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Spirit Animal

When I was nine or ten I had a small smooth amber colored stone that was purchased at a quarry gift shop. We had gone on a school trip to the quarry, the dandelion yellow bus traveling the back roads to South Paris, Maine. New views outside of the familiar rectangle windows. On big bumps some of the windows would fall down, the plastic latch letting go.

The quarry was fascinating because you could keep whatever you found. Of course, the granite hills of Maine didn’t have much to offer. It wasn’t like California hills which glittered with promises of gold. Maine had some quartz, pyrite…maybe a leaf fossil if you were really lucky. But still, that dusty chasm that our bus pulled up to had some mystical promise to it. What secrets had the earth hidden in it’s rocky time capsule?

I was usually a quiet kid, but I mustered up enough courage to ask a question to the teacher: “We really get to keep whatever we find?”

“Yes, that’s right!” Mr. Bridge Koeningsburg said in his enthusiastic and proper way.

The bus pulled up and let us out. We had only 60 precious minutes to search. I can’t remember if we were given any tools. Maybe a small hammer. We got to work.

Most of the kids lost interest after five minutes. They started playing tag which degraded into rock throwing. I’m sure to Mr. BK’s eyes “the quarry” started to seem like the upcoming title to a Lord of the Flies sequel. I chipped away, disappointed at my efforts. Bits of stone crumbled in my tiny kid hands. I knew that the allotted 60 minutes was quickly coming to an end. Maybe not on a conscious level, but there was a part of my child unconscious that knew that kid chaos would soon result in Mr. BK calling off the dig early.

I tried to conjure up a remarkable find to no avail–straining with every inch of my subconscious. Time was up. I looked at my best friend Tommy whose eyes mirrored my same disappointment.

“Let’s go to the gift shop!” Mr. BK announced.

My committed and generous mom had joined us on the trip. She had always been involved in my elementary school years, somehow finding the time to help in the classroom or join on a field trip. This worked out in my favor, because a money source was readily available.

“You can pick one thing,” she said as we walked to the small hut of souvenirs.

I floated around the shop, looking at the shelves lined with craggy stones. Golden pyrite, deep purple geodes, boxes of arrow heads. A smooth amber stone attached to a hard cardboard paper caught my eye. It have small streams of white running through it. I picked it off the hook and flipped it over. On the back was a list of animals with characteristics for each. If you held the stone in your hand it could somehow tell you your spirit animal. This was my choice.

I didn’t know that you could have a spirit animal until this point. The card hinted at a deeper world of magic under the surface–one that many writers and artists have tapped into over the years. The fantasy world that lives just out of sight and can be accessed if you know where to look. It was ingenuous really. Make-shift astrology for kids. My friends and I took turns holding the stone in our palms, concentrating on what signal it would give us. It’s satisfying roundness finding a home in our hands and emanating its message. In the end I settled on fox. I’m not sure what Tommy picked or if he even bought into the whole thing.

On a recent morning run, I slogged along in the breaking day. The shortening daylight hours had timed my run perfectly with a sunrise on the backside of the oreum that my route hits every morning. There had been some rain overnight, and the concrete was stained darker. I moved my body over the oreum’s peak and turned the corner for the back, looking at the clouds that were brightening with the rising sun. And then in the path was a panicked deer.

The deer’s antler’s had been caught in a farmer’s net. It couldn’t fathom the invisible force that tugged on its scalp as it strained its entire body, neck taught, grunting and whimpering, it strained as hard as it could in one direction, and then realized that the only way to go was back. It tumbled off the road, and pulled the net in the other direction, a small cry of hopelessness emitting from its tired lungs.

I tried to untangle the antlers, but it was too dangerous. The deer was freaked, and when it saw me it became more nervous. I needed a tool to cut the fencing. I booked it home and grabbed my scissors. Jumped into my car and drove back. Within a few minutes I had the deer almost free. Only a few strands of plastic netting remained. The deer pulled hard and looked at me intently. If it came forward it could do some real damage. One snip. It continued to stare, a little deeper. I looked hard at the antlers which suddenly seemed a lot sharper. Grabbing the rope I pulled for extra tension. I climbed up a little, trying to get as close as possible. The deer kept staring, blowing warm air forcefully through its nostrils as it pulled in the other direction. Second snip. It staggered back and immediately bolted into the forest, some excess rope dangling from its antler. Then quiet.

A few weeks later, the incident was repeated. I rounded the same corner and was greeted with a wild beast. Jeju deer are on the miniature side compared to the white-tails of Maine, but this was bigger than usual. Up close his muscles quivered with electric strength. It barked when it saw me and flopped over the side of the road into the bushes. I knew what to do this time.

When I arrived with my scissors, the deer still struggled, wrestling against the invisible force. I sloppily chopped at the net, just trying to get it cut. He bucked and grunted, eventually getting stuck behind one of the larger trees on the oreum’s embankment. I hacked at the fence like it was a mythical hydra, and managed to get it down to one strand as before. But I couldn’t get close enough to cut the rope short. He looked at me with anger and confusion, emanating unpredictability. I cut, leaving a good two feet of rope on the antlers.

The deer was free but bothered. The rope dangled from his head and it swung furiously as he bolted into the field below. The rope seemed to be pulling his head down to one side as he bounced through the field. He came to a four foot stone wall, still hindered by the rope’s weight. With a giant vertical leap he cleared the wall and then ran disoriented into the forest.

Another week later biking to work I rounded a farm road corner and looked down. On the edge of the thick Jeju Gotjawal forest was a dead baby deer, perfectly intact. It was as if the forest had placed it there as an offering to the world outside. I could only guess that a car speeding on the back farm road had clipped it. I stopped my bike and looked closely. It’s hazy eyes had lost the wildness that I had glimpsed in the two rescued deer. I didn’t know what to make of this. Was Jeju undoing my work? Were we counting back down now?

Over time, I lost the smooth amber rock from the quarry. I’m sure that in my teenage years, it took on an embarrassing significance and was discarded. There was no more time for magic. These deer reconnected me with that animal energy. Brushing up against the wild had reminded me of that feeling that the gimmicky cardboard had elicited. But this felt more concrete than that. The mechanizations of the universe were coming together in a weird way. I waited for the next sign.

A few days after the baby deer incident on a post-work run, I hit a patch of road leading up to my apartment complex. It was a slight climb that banked left past a tangerine grove and a barn. I was startled to see a man laying on the ground by the barn almost in the road. He was motionless. His head was a melon waiting to be burst by a passing tire. Was he alive? My mind flashed to the baby deer. Was this nature’s balancing blow? I stopped in my tracks for two long seconds, my stomach reacting before my head could.

And then the man shot upright to a seating position and smiled and said something I couldn’t hear through my headphones. I waved and sprinted the last few hundred meters to my apartment.

What did all of these omens add up to? Probably nothing. Life continues its random march through time. But still, I’m more attuned these days as I round the corners. I look up at vague outlines in the morning gloom with curiosity and sometimes horror. The ambiguous shadows taking on imaginary forms.

These incidents are reminders. Small divergences in a routine that show that there can be something new, shocking, or exciting around the bend. The faint flame of childhood discovery is kept fanned.

Jeju’s Gotjawal forest holds some unknown. One of its features is its rocky terrain that has prevented agriculture. Vines and thick trees have formed their way into the rough land. On my trail runs, I sometimes hear the deer barking at sunset, reminding me of the mystery. I peer into the inscrutable forest for a deer with a small bit of rope dangling from its antler. My new spirit animal.

“Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.”
– James Wright

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Oceans and Mountains

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.

Cerulean day

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

Reclaiming mountain

“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!

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