Jeju forest guide tells nature’s personal story

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Lee Ji-young and her cat, Nabi, sit together in the Fantasy Forest of Gotjawal Park on Jeju Island. The two often guide the way together. [KWON HYuK-JAE]
Lee Ji-young and her cat, Nabi, sit together in the Fantasy Forest of Gotjawal Park on Jeju Island. The two often guide the way together. [KWON HYuK-JAE]
While Lee Ji-young was working one day as a forest guide at the Fantasy Forest of Gotjawal Park on Jeju Island, three blind visitors were placed under her wing.

The 29-year-old recalled how she struggled at the time to explain the names of each flower or which types of seeds were safe for consumption. She was also worried they might hurt themselves on stray branches or thorn bushes.

But Lee’s worries turned out to be for nothing. The three visitors connected with their surroundings using their other senses. They could not see the forest, but they could feel it. They followed the scent of each flower and felt the warm air on their skin.

“I realized that explaining the forest in botanical or geological terms was useless,” she said. “I decided to talk about how trees live in the forest and about how we should live our lives.”

Four years have passed since then, and now Lee refrains from providing super-specialized knowledge about the forest. Rather, she wants the visitors of the park to become a tree, and feel the nature for themselves.

She explains why the trees grow so tall or how they plant their roots so firmly in the ground or in the rocks.

Gotjawal in Jeju dialect refers to the word forest, got, and thorn bush, or jawal. The area that the forest occupies now was originally covered by lava, and many of the trees there have adapted to grow around the rocks.

The park was actually landscaped and revived by Lee’s father, Lee Hyung-cheol, 56, who owns the forest.

After becoming incapacitated nine years ago from a stroke, which left half his body paralyzed, he ventured out to the forest each day in order to regain his strength.

He often made trails on the ground and organized the thorn bushes to make a path for his stroll. Following his recovery, Lee’s family decided to open the Fantasy Forest to the public in 2011.

Lee participated, too, leaving behind her life in Seoul, where she worked as a researcher.

“Life in Seoul was enjoyable, but I was stressed sometimes,” she said.

After Lee expanded her commentary, the number of visitors to the park increased, from about 40,000 in 2013 to about 70,000 in 2014.

And as the visitors listen, they often try to imagine themselves in the tree’s position.

“You have to think about why this tree grew so tall compared to the other trees,” Lee explains. “It’s because the neighboring trees kept overshadowing this tree, so it grew taller in order to get more sunshine.”

Her explanations mostly center on how trees grow to form forests and how different species live in harmony.

A few visitors have expressed skepticism over the entrance fee – 5,000 won ($4) for adults, which includes Lee’s services. But her commentary eventually wins everyone over. It has also inspired more people to help to conserve the Gotjawal Forest. For a long time, it was considered useless; forests make up just 6 percent of Jeju Island.

“My dream is simple but grand,” Lee said. “I want to be an important and special voice for the forest, who tells its stories but does it no harm – who lives with it.”

BY LEE YOUNG-HEE [kim.hyangmin@joongang.co.kr]

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