▲ A Jeju woman picks the heads of Jeju's gosari, or fiddlehead fern bracken. Photo by Kimberly Comeau
It is around 5am when the knock comes on the door. A middle-aged man bundles me into a waiting van and a similarly aged woman hands me gloves and protective sleeves for my ankles.
“Put these on,” she says, as he starts the car and drives into the darkness.
I ask where we are going as we ascend the 516 over Hallasan. I am ignored. I ask again. “A field,” I am told, getting the message clearly.
After 20 minutes we veer left toward a golf course, I note its name, before pulling off the road onto a gravel track. We are alone. I am told to get out.
“This is your bag. Follow me and just keep filling it up. We only have a few hours. Never lose sight of us. Every year one or two people get lost around here. It is not safe.”
The dawn envelopes the land and the half-light conjured shadows in the undergrowth. This is gotjawal, rocky pasture dotted with groves, reminiscent of English moorland, perhaps also stalked by ghostly hounds.
“We only want the young. Not too young, but they must be plump and drooping,” she says, squeezing the head of a young fiddlehead fern, its beard of dew flopping onto the grass.
“Pincer it by the neck, its head will drop off. You’ll soon get the knack of it.”
I desperately try to keep up as the woman, my mother-in-law, ploughs through a field of gosari, fiddlehead fern, filling her bag with the head of young bracken at impressive speed.
As she moves ahead I struggle to keep up. The man, my father-in-law, reassures me: “You won’t keep up with her. She is the best,” he says, as she plucks the juiciest fern sprouts on the hillside, jealously stealing a march on anyone within sight, moving stealthily into the twilight.
It is springtime, and the hills are very much alive. For people like Mrs Yun, this is the best time of the year. 5am wake-up calls for weeks straight as gosari and the richest pickings dominate the village gossip.
While in days past Jeju women — gosari-picking is generally a female activity — picked the plant to sell at the markets for extra income, nowadays it is more often for the family pot, and for some morning exercise.
As the time reaches 10am, and I reflect on almost 5 hours in the fields, I suggest we call it a day. My father-in-law, also hanging back, points into the distance to a female figure bent double, with as much enthusiasm as she had at 5am.
“We can only go when she is ready,” he says, defeated.
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