Trip Start Aug 26, 2007
18Trip End Aug 25, 2008
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And then the land began to thaw, and the hillock of ice that had stood at the foot of a dripping gutter outside my door for three months receded away into the concrete. Every morning on the bus out to school, I passed the same frozen rice fields, as hard as iron. But when the bus passed back each afternoon the same fields were wet and muddy. The stream found its way and began to flow again, and the sun hung longer in the air every afternoon.
The foreigners who had shivered and cursed their way through their first Korean winter felt a gradual, collective change in their mood. Optimism began to return. Plans were drawn up for weekend expeditions, and the dates of the ubiquitous spring festivals were checked and then checked again. But the idea of colour on the barren trees still seemed fantastical.
The farmlands entered their ugliest stage. Every morning the road to school reeked with thawing duckshit from the local farms, and the dishevelled birds inside followed the sunlight that fell through the wire and across the floor. Ducks that hadn't survived the frost were draped over a pile of rusty piping, their necks twisted and limp. The frost disappeared from the fields altogether, to be replaced by stagnant brown water, blooming with green sludge. The remaining crop stubble was burned away in low, smouldering fires that cast acrid smoke across the breezeless country and left black stains across the fields. It looked like the war zone it once was, a scorched earth that would never again be good for anything.
When the tractors emerged they churned through these barren fields, throwing up great clods of dirt, churning through the waste and ash, and leaving the world brown. But it was a brown that contained the promise of life returning. For the first time in months the rice fields had sloughed off their miasma of despair. They looked like they might be good for something after all.
The small talk in the staff room shifted from the talk of snow and coats to talk of yellow dust and health warnings. Face masks were exchanged as gifts. At the beginning of the new semester when I asked my students what the weather was like, they struggled to express that a malignant wind was sweeping across the Gobi desert, stirring up sand and dust, before howling across industrial China to be poisoned by the Beijing atmosphere, then leaping across the sea and snagging over the mountains of Korea. They eventually explained that the weather was sandwindy. That was ominous enough.
The same novice foreigners that had began to plan trips around Korea now found themselves with perpetually dry throats and encrusted noses. But these couldn't undermine the budding optimism. The heating was turned down and shoulders were shrugged free of their coats. The streets began to fill with people again, loitering about the food stalls, dawdling about in the parks with their cameras, where the naked twigs of the plants were beginning to bud with green, white and pink.
Cherry blossom festivals began around Korea, sometimes before the flowers they were honouring. When the blossoms did arrive they arrived en masse, great shimmering clouds of petals that were hard to focus on, and that seemed to dissolve into the sky. Hardly had the flowers bloomed before the off-white sky swept them away with the first and only shower of March. One weekend the flowers were not yet out, by the next the faintest tremor in the atmosphere would dislodge snowstorms of petals to insinuate themselves into the hair and clothes of the weekend crowds that clustered wherever a tree stood. And the petals were gone and the trees were green.
The ducks too, disappeared, mid-week and again in the blinking of an eye. One morning on the way to school that sat, shaggy and honking in the morning sun. The next day their muddy lots were empty and lonely.
I visited Gongju, I visited Daejeon, I visited Yeouido island in Seoul, I visited Gongju again. I dedicated each weekend to the search for cherry blossoms, and everywhere I went I found them, but they were always too young or too old, and then they were gone, the trees turned green.
And then, in another blink, spring had arrived in Korea. The fallen cherry blossoms were pushed aside by the green grass thrusting up everywhere, and where everything had been the white of sky or of blossom, Korea suddenly turned deep yellow, bright red, pink, purple, the colours changing overnight every night. Overnight every tree turned green, every garden came to life. And the air became heavy and warm. Clothes were sloughed off like petals, and every face in the street lost its hard reserve, the corners of lips curling into smiles.
Out past the flooded fields vegetables poked fingers through the soil and waved them in the sun, growing strong and green. A black squirrel chased sparrows around the schoolyards. Baby birds hatched from the eggs in the ventilation ducts and cheeped their arrival to the whole school. The dogs by the school routinely dug their way through the newly warmed soil and out of their cage, and then waited around with stupid tongues flapping, for someone to put them back in.
One of the first things any Korean person will tell me about their country is that there are four distinct seasons. This is true, spectacularly so, but the space between the Siberian winter and the Vietnamese summer doesn't last for a full three months. There had been maybe three good weeks of autumn colour before the frost arrived. Spring looks likely to last only slightly longer. Then the sandwind will be drenched from the sky by the seething humidity, and the café terraces that are, for the moment, so lovely, and so busy with people, will be abandoned once again as refuge is sought in the malls, as far from the mischief of nature as anyone can flee.
But for the moment, the brief and spectacular spring has come to Korea. The prettiness of the spring is in its transience, in the delicacy and mortality of its flowers and colours. This is a land where people earn their snaps of the trembling cherry blossoms, their coffees on the terrace, and their hand-in-hand walks through the verdant gardens. They earn them by suffering through the ugly oppressiveness of most of the year. But then in the moments of transition, every gripe and groan is forgotten, and there is time only to appreciate and enjoy, and to gather enough pretty photos and memories to last through the next rough season.