Thoughts of Humans,
Thoughts of Trees
Nam Hyo-chang | Ecology lawyer
How do trees greet autumn? Trees take on colorful fall foliage and shed their leaves as a survival strategy to safely endure the harsh winter. In short, trees foresee the future and prepare for the coming three months of winter. After the winter solstice in the depth of winter, trees begin to prepare for the spring solstice. Thus, the sprouting of leaves and flowers in spring is the result of trees beginning preparations during the winter. Trees are one of the major organisms that are most adaptable to Earth’s laws.
Autumn has given two tasks to trees. One is to disseminate the fruits they have produced all summer as far as possible, and the other is to prepare for surviving winter. The fruits they disperse must find adequate light, water and nutrition in order for their seeds to germinate. If the fruits drop beneath the trees that produced them, they are deprived of the ideal conditions for growth. Thus, trees display novel strategies to disperse their fruits as far as possible. Trees growing in the area having a distinct winter season produce a substance to help them bear the cold, which works as a kind of antifreeze. For example, birches, which are well adapted to cold, produce large amounts of this substance. The distinct crackling sound made by burning birch wood comes from this substance.
People today enjoy great convenience and sophistication. But if we do not change our lifestyles and our existing perceptions of nature, which exploits nature, we may someday experience an environmental crisis and its repercussions. This crisis is gradually developing now and changing our lives. Some people turn away from city life and move to the country where nature is abundant. Others choose farming or alternative schools for the sake of their children. Many people prefer organic food and use eco-friendly materials for their housing. However, are these small changes enough to prevent an environmental crisis? Can we truly secure a healthier life if we just change our diet to organic foods or build eco-friendly dwellings when most of the food, housing sites and the environment itself is already polluted? The development of science and technology seems to focus only on benefitting humans. It seems to be driven by the idea that humans are the masters of the Earth.
Humans think the environment is what surrounds them while they stand in the center. This is an extremely self-centered or human-centered way of thinking; that everything exists only for humans. Things that are considered good for humans are preserved, protected, bred or cultivated. The rest are either ignored or exterminated. From the human environmental perspective, the world is clearly divided into good things and bad things. Even plants are categorized as either useful or worthless. Birds are divided into auspicious and inauspicious ones. And there are harmful animals and harmful plants. This dualistic classification of nature has disturbed the inherent order of nature. However, that is not how ecology works. The term “ecology” means that each organism exists in its own space and has its own role, and each organism’s role is neither more important nor less important than any other; all of these roles are equally important. An ecological system is a network in which these roles are closely connected.
“Environment” and “ecology” are two different things, and in real life, they stand at extreme ends in their significance. The Industrial Revolution, which began about 200years ago, made the mass production of goods possible. Technology developed day by day to enable mass production, and all of the natural environment and the organisms living within it came to be bred and cultivated to serve the purpose of mass production.
The environment affects us directly, but ecology is less obvious. Housing districts in Seoul are mostly filled with densely-packed row houses and high-rise apartments. On the other hand, Western housing districts mostly consist of houses surrounded by trees and the occasional green belt. How does life differ in these two different environments, and how do they affect human life?
The first difference is the first sound people hear in the morning; you either hear the noises of machinery or the sounds of nature. There would be an obvious difference in the lives of those who start the day breathing fresh air and listening to singing birds, and those breathing in polluted air and listening to noise. Above all, the environment of a metropolis, dominated by asphalt and concrete structures, is comparatively simple; simple meaning it is designed for convenience and speed and is built along lots of straight lines. Contemporary society is unknowingly addicted to this simplicity. If humans prefer straight lines, nature prefers curved lines, parabolas and circles.
Today, human life is propelled by scientific ideas and economic theories. It is true that this has given us some degree of freedom. However, it seems to me that science will keep developing to unprecedented levels, and capitalism will continue until insatiable human greed brings destruction. I worry it is already too late to reverse the course we began when science became wedded to commerce, and how that unholy marriage has influenced the ecology.
The material affluence produced by this science-commerce marriage has created an overall “ecological crisis.” All beings, animate and inanimate, are now seen as a source of energy. Humans are also treated as the labor force to produce energy, which ultimately results in spiritual poverty and the loss of our humanity. Because the space that allows the “sensibility to feel with one’s heart,” which cannot be scientifically calculated, has neither existed so for, nor will it exist in the future, the issue of the loss of our humanity looms large. Nature has a renewed importance to modern society, who has benefited from brilliant technological developments and an affluent material culture, because it provides a wonderful opportunity for people to recover their humanity and the purity they have lost.
The way to free ourselves from the yoke of convenience and speed, which we have gotten used to over the past 200 years, is to value ecology over environment. An eco-friendly life cultivates a mind that can caress tress from time to time growing on a forest path. When we take the time to be silent and look at things minutely, we see much more that which is beautiful in the world.
I dream of beautiful things and try to live an eco-friendly life with a joyful heart. In my small home, about 39 m2 in size, there are no electric appliances, no refrigerator and no washing machine. I don’t need those things yet. I learn a lot when I wash my clothes by hand, and sometimes with my feet. Fewer clothes means less laundry to do, and I don’t buy clothes if I can help it. Not far from me is a village with a store that has a commercial-size refrigerator and vast food storage capability; it is called a supermarket. Sometimes it’s a little inconvenient, but all I need to do is go buy the food, which has been prepared and preserved fresh for me. I think it is a better choice than feeling guilty about greedily stuffing food in a refrigerator. In addition, some time ago I installed solar panels to satisfy the electrical needs of my small space. I now feel better about having reduced the burden my life places on nature. On warm sunny afternoons, I take off my shoes, leisurely walk a forest path, and listen to the sounds of the flowing water and the wind in the trees. In my work, I am always concerned with absolute speed and absolute competition. In nature, I enrich my life by slowing down and freeing my mind, moments to treasure in my line of work.
All living beings are the masters of this land.
And yet all are visitors who only stay for a while.
Nature has no straight lines.
Manmade fields and structures
Are represented by straight lines,
But everything else prefers curved lines,
Only soft, gentle lines.
(Japanese honey locust)