Chuncheon, South Korea
October 25 – 26, 2014
Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.
– Albert Camus
I fell for my first fall. Nature had made a canvas out of the countryside and masterfully painted it with vivid reds and yellows, a dramatic departure from my country where forests were all of 50 shades of green all year. As the bus pulled into Chuncheon in the northernmost province of South Korea, a ginkgo tree came into view, its crown of golden leaves glistening in the sun. I squinted at the glorious scene. Fall had me at first sight.
The end of October was the height of autumn in Chuncheon. Trees had become giant flowers in full bloom. An otherwise routine drive through the countryside was a tourist attraction in itself. Sora, our hostess, pulled over at one end of a tree-lined country road canopied by radiant leaves. We hopped out and sauntered into this virtual impressionist painting. Toward the bend up ahead, a couple taking photos on the empty road added depth of field to the vista.
Only autumn could turn a parking lot into a photo op. Two tree species captured our fancy: maple and ginkgo. The former waved like tiny Canadian flags in the wind, the latter I only got acquainted with in Korea. Ginkgo trees, so common on this side of the country, sprinkled their golden leaves on the pavement. Apparently, we had been mucking about the parking area because a distinctly putrid smell followed us. Oh crap, we thought. Was that what we stepped on? No such bad luck. The smell was emanating from squished ginkgo seeds sticking to the soles of our shoes.
Downtown Chuncheon was no less blessed with autumnal tints. Ginkgo trees on sidewalks imbued light and life to the cold concrete jungle. Another plant that rivaled the ubiquity of the lovely ginkgo was a vegetable. Cabbage fields that went on forever kept the plains green in this season of color. Farm houses dotting the fields mostly had tall earthen jars on their roof or yard. I figured they were used to store and ferment napa cabbage to make kimchi, the ubiquitous side dish Koreans could not live without.
I had associated fall with dying. The green lushness of summer withered to deathly pigmentation until leaves were shed altogether as winter set in. In fact, fall colors indicated a struggle for life. With shorter days and less sunlight, trees recycled green chlorophyll in the leaves to nourish their trunk and roots. Leaves were stripped to their underlying pigments until they fell off to be replaced by new buds the next season. The process was not so much a death as it was a rebirth. The colorful trees were not dying; they were surviving.
Later that evening, kimchi, as usual, opened our dinner. For centuries, Koreans had preserved the green goodness of napa cabbage for food in crop-less winter. The sight of fiery red kimchi in a bowl brought me back to the colorful countryside. Its red chili powder gave it the same spice as the reds and yellows did to trees in autumn. Sora was amused at my comparison. The colors of autumn and kimchi both implied nourishment in scarcity and a tenacious will to live. Indeed, colors gave life.