Anyone could spot a sense of generosity from the way they smiled. This family made any visitors make themselves feel at home with ease. A setting for a true "happily ever after" was what Lee, Jiyoung hopes everyone could remember the forest by.
Please tell us a little bit about Gotjawal.
Gotjawal is a forest formed on rocks. With strata of hardened lava flows and pockets of oxygen from underneath the surface, the climate and ecosystem of this forest is unlike any other. Under normal circumstances, dirt would have filled the chasms but here, 15 degree C air is constantly fumed from underneath the ground level and this airflow cools the summer weather and warms the winter weather. This constant temperature control lets plants from the Northern Limit Line to Southern Limit Line to coexist in one forest.
It is impressive that your families are operating this forest. How did you come to do this?
I had no idea that this would eventually become this grand. My father had suffered a stroke 11 years ago and it left him partially paralyzed, his right side. And he never wanted to appear weak or ill to anyone. That is when he first became a part of this forest.
His determination to create a simple trail to follow had him making trails with his left arm, the side that wasn't paralyzed. And after days of constricting and walking, he recovered from his paralysis. He was 47 when he had his stroke and he was in his early 50 when he recovered. His determination to start something was the beginning of Hwansang Forest Gotjawal Park.
Is the current trail that guests are using the one your father had created?
They are similar. The early ones he made are now used as shortcuts that our guides use. As more guests began to visit, he began creating more trails for them additionally.
My father finds it interesting as well. He says, "I don't think I would have done it all, had I planed everything in advance." He just simply thought that, "it would be nice to get to that point." Maybe it was that lack of intention that allowed it to be this natural.
When did Gotjawal officially become open to public?
It was 6 years ago that my father and my grandmother first opened this plane. We called it a grand opening, but we barely had one guest a day. My father later asked me if I could help with the operation of the forest. I was working at a firm that consults the agricultural communities. It made me think that I was helping all the people but my father and my family. So I talked to my manager and was grateful enough to get a month of paid vacation and that is how I came here.
And you began living here since then?
For a month, I made notice boards and wrote scripts for guides. And when I thought my work here is done and was just about to leave, my father said, "you can't leave here. I still don't know anything." So I took another month from work. And that month turned into 6 months, later that turned into a year. I eventually left my job and it has been 6 years since then (laughs).
You told me the forest did not gain its popularity from its first day. What do you think eventually got people's attention?
We barely had one or two guests a day and we were so grateful for their visits and wanted to get to know them. We talked a lot with them and that eventually created a word of mouth. We first asked the new guest how they got to hear about us, and they would try to describe the friends and family who recommended the forest. And we would vaguely remember them. It was a bizarre experience. We did not a budget for marketing or pamphlets. Well, we did not have enough capitals to do that, either.
So it must be your sincerity after all. Were there any memorable guests?
During our early days, we had 3 visually impaired guests. They must have heard that even with 1 guest, you can get a guide. They had total visual impairment with no light perception. And they have never been to a forest before. We were taken aback. Our trails are not completely flattened and it has stones and rocks along the way. I was afraid they might hurt themselves.
I think this is when I truly got a sense how to guide the forest. The guests would normally ask the names of the trees or how to use different herbs. But none of that mattered for them. The exteriors did not matter, as they could not see. They would rather ask, "I can smell flowers on my right. They must have struggled through the rocks to be bloomed as well, right?" They would also ask me, "I hear birds chirp. Do they look happy?" "If you look up, can you see the sky or is the forest thick enough to mask the sky from us?" It was different.
I had been walking these trails every day and thought I knew enough about this forest. But with them, I began to see the forest completely new. So I thought to myself, it was not the names of the trees that we should see. It is how they lived in this environment. And that should be able to tell me how to live my life. There are so many things I could not see. And I hope this place could be a "forest to see with your heart." I try to guide the forest as much as to things you could feel about the forest.
A forest to see with your heart. That must have been an impressive experience. It must be that comments like that during the guide to make Gotjawal different.
Yes. There are different guides now at other forests. But what makes us special is that we explain as if we are talking to each person. We initially planned to guide regardless of the number of the guests. But I know those who travel alone find it difficult to reserve guides for themselves. So we thought, if we plan the scheduled guides on specific time, then maybe those who travel alone could join us. That was our goal.
What is also different is that every guide has different ways of showing and explaining. Yours is generally similar with your mother's, but it seems it differs in detail.
I think that was possible because we weren't professional guides. Others would explain the botany in a way that the academics would. They got into this field as they fell in love and naturally became curious about botany. But for me, I remember my childhood in this forest, but it wasn't like I knew the names of these plants. I think that's what makes me view the forest with a set of fresh eyes. For my father, it was the process of recovery that makes the memory of this forest so special. The trees would break rocks to expand and would grow again from the being chopped down. And you cannot help yourself but to be in awe of resilience of life. We all guide the forest based on our different experience with the forest, so it must be a little different.
A lot of guests come expecting to experience some transcendent power when in touch with the nature. But that is an abstract concept, nothing feasible. How do you think the forest impact a person emotionally?
To me, emotions the forest gives are daily routines, so I take them for granted (laughs). The energy I get from the forest, I think that's the emotional impact.
When you are with good people, you get the positive energy. But you are not, you can feel you are getting exhausted. I feel like it is the issue of giving or receiving energy. With the forest, you know it's there fore you day and night. It stays in the same place but it has incredible energy and is full of live. It constantly moves, grows and gives its best to be better. You know you want to become a better person when you are around people who know how to give their best, right? It is the same with the forest. Just by witnessing this forest, I feel like I am being taken care of. And I like it that it is not the energy you get from a crowded place. Like some silent but definite power of energy.
What is Gotjawal to you?
How I used to act in Gotjawal in the past and how I do now are very different. I was born and raised in this neighborhood and grew up around this forest but never been truly inside this forest alone until 6 years ago. I was scared. I also couldn't think that Gotjawal was of much value to explore, either.
I was born and raised in the countryside, so I will say to myself that I'll study hard and never be a farmer. I must go to Seoul, I thought. And with that thought, I left for Seoul. But soon enough, I began to miss Jeju. It was only then I realized what a beautiful place I had lived. Through that time of yearning, it came to me that Gotjawal was my family or home, a place you see the true value later.
It was Gotjawal that brought my family together. Since high school, my family had lived separately and didn't have time to have dinners together for over a decade. But now, we got to be together thanks to the forest. The forest became a member of my family and a place to come back to.
The forest as a member of the family. That must be the keyword to describe this place. One last question, what or how do you wish Gotjawal to be remembered?
On behalf of our family, I wish that someone could say, "there was a beautiful family living to protect a forest." And Gotjawal does not have to be visited by millions. I just wish Gotjawal to be visited by those with a good heart. With a little personal wish, I hope the forest and we can turn those cold hearts to warm ones.