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DAEJEON BIENNALE: The Dance of Thousands of Years
Suhee and I are just finishing moving our life from Japan to Korea. It has been one of these looming uncertainties for the past two years — another story in its own right! Simultaneously with that big move, an opportunity came up to prepare an exhibition for the 2022 Daejeon Biennale in Korea. As I write this, the opening ceremony, press conference, and artist talks are just done with, the moving boxes just arrived from Japan, and it seems that somehow we pulled it off. The multi-sensory ecological art installation titled A City Designed by Trees is now on view for the next two months. Yippie!
All of this explains the story drought here lately. Apologies for that. There are many stories I am eager to get up here, after getting a bit of rest from these past few intense months. Luckily though, a big part of the exhibition is the act of story. A lot of story.
You can see an overview of the entire exhibition on the City as Nature website. It is always a challenge to convey something from a gallery in the digital world — especially when it asks for interaction — but I hope eventually to find ways of doing this here.
For now I would like to share one particular piece of the exhibition that lends itself to this format. This is a story is written in Korean and English together with Suhee. Below I present the English version. It is called The Dance of Thousands of Years, and in this dance, we explore the relationship between city and tree in the past, present, and future. You, dear subscribing friends, will be the first people outside of Korea to read it ;-)
So, read on below, share, and as always, thanks for putting up with me.
THE DANCE OF THOUSANDS OF YEARS
by Suhee Kang and Patrick M. Lydon
Part I - The Fellowship of the Trees
Trees created the conditions for humans to live on Earth. Since then, we have lived together and supported each other’s lives. Although this friendship between humans and trees has been broken recently, it can be mended if we listen to our leafy elders.
a tree’s body,
record of a dance
that’s lasted thousands of years
can we remember
The Scientists who are listening to trees have learned much. Trees are a keystone species. When there is no rain, they help bring water up from the earth. When there is too much rain they reduce the chance of flood. When it is too hot, they cool our cities. When it is too cold, they help warm our cities. They save energy, reduce pollution, and offer important nutrients to everything downstream from them, from birds to humans to fish.
Humans living near forests also tend to live longer, with less health problems. Clearly, trees want to help people, but our cities of monocultures, asphalt, and chemical sprays have shut them out. Our actions cause urban flooding, oppressive heat, pollution, and a long list of health problems for all. But what would happen, if we started saying yes to trees, forests, meadows, wetlands, wild plants, and streams, all weaving their way through our cities?
Part II — Attempts at Communication
Trees attempted to talk with us before. Sometimes we heard them. In Spring, the Plum and Cherry trees asked us to celebrate with them. “Hello! Spring is here! Can you smell it? Can you see it?” We marveled at this celebration together, we picnicked under their canopies. But then we returned to our offices in the city where no trees exist.
In the height of the Summer heat, the Zelkova said to people “Dear humans, come and rest here. Please drink our cool wet air. Do you hear the symphony in our branches?” But the people were wearing earphones and watching smartphones. They did not notice the invitation, and instead walked to air-conditioned coffee shops and ordered Iced Americanos.
As fall neared, the Maple and Ginkgo told the people “Winter is coming, but let’s have one last party. Fireworks of colored leaves for everyone! Hurrah!” Humans delighted to walk through the colorful scene, and the microorganisms in the earth delighted too, as the leaves piled up, promising them a warm home for the Winter. However, the humans raked up and threw away these leaves, leaving a shivering bare naked Earth.
But, in the City Designed by Trees, a different world is born.
Part 3 — A City Designed by Trees
In the City Designed by Trees, when Winter melts away and Spring arrives, humans are intoxicated by the smell of plum blossoms and the sight of cherry blossoms. They prepare excitedly. They ready their tools for plum extract and plum alcohol, for cherry jam and cherry leaf mochi. Later, they pick fruit with delight, and when all is made, they celebrate in the forest, the field, the riverside. They thank the trees, and share a small offering of their plum-or-cherry-whatever to the Earth. Both parties rejoice.
In Summer, shops and workers and children and the elderly in the City Designed by Trees spill out into the forest corridors crisscrossing the city. Even on the hottest days, people move on bike, or foot, or wheelchair. “A tree is a natural solar-powered air-conditioner” they say. And it’s true. On hot days, the City Designed by Trees is up to 20°C cooler than the Parking Lot City. Later, when the rain falls, the trees go to work, soaking in excess water so the streams and rivers are not flooded, soil stays put, and the underground springs have a plentiful supply for the coming dry season.
As Fall reaches the City Designed by Trees, humans harvest grains, collect nuts and persimmon, and tidy up before Winter. Of all the seasonal celebrations, those in Fall might be the most spectacular. The forests fill with lights and music and dancing, with homemade rice wine, and roasted forest treats of all kinds, shared freely for all. The spirit of Thanksgiving (Chuseok) comes alive, a giving of thanks for all ancestors, for all gods, for each other, and for an entire year of partnership between forest and human.
The City Designed by Trees is more than just a resilient or sustainable city. It is a city filled with all of those things which make life a little bit more beautiful, equitable, and celebratory. It is a city where humans, in listening to the wisdom of the trees, finally came to embrace their own role as stewards, living in and building cities in harmony with Forest, River, Wetland, Meadow, Mountain, Sazanka, Honeybee, Protozoa, and all.
If you have your own stories or tree memories, share them below, or use the tag #citybytrees on Insta or Twitter. We’ll try to include them in the show and the virtual archive. Thanks for reading. Be well and see you next time. Hopefully sooner rather than later.
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