Peer Review by Angelina Nguyen (Australia)

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The Life Within

By: lina13

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.  

Peer Review

The cultural element of this piece is evidently integral to you as a writer and is effective in helping you express your concerns for the environment from a personal level. By interweaving your own stories, memories and observations and relating them to the world's changing landscape that the world seems to be inactive towards, you present a unique argument that not only showcases your attachment to the environment, but also your desire to advocate for its preservation in the long run.

The stakes are more implicit in this piece but it can be understood that the environmental crisis that is currently being faced in our society affects every single one of us at a macro level. The impact of environmental damage reverberates into all aspects of human life and not only informs us of the decreasing state of the planet, but also of our moral culpability and activism. The reader is urged to care because it is intrinsically influencing them, as much as it is a global issue.

The piece identifies itself well and has a strong sense of completion which left me satisfied with the writer's message and intended direction for their readers to act upon. If there was anything I would suggest, it would be to incorporate more factual information about environmental destruction to elevate the realism of your essay and balance it with your well-executed idealism of ancient admiration and appreciation for nature.

"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."

For example, in this paragraph, I found it interesting how you have drawn comparisons from two different worlds and linked them with a common flaw of environmental damage. Perhaps you could provide in the footnotes the sources you used to extract this information and other readings that influenced your essay. This could increase its credibility and integrate more factual details in your response, enabling you to share more of the status quo and how it starkly contrasts with ancient cultural beliefs.

Although the competition is closed, I would strongly recommend you continue working on this draft! I can envision it as an even longer response with the foundation you have already set in place in this draft you have published here. You provide an original and compelling argument with insightful commentaries on the environment and status quo. I would encourage you to further pursue essay writing of this style because it shows who you are as a writer and what matters to you in an informative and passionate way.

Reviewer Comments

I thoroughly enjoyed reviewing this piece and look forward to seeing what contributions you will make to the site post ambassadorship. Hopefully this review was helpful! Thank you for your commitment and efforts in the program and all the best with your creative endeavours. Happy writing!