting tired, then through a tunnel representing under sea life, and so on.  You’re glad to reach the end.  Later I learn that, like rails-to-trails in the U. S., this had once been a rail line to a mine.

For the first hour on the way home we were in and out of built-up areas, in and out of a weakly sunny sky.  We were tired and dozed. Then the freeway took off through the mountains and back came the rain.  This freeway is a prodigious piece of engineering, absolutely straight, tunneling through one mountain after another.  When not in tunnels the freeway slices through cuts so steep the banks must be stair-stepped at a sharp angle like some Mayan temples, every cut containing multiple stairways which disappeared into the trees high above and with channels that soon shot rainwater downhill like a placer mining gun.

Unlike the ride coming over, I had a single seat on the window.  I had an exciting novel on an e-reader but quickly the scene outside grabbed me and the reader was forgotten.  What a show!

Three days before boarding the plane for Korea, I had come off a five-day, 80 mile whitewater trip on the Main Salmon.  I’d never floated it before and it exceeded all my expectations, in spite of rain and low clouds for most of the journey there as well.  Steep, steep canyons.  Torrents coming in from left and right.  Rushing water.  A hot spring in the middle of a cold, wet day.  Hermit dwellings and desperate homesteads gone to seed.  Camping and campfires.  Great crew. Good companionship, good food and good drink. 

You think you know what the Main Salmon will be like. I’d heard about it all my life. But I was wrong.  It was better and, for me at least, maybe the better for the rain, which heightens the memory.

There was something of the Main Salmon on the 80 miles of speeding over a Korean freeway, although in this case taking just 80 minutes.  Each little valley between mountains was a unique tableau.  How the fields held their crops.  How the dwellings were placed with the crops. How the valleys held the fields.  How the mist play in the mountains.  How water poured in one wild stream after another, just a flash and then gone until the next one.

It could not have been better.  We were all tired and the young among us were asleep but the oldest on the bus, Stan and his fellow BSU professor Carol Schroeder and I, were glued to the windows.  I was completely enthralled, but then misty rain can do that to a desert dweller.

I’ve promised myself I’ll write up “The Ten Best Train Experiences of My Life “sometime soon, starting with my dad putting me on the Union Pacific’s “City of Portland” at Pocatello, for my first year at Notre Dame in September, l954.  Europe, Alaska, Kenya, Eritrea, etc. will follow.  But My Best Bus Trips?  Not so much.  At least there has been One. 

If only I could have captured it for you on film.

I’m still trying to understand how Korea managed all this.  How did the land get preserved as well as it did when it had historically been held in small plots?  It was not, for example, passed down from first son to first son, my anthropology professor tells me. And it is not because of deep subsidies that maintain Switzerland as a gorgeous toy town.  Rice and barley are subsidized on the consumer end but not much to the farmer, the government making up the difference to benefit an urban population.

 But Professor Jeond Duk Yi does tell me that the Korean Ministry of Rural Affairs is a world-recognized leader in rural development.  Note it is not called the “Department of Agriculture” as in the U. S. but Rural Development, a big difference.  And, as best I can determine, there is no Cargill or Conagra equivalent at work in Korea.  (Where Monsanto comes into play I have yet to find out.) 

I recognize that the picture I’ve sketched may be inaccurate as a general statement and that Korean rivers can be polluted, for example.  There may be romantic thinking in my admiration.  But a guest should err on the side of being generous.

My days here are dwindling down but I will continue to explore what has, so far, made Korea so easy on the eye and, at times, so thrilling. 



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