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Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

Jirisan – the landscape that inspired Hwang Jihae’s “Letter from a Million Years Past” garden at Chelsea

A shady waterfall and pool in an ancient forest
One of the many waterfalls and pools in Chilseon Valley (photo © Korea National Parks Service

Jungsan-ri, Sancheong County, Gyeongsangsnam-do. LKL is on a field trip to Jirisan, Korea’s first National Park, the home of Korean traditional medicine and much else besides. We’re fortunate to have a special relationship with Sancheong County, which contains Jirisan’s highest peak and occupies the mountain’s east and south-eastern slopes. The unwritten deal I have with them is that they provide me with accommodation and things to write about when I visit, and I write about them on this website. The relationship works well and I’ve been going there, pandemic permitting, every year since 2010.

While visiting Sancheong this time, I had hoped to have a free day to cross over the neighbouring county, Hamyang, to visit Chilseon valley, the region that provided some of the inspiration for Hwang Jihae’s “Letter from a million years past” garden at Chelsea this week, and said to be one of Korea’s top three most beautiful valleys. As usual, I found that my hosts had completely filled my agenda and there was no time for jaunts outside of the county. But as it happened, the county office had done me a favour. Access to Chilseon valley is restricted to limited times and limited numbers of people, and you need to pre-book. So if I had just turned up on the off-chance I would have been disappointed.

Completely unaware of my hidden Chelsea agenda, by coincidence my hosts had provided an experience more valuable than a speculative trip to another county: they had laid on a guided walk by a ranger from the Jirisan National Park Service along a very recently opened trail in Jungsan-ri’s Duryu valley in the south of Jirisan, a valley that provides access to the quickest route up to Jirisan’s highest peak, Cheonwangbong. This new trail is part of Sancheong’s efforts to promote tourism in a controlled manner while still protecting the environment. Although on opposite sides of Jirisan (Duryu valley is a fraction east of due south of the peak, while Chilseon is north north-west), the two valleys have similar properties.

A park ranger points out an item of interest in a forest
Ranger Pak Miyeon at the start of the Duryu Valley trail (photo: LKL, 17 May 2023)

Ranger Pak Miyeon points out features of interest as we walk along the trail. In particular many of the trees and plants she indicates have medicinal uses in Korean traditional medicine, whether it be the flower, berry, leaf or root. The walkway winds its way through a forest and alongside a rocky river where the water alternately rushes over waterfalls and collects in inviting-looking pools.

The trunk of a tree with vertical stripes in its bark
Carpinus laxiflora in Duryu Valley (photo: LKL, 17 May 2023)

“That tree is a Seo-eo-namu,” said Ranger Pak. [서어나무, Carpinus laxiflora, a hornbeam – I had to look it up later after checking the Korean spelling with a friend]. “It takes a long time to grow. When you see one this tall, you know you are in an old part of the forest.”

The landscape is dominated by rocks and boulders. Without the walkway, the forest would have been difficult to penetrate: your passage would be blocked by the huge moss-covered boulders, or you would end up twisting your ankle or getting your foot caught in a gap between the rocks. Hwang Jihae’s Chelsea garden features 200 tonnes of rocks sourced from Scotland to try to evoke the 2 billion year old Jirisan landscape.

As we walked along the trail a little further, one tiny corner of the valley seemed to be more accessible: almost as if it had been terraced; but if so the wildness of nature was now reclaiming the land. “That area used to be occupied by a slash-and-burn farmer”, said Ranger Pak. “That type of farming used to be common in the Jirisan area but it died out in the 80s and 90s,” she explained.

A shady area of forest where there is evidence of landscape clearance by a slash-and-burn farmer
Duryu Valley, Sancheong: a more accessible corner, once occupied by a slash-and-burn farmer (photo, LKL 17 May 2023)

It was a similar, or even worse, story in Chilseon Valley, the deepest and the most rugged valley in the Jirisan range. Biodiversity had suffered as a result of over-harvesting by people searching for medicinal plants, and additional damage had been done by hikers. Then, in 1997, landslides caused by Typhoon Sarah devastated the area. This provided the authorities with an opportunity for change. The area was completely closed off until 2008, and for now public access is being permitted only on a tightly controlled basis at certain times of year.

The result has been dramatic. “Free from human intervention for the last 25 years, the valley’s nurturing environment and ecosystem has improved rapidly.” Hwang Jihae explained to me when talking about her garden earlier this month. In a typically Korean fashion she went on to give statistics. “Analysis performed at eleven locations throughout the valley show that the number of plant species grew from 22 in 2002 to 147 in 2006.” The tendency of nature to revert to its aboriginal state if left untouched is something that inspires Jihae: “I think the recovery of aboriginality and preservation of mankind and life means minimizing human intervention and respecting plants’ inertia towards the aboriginal state.”

The tree canopy in Duryu valley
The tree canopy in Duryu valley (photo: LKL 17 May 2023)

The tree foliage in the valley provides a canopy that traps the moisture from the river in the atmosphere, creating a microclimate, while a complex ecosystem seems to develop around the boulders which provide shelter and, seemingly, nutrients too for the small plants. The landscape is almost impossible for an unskilled photographer to capture adequately using a mobile phone. The contrasts between light and shade, the huge scale of the boulders which underpin the landscape; the details of the plants – including trees – which grow out of fissures in the rocks all provide their challenges for a photographer with entry-level technology and limited artistic eye. As you move through the landscape all these unusual features strike you, but when you stand still and try to capture the scene as a two dimensional image everything becomes flat.

Rocks, trees and smaller plants form a tangled, almost chaotic scene
Rocks, trees and smaller plants form a tangled, almost chaotic scene (photo: LKL 17 May 2023

In the forest there doesn’t seem to be a focal point to provide interest or to guide the eye (though you can often find a good view of a waterfall, as the National Parks Service did for the image at the top of this page). Left to its own devices, nature doesn’t organise itself into convenient vistas for the human onlooker; instead the trees and plants compete with each other, encroaching on each other’s spaces in a tangled but nevertheless harmonious way. The same complexity, I find, is to be encountered in some of Jihae’s gardens, though the Chelsea designs have always contained a man made structure to provide an anchor point (a privy in 2011, a military watch tower in 2012 and this year a medicinal herb drying tower). Because her planting is so naturalistic, so that the garden looks as if it has been in existence forever, there isn’t the money shot, the perfect view, that you find in more conventionally designed gardens. Jihae’s gardens simply have to be experienced; and more importantly the viewer has to listen to what Jihae is trying to say by presenting the garden. Her goal this year is ambitious:

“The ultimate aim of this garden is for people to change their attitude towards nature,” she says. “For example, the garden’s large rocks represent over 2 billion years of time. They existed even before the birth of mankind. They have been keeping a certain form of love within them for millions of years. With little plants growing and flowering within the crevices and cracks between the rocks, this love has been illustrated for us to see. So these rocks and plants are like letters sent to us from millions of years ago.”

This love, these letters, sent to us demand a response. For Hwang Jihae the response has to be to nurture these landscapes and ecosystems so that rare and aboriginal plants can once again thrive; and by preserving this balance humans can benefit from the healing properties of these plants.


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