PHOTO ESSAY: Seoul and the Call of the Urban Wild (Part 3)
In which we temporarily transport ourselves to the landscapes of Scotland and Japan
This is part three in a four-part photo essay series [see part one here].While reading, I suggest the images can serve as points to stop and meditate. Take a deep breath and spend some time with each image, see what you notice, and consider how it makes you feel before continuing. However you do it, thanks for reading, and I hope you continue enjoying the journey.
Having lived in Korea, Japan and Scotland during the past decade, my view of what it means to have access to nature, has been gently pushed in some hopeful directions. In Japan for instance, there exist deeply rooted social connections to nature. For some thousands of years of recorded history, there have been remarkably constant undertones of seeing forests, mountains, and water sources as sacred.
Traditions that express these undertones have moved delicately through the years. These traditions span multiple disciplines and practices including rituals, cultural legends and stories, arts and crafts, but also, ways of foraging, fishing, farming, and building cities. Though on the surface each of these practices are different—and indeed, even within each discipline, the regional differences might appear to be endless—they all rely in their own ways on knowing nature, as a prerequisite to taking action.
Knowing nature, as in, cultivating a relationship with the environment. Knowing nature, as in—regardless of what one does in life—having an intimacy not only with the materials that one works with, but also with the ecosystem that produces those materials. When our jobs continue to rely on this particular kind of relationship and intimacy, we enshrine in that work, an ecological understanding that can be maintained from one generation to the next.
This is what a sustainable ecological culture means. It is not about sustainable materials or sustainable economics or sustainable political laws themselves—these all change with the winds—but rather, about figuring out an underlying cultural mindset that helps us to understand who we are, and how we relate to each other and to this living earth.
This cultural mindset is not something that can necessarily be rigidly dictated or planned. Instead, it must be fluid, and this fluidity seems to happen most effectively when we incorporate ourselves and our work into that nature, as a part of our daily habit. It comes from the practice.
You could call this a spiritual practice. Not necessarily a religious practice, but an individual practice which acknowledges the aliveness—or animating force—of the world, and which seeks to participate fully in this aliveness.
In much of the West, there is sometimes a belief that the spiritual and practical must be at odds with each other. Yet much of the culture that we find so fascinatingly beautiful in places like Japan—or Korea—recognizes the opposite to be true. The importance of relationships between humans and their environments is both practical and spiritual. These two ways of seeing and doing are not at odds with each other, but are necessary compliments to one another.
In practice, this way of thinking has been chipped away at by many human forces. However in various ways, natural elements in Japan are still thanked, honored, and cared for to this day.
This accounts for at least part of the reason why, though urban areas here are often extremely dense, you’ll always find nature integrated into tight spaces in unique ways, and the ability to walk, bicycle or take public transit to expansive parks, nature reserves, mountains, pilgrimage trails, forested shrines, rivers, and recreation areas is readily available.
Similarly in Scotland, the understanding that a balanced human existence requires access to nature is well understood. In fact, it is enshrined in law.
Everyone in Scotland has the right to move respectfully through nearly all public and private land, or even to set up a camp and sleep. This Outdoor Access Code as it is called, is both a right and responsibility, a pact where those who venture into the landscape are expected to “Respect the interests of others, care for the environment, and take responsibility for their own actions.”
The code was enacted on account of a people who see importance in expanding our connection to and understanding of “natural and cultural heritage.”
It is liberating, when nature is ample and accessible, where “trespassers will be shot” is not an option for dealing with land access, and where one can literally walk, rest, and enjoy being in nature, almost anywhere, anytime.
Such an access code, however, also requires a cultural understanding. This understanding takes time, it takes willingness, and it takes education of a population from youth through adulthood, about the responsibilities we humans have as members of this earth community. We must know not only how to take, or even how to give, but how to relate with and understand the living world.
In Scotland—as in most of the industrialized world—this understanding has waned, and this waning sometimes creates situations where legislation like the Outdoor Access Code are abused. However, we should be reminded that it is only with such rights in the first place, that an understanding of our responsibilities can truly be rekindled.
The right to access nature is a starting point on the path to sustainable, nature-connected cultures.
You and I have just done a little bit of globe trotting through Japan and Scotland. Apologies for that. We are supposed to be hiking through a mountain in Seoul, and yet, here we are walking through Shinto shrines and sheep meadows.
Nevertheless, it is telling how similar threads of thought run through these—and many other—cultures, no matter how different they might seem. These threads might be hidden where we live, but they are there nevertheless. Just waiting to be woven into something beautiful.
But let us get back to Seoul, and our walk through Bukhansan National Park.
Turning to contemporary Korea, we find a country that is probably most well-known for endless rows of Soviet-style apartment towers, overly car-friendly planning, and severe air pollution. There are many urban politicians, academics, and activists making honest efforts however, to reverse this image.
Some readers might know of the enviable mass transit proliferation, or even of the projects to tear down urban highways and restore the streams that were buried by those highways. In a slightly more subtle but wider scale movement however, many Korean cities and towns have built thousands of miles of trails to provide public access through urban mountains and forests.
Though there have been plenty of ugly bumps along the way, Korea is quietly becoming a leader in urban nature access. Yet many of their best efforts have been inspired by looking at solutions from other cultures, in societies that are radically different from their own. Foreign concepts are studied, dissected, and then re-imagined, put back together in unique ways which are adapted to fit the local culture and ecological situations.
Another word for this is innovation.
One of Korea’s such innovations for urban nature access is the dulle-gil, a kind of walking route that connects city and nature in a way that benefits people, environment, and commerce. A fortnight from today, in our final part of this photo essay series, we will take a brief look at the dulle-gil, and also get back to finishing our walk through Bukhansan.
Hope to see you then!
Thanks for being here, and thanks to all of those who have subscribed to The Possible City so far! If you’re not yet a subscriber, you can handle that below. If you are, keep on sharing and caring. See you next week, where I think we’ll return to a new illustrated short story, before finishing off this photo essay.
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