© Copyright 2021 Jaehee Son
Drawing by the author...
“I don’t understand why we have to go, this place is boring and it smells”
“Seung Uk! Don’t talk like that! We haven’t seen your grandmother in years, and we promised to visit for Arbor Day”
“Ugh, this road is killing me! Why haven’t they paved it yet?”
“Seung Uk please… try to be kind to your grandmother and her friends…”
The complaints from my brother went on and on, but I tuned him out… the road was interesting I thought; on the expressway, you couldn’t really see much as it all zoomed by, but here I could see all the wildflowers. It was too early in the season for dragonflies, but I imagined I could see them dancing. I cracked open the window and filled my senses with the smell of the trees and grass. It felt like home.
I wasn’t as ambivalent as my brother at seeing my grandmother: he was too young to remember what it was like to visit her in Cheorwon, but I remember summer days sitting by the creek near her house. It had been too long since moving away from Korea for dad’s work. I looked forward to the visit and drinking the cool sweet water from her well.
We parked the car and walked the long thin pathway across the meadow. The path was polished, flattened by people’s steps for years. Just a few meters ahead, I caught sight of the entrance to the village where the big Dangsan tree has been standing since long before I first visited. Under it were several grandparents, my grandmother included. She saw and beckoned “Come sit around the Dangsan tree and enjoy the fresh air! Come! Let me see you and show you off to my neighbors.” I smiled and gave her a hug. Her frail frame belied her strength, a wizened woman who had lived in her home village all her 92 years of life.
Our arrival was met with several greetings, marveling at how much we had grown, asking how we liked life in the big city of Shanghai. “You have come at the right time,” said Mr. Kim, one of the oldest men in the village who was a sprightly 94. “The azalea have just started to bloom! We made some rice cakes with them, you can have some while you are here.” Eventually, the conversation moved on and focused on the season’s crops, distant relations, and the upcoming Arbor Day. The conversation carried on with laughter. Nothing important, but their connection was obvious, as they all knew each other well. The way they talked to each other reminded me of a one big family, celebrating, sometimes commiserating, treating each other’s family members as their own. The Dangsan tree was at the center, as it had been since the beginning of the village itself.
I paused and thought of life in Shanghai: how well did I know my neighbors in the 10 story apartment I called home? I was embarrassed that I knew so little about any of them. I knew that the people on the 8th floor had a new Mercedes, but I couldn’t remember their names. My thoughts were interrupted by my grandmother: come, it’s time to eat. After around 5 minutes of walking, we arrived at her house. Next to the gate, brown ceramic jars were lined around the border of the house, in which my grandmother kept kimchi and soybean paste. Behind the pots was the line of trees we had planted 5 years before.
we ate the rice cakes, grandmother reminisced: “When we were
just liberated, the environment around us was not the same. Most of
the trees on the mountain had already been taken, either as lumber or
for fuel. Then the soldiers came during 6.25, and they were on the
top of the mountain. For days the shells were exploding to get them
to leave. At the end of it, there wasn’t a
single tree left on Baek-Un mountain or around the village, except the Dangsan tree. We were blessed.”
Her mention of the Korean War brought a long silence. Then she piped up: “Ah, here I am sharing sad stories. Look at the mountain now!” She pointed at the scenery of mountains in front of us, now heavily packed with leaves and trees. “We planted them all back. Come, let’s go, it's time to add some more to the north side.” She took out several shovels from the tiny storehouse behind her and passed them to us. Next to them, the saplings were neatly arranged ready for transplant.
“Here, grab one. Jaehee, you get the trees”
I had never considered the importance of planting trees; it was just something we were expected to do once a year. Trying to imagine the mountainside denuded of trees was difficult since it looked so alive…The efforts of my family and neighbors had restored this area to a kind of paradise, and I was blessed to have a lush, vibrant mountainside as my reality. This wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t come together to bring back the natural environment we now have. This wouldn’t have been possible without the sense of belonging they all felt, belonging to the village and with one another. There is something significant about the deep connection between people, and how well they can work together. In school and outside society, people sometimes forget that we are in this together. As we lose the sense of connection to one another, we also lose sustainability in our lives, since we lack stability with relationships both to people and our world. Here, in my grandmother’s community, I was reminded of this as I thought of the Dangsan roots and the trees filling the mountain… the essential components in building these connections and providing a sense of belonging in this community. Visiting my grandmother’s hometown after such a long absence reminded me of these truths. Now my challenge is to find a way to make this happen in every community I travel to.