Two years ago the last gingko tree in my neighborhood fell under the blade. Now, all surfaces are paved, except for a postage-stamp flower bed down the street. We live in a concrete box similar to other boxes in the city. Mountains have been bisected for roads or drilled to make one more highway tunnels. We escape half an hour away to the untouched mountains that maintain our health and happiness.
When E.G. Schumaker declared that “small is beautiful” in his treatise on sustainable economics, he could have been writing about the grandeur and efficiency of Surak Mountain: its compact 2,000 foot elevation and location on the edge of Seoul is optimal for the time constraints on an average Seoulite’s life. Surak Mountain borders the city and provides breathing space from Seoul’s blaring advertisements, the noisy shops that simultaneously blast the latest K-pop in kaleidoscopic profusion out of open doors, and the more than ten million people who drive, wander and sprint through the streets, as though perpetually late. Surak provides a lull from the mad hustle of Seoul’s city center, where if you dawdle on the streets, a pedestrian will surely crash into you, and barely notice when they do.
Surak Mountain’s colors curl in your brain: In spring, profusions of pink azalea embellish the worn reddish trails like puffs of chenille. In summer, its coat is the dull green of wizened pines and dwarf oaks. With the powerful late fall winds, tawny oak leaves lift off branches and swirl skyward, landing in flocks like bronze birds. I marvel at striped gneiss boulders birthed 2,500 million years ago and new granite rocks, a mere 160 million years old, distanced by more than 2,000 million years of evolution, thoughtlessly collaborating to be a mountain solid under my feet. In the summer heat, or in the fall snap of oak and pine scent, or in the bursting petal-soft spring, I climb these ancient bones. I climb up and down, up and down with reverent exhaustion, the curse of the mountain climber who is as hooked as a lover. In some inscrutable way, the boulders are as alive as I am, and as holders of solace, no less significant than the scattered Buddhist temples that splash them red, blue, green, yellow and white, the vibrant temple vegetable gardens and the flowers tended by silent cell-phone equipped gray-robed monks.