Quiet Time: DMZ Forbidden Garden — an appreciation of the Chelsea gold medal-winner

by Philip Gowman on 22 May, 2012

in Gardens and horticulture, Hwang Jihae (황지해)

It was the first decent day of the month. Although it had started grey and cold, the forecasters promised sun and heat, and they were spot on. Quite a good day then, after all the hard preparation by Hwang Jihae’s team, to be awarded a coveted Chelsea gold medal, for the second year runnning.

The Chelsea Gold Medal for Hwang Jihae at Muum

The Chelsea Gold Medal for Hwang Jihae at Muum

Was it my bias that made me think that many of the other show gardens looked like they were clones of each other, straight out of a Homes & Garden magazine? They were, of course, all immaculate, peaceful, colourful, well-designed, disciplined, organised, and manicured. If Germans did gardens, this is what they would come up with. Damn good ones. But very safe. Very corporate. Then there was Diarmuid Gavin’s extravaganza, a multi-storeyed ziggurat with a helter-skelter, pushing the boundaries of the latest trend in vertical gardening. But hardly a show garden, given that you couldn’t see most of the planting. And like the others, where was the soul, where was the meaning?

Jung Ji-eun performs on the Kayageum to celebrate the garden's opening

Jung Ji-eun performs on the Kayageum to celebrate the garden's opening (21 May. Photo courtesy of www.kaya-music.co.uk)

Quiet Time: DMZ Forbidden Garden had meaning a-plenty, particularly when you think of the ongoing provocations emerging daily from Pyongyang. A nuclear-armed hereditary dictatorship unable to feed its people is still at war with a vibrant democracy which is one of the world’s leading economic powers. Both have military forces including reserves of around 9 million1. A narrow strip of land, the De-Militarized Zone, separates the two halves of the peninsula. But while it keeps the armies apart, it also separates families and friends, and divides an entire nation.

The DMZ in Yanggu County, Gangwon Province

The DMZ in Yanggu County, Gangwon Province (photo provided by Hwang Jihae)

This narrow strip of land, for the most part undisturbed for 60 years, has developed, unintentionally, into a wildlife sanctuary. Parts of it have even been turned into an eco-tourism destination. It is this landscape of nature run wild which, in part, inspired Hwang Jihae’s planting scheme for her DMZ garden.

Some of the wild, unstructured planting in the DMZ garden

Some of the wild, unstructured planting in the DMZ garden (22 May)

Those looking for perfect sight-lines and rigid structure in the DMZ garden would have been disappointed, for that is not the hallmark of a Korean garden. It is is nigh-on impossible to get a picture-perfect photo of the garden as a whole. Instead, among other things it is a garden of immaculate detail, through which you need to walk to appreciate to the full. Around two-thirds of the plants were actually imported from Korea, but right to the very end the perfectionist eye of designer Hwang Jihae was looking to source additional grasses and plants to complete the right effect.

A tangle of nature grows up among the rusted metal

A tangle of nature grows up among the rusted metal, teasing you by obscuring your sight-line (22 May)

Because of the density of planting, each step you take along the button-encrusted path gives you a different aspect. But as a glimpse of a view opens up in a new direction, another is closed off by tall grass, a tree stump or a rusted mess-tin.

A discarded pair of boots hangs from one of the supports of the watch-tower

A discarded pair of boots hangs from one of the supports of the watch-tower (22 May)

Apart from being a faithful re-creation of a landscape, the garden is a tribute to the sacrifice of the soldiers who fought to preserve the freedom of the South, and a lament over the ongoing division of the peninsula.

The DMZ watch-tower, the centrepiece of the garden

The DMZ watch-tower, the centrepiece of the garden (22 May)

The most obvious feature is the watch-tower, which itself has a multi-layered symbolism. Yes, a tower conventionally is an edifice of oppression (keeping people in) or defense (keeping people out). But the physical construction of this tower is based on Freedom Bridge, a landmark where war prisoners were exchanged after the 1953 armistice which halted the Korean War.

The memorial bench made out of military ID tags

The memorial bench made out of military ID tags (22 May)

A memorial bench made of countless military dog-tags symbolises the countless lives that were lost in the conflict, while a pair of boots hanging from the watchtower, buttons from military uniforms, rusty helmets and spent bullets are obvious reminders that the DMZ was and is a war zone.

An ammunition box and rotting trees beside a brook

An ammunition box and rotting trees beside a brook (22 May)

But while there are the scars of war everywhere, the abundance of nature gives hope; while the barbed wire fence severs a rusty railway, a small brook flows freely through the wire. And on the wires themselves, which creepers and climbing plants are using as supports, hang tins and bottles containing letters from separated families and friends to their loved ones on the other side of the artificial border.

A message to a loved one on the other side of the barrier

A message to a loved one on the other side of the barrier (22 May)

This is a garden which needs to be contemplated slowly, possibly in the evening when there are fewer crowds: when you can appreciate the details without being jostled, when perhaps you can hear the wind in the trees and in the grass, and when you can appreciate the beauty of the unspoilt nature while quietly shedding a tear for what the DMZ represents.

A Chelsea Pensioner gets a kayageum lesson

A Chelsea Pensioner gets a kayageum lesson, while in the background a couple more inspect the DMZ watch-tower (21 May. Photo provided by www.kaya-music.co.uk)

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  1. According to Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_number_of_military_and_paramilitary_personnel, accessed 22 May 2012). []

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