The skyline is a marble blue punctuated by a small craggy island. Some boats speckle the horizon, crawling in lazy slow-motion. The brisk relief of fall–nature’s exhale after a humid and rainy summer. My mind feels sharper in the crisp morning. Already the sun is baking the cool AM to a mid-day heat, but we’re ducking out.
We park our cars by the sea and walk toward the cliff-drop. We descend into a tucked-away cave with a craggy volcanic roof and smooth-stone floor, passing down gear-bags to outstretched hands. It’s dark down here, with small thunder from each wave that hits the stone shore break. The larger ones splash up in the cave’s oval window that frames the day outside.
There’s unnatural decorating that’s been done. Styrofoam beads have exploded in the cavern, filling up each crevice like a tiny ball pit. Other debris is strewn about too: flip flops, water bottles, buoys, a barnacle encrusted slipper–still furry. This scene could be a display in a modern art museum, the styrofoam reminiscent of a playful Yayoi Kusama creation. Perhaps it was the back-to-back typhoons that brought this detritus from the sea. Or perhaps the ocean had just had enough and decided to wretch out a little of what’s been bothering it. Sturdy mesh bags and gloves emerge. I put on a pair and we begin to clean.
I dig my hands into the styrofoam, flip them over, pull them out. I remember hearing on a podcast that humans find beauty in the multitudinous. There’s a theory that our survival instinct has us hardwired to react to surplus. Repeated patterns have a special appeal. The styrofoam beads pour down my gloved palms and quietly drop back into place. I scoop up handfuls and slowly start to fill my bag. Meanwhile, Subin and Namki snap pictures of the trash while making disapproving sounds.
The sea churns waves underneath
In emerald cave
There are other efforts happening to clean Jeju. A group has been slowly working their way up the mountainous 1131 highway near Mt. Halla’s most popular trail (성판악). Their leader is ultra runner named Been–known as the tiger of Hallasan. Tigers, when they lived in Korea (the last one was seen in 1922, but there were never any in Jeju), used to operate in a radius. Her radius is this mountain. Been is playful and joking but prickles at the sight of highway trash. There’s an uncompromising regard for the mountain’s innate beauty that propels her forward. She and her rotating crew of volunteers clean the shoals of the road each weekend, sorting through brambles and bushes to extricate garbage that has been carelessly tossed out of windows or, in more egregious cases, dumped into piles. Been conducts the volunteers like a sportive general, jogging up and down the highway’s edge. Both jocular and chiding as she goes.
I help out one day, making the early morning drive up to the highway. There is a scavenger-hunt quality. Discovering bags of McDonalds in one culvert, and an antique bottle a few meters away in the mud. The bags fill quickly over the course of a few hours. Cars hurtle by and kick up wind. We drag finds out of the forest: car mirrors, wrappers, tires, a paint roller. The smell of composted leaves and damp earth. Patterns of trash start to emerge, and I notice a hierarchy of commonality. Lots of plastic straws, disposable cups, water bottles. The most common brand of bottle is I find is 삼다수. “The source of Jeju Samdasoo is under a superbly-preserved primeval forest near Hallasan National Park, free and far from contamination,” their website boasts.
I pluck an old cassette tape with no label from the bramble vines and they release it willingly. I wonder about the cassette’s owner. Who throws a cassette out of a car window? Was it somebody post-breakup who took an evening drive in the mountains. That one song came on that touched too hard on a raw wound. The person dramatically ejected the tape and threw it out into the dark quiet forest. Or maybe the tape wouldn’t play anymore and they just decided to ditch it. Plastic, the shed skin of human living.
After a few hours, we pose next to our hill of garbage, get into our cars and make our way back down the mountain. It’s hard not to keep noticing trash for the next few hours, my brain echoing the task for a while.
Vines and forest floor
Detonated time capsule
Tapes, bottles, mirrors
After we clean the ocean cave, we pull flippers onto our feet and goggles over our eyes. Subin has been leading the charge with her group of free diving friends, Diphda, on cleaning the beaches of Jeju. Like a traveling pod of dolphins, they spend their weekends at various water sources around the island– cleaning, sunning, playing. Subin brings the same passionate intensity as Been to her project. Simultaneously basking in the ocean while feeling an urgent need to help it. Geared up, we push out into the sea. The underwater world opens. The muffled sounds of bubbles and currents. Dull whir throb of powerful waves. We venture out into the sea to explore, occasionally taking big gulps of air before diving down to inspect a detail in the depths.
The news has been strange lately in its apocalyptic consistency. Vast blood red sky behind the Golden Gate Bridge. Hurricanes. Drought. The natural disasters seem in lock-step with the disconcerting political news that emerges each day. John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Venerated icons as wise as the redwoods leaving.
The earth can reduce styrofoam to small beads, and eventually nothing. Poisonous microplastics now will cycle out in the long run. People have become multitudinous on the planet, but I don’t get the same reaction of awe when I see them en masse. There’s an uneasy potential. Each is a small plus or minus for positive or negative change, and right now it feels like the scale is tipped in the wrong direction. On a recent hike to the top of Mount Halla, my friends and I arrived at the top to find a thriving colony of hikers. The occasional piece of wrapper blew away in the breeze. People formed a long line to take their picture with the sign. Nature reduced to a series of photo ops.
There’s no lack of causes to get involved with. For me these days, it’s cleaning up one bag of trash at a time. It’s a small anodyne. But anodyne for what? My environmental angst? The planet? Perhaps these small efforts can continue to cascade outward. Small social changes catching and changing minds. I’m convinced that in order to heal humanity we have to start with the earth.
There’s a lonely pod of dolphins that I spot sometimes on the west of Jeju. They hang and dive and swim and crest. Moving up and down the coastline. It seems like they’re playfully wasting time. They could be awaiting the arrival of some friends, or just surveying the ocean floor. They’re a patient mystery.
One day, after long hibernation, the tiger awoke. It emerged into the daylight, stretched out its claws and looked around. It’s was incredible how much had been unchanged while it had slumbered.
After years and years
A forgotten tiger wakes
“The sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us may well be the most serious business of all.” – Michael McCarthy
DIPHA Jeju For people on Jeju, check out their Instagram posts for a chance to get involved in a clean-up effort while getting discounts on tasty coffee and beer!