In traditional Korean gardens, man-made structures were always built around the existing natural elements. A stream or lotus pond, for example, was seen as a fortuitous opportunity to build an adjacent pavilion, designed purely for the purpose of watching the water trickle by.
My grandmother told me this all of this as I held her hand, twelve years ago, the two of us standing in the famous Soswaewon Garden. We had stopped to rest on a bridge built over a small stream. Worried that I was small enough to slip through the bridge’s railing and into the water, my grandmother held me tightly as I peered down. I felt a tug of excitement at the bottom of my stomach as I counted the darting, colourful shapes of fish underneath us. One, two, too many to count.
The natural world has always been important to ancient Korean culture. In my childhood, my grandmother filled me with stories of guardian spirits living in the mountains and rivers, and the souls of rocks and trees. My grandparents themselves have a large garden, and in it they plant anything and everything, in no particular order or logic. As a young girl, I loved playing in that irregular, peculiar place.
In contrast, at home in Sydney, my apartment building has no wild gardens, or running streams. My balcony looks out onto the murky Parramatta River. There are often clumps of rubbish bobbing around on the surface; even from the fourth floor, I can make out plastic milk cartons, shopping bags and cans.
Connection with the land is a common denominator of many ancient cultures. The Masai people of Kenya and Tanzania, the ancient Egyptians, Indigenous Australian tribes – all of them placed spiritual emphasis on the natural environment. To them, the land was not simply beautiful, or solely useful. It was breathing; conscious; alive. For this reason, it deserved awe, respect and connection.
But nowadays, any person who considers the natural environment as truly alive – truly important – is too easily dismissed with a smirk and a mention of “hippie” or “tree-hugger.” The same appreciation that was so crucial to ancient Korean, or African, or Australian culture is now the object of constant social mockery. How could our attitudes have changed so drastically over time? When I think back to my grandmother taking me to see the Sosawewon Garden, telling me how things used to be, I wonder how all of us managed to get it so wrong.
Because despite its ancient culture, South Korea is now one of the most polluted places in the world. Recently, it was shown to have the worst air quality among all the OECD economies. And in Australia, my second home, millions of native flora and fauna have been eradicated as nearly half of our forests have been cleared in the past two centuries.
When did we stop believing that nature is alive? That we are as much a part of it as it is of us? That no computer or spaceship is capable of solving the problems of our environment in a flash?
I haven’t seen my grandparents’ garden in a long time. It's been even longer since I listened to my grandmother’s stories. But it’s time that we all started listening, regardless of our personal background, political leaning, or wealth. It’s time we heard the voices of our past. It’s time we found, once again, the life within the world around us.