▲ Carol Lee (left) says the beings of the forest are her “friends, and even children.” Her husband, Ben Noh, shares her love for the Jeju environment. Photo by Darren Southcott
“She never rests, just like the Jeju grandmothers. It is genetic,” says Ben Noh about Carol Lee, his wife and, in his words, one of Jeju’s “strong women.”
Having joined our afternoon interview a little late, still sporting just-out-of-bed hair. I suggest he is clearly well rested himself.
“Oh no, it is because he is always working so late into the night,” counters Lee, smiling at Noh with the affection of newlyweds. “He does everything around here.”
▲ Hwansang Sup, or Fantasy Forest, is a 33,300-square-meter tract of gotjawal woodland in Jeoji-ri, west Jeju. Photo courtesy Hwansang Sup
‘Here’ is Hwansang Sup, or Fantasy Forest, a 33,300-square-meter tract of gotjawal woodland in Jeoji-ri, west Jeju, which has been in the Lee family for generations. The mystical, gnarled and rocky woodland defies its small size with its diverse geological features, making it fantastic in more than just name.
While Noh works with his father-in-law constructing toilets, building stone walls and doing general site upkeep, Lee conducts woodland tours with children and adults of all ages, enthusing in them a love for Jeju’s unique gotjawal habitat. Husband Noh says it is her personal calling.
“In my opinion, she has the power to touch people. It is not that she says ‘we have to do this,’ like a protester, but she just shows her love for the woodland to children, and shows people the healing power of the forest. In this way, she naturally touches people and increases awareness of the need to protect the environment,” he says.
As we walk around the forest, they point out some typical gotjawal elements, most of which are volcanic. Gotjawal means ‘rocky woodland’ in Jeju language and all such habitat, found in residual pockets across the island, was formed atop lava effusions from local oreum.
As Noh and Lee guide us deeper, the scorching temperature deliciously drops and a cool breeze caresses our sweaty brows. They point down to the “sumgol” — lava crevices which circulate cool air — and ask us to feel the exhalations of the earth below.
▲ The area of woodland has been in the Lee family for generations. Photo courtesy Hwansang Sup
We pass lava bombs scattered in millennia-old eruptions and are then led into a chilled subterranean cave exposing intricate volcanic strata, evidence of the 30,000-year-old Doneori Oreum eruption which created this rare topography.
We are just visiting for the day, yet these three hectares are Lee’s office six days a week as she educates visitors about the threatened woodland. She feels so close to the land that she regards the beings of the forest as “friends, and even children.”
Starting as an educational farm three years ago, word-of-mouth soon ensured it outgrew its original purpose. It is now a fully fledged woodland education center and guides handle tours eight times a day.
Despite her interest in the environment, Lee had moved to Seoul to pursue her education and further her career. There had always been a longing for her woodland home, however, a place full of childhood memories.
The decisive moment to return came when her father fell ill.
“My father was seriously ill with a brain injury and he was partially paralyzed on his left side. He would always get better after entering the forest. It was like natural therapy for him. My father then encouraged me by emphasizing the value of working to preserve our natural resources by educating the next generation,” says Lee.
With her youth and boundless energy, she has attracted considerable media attention in a field dominated by middle-aged males. Fatefully, her future mother-in-law watched one of the TV documentaries she was featured in, and it was enough to convince her Lee would make the perfect daughter-in-law.
▲ Ben Noh (left) and Carol Lee found each other and a shared passion in the Jeju gotjawal. Photo by The Jeju Weekly
Lee was skeptical when she received the first email.
“Actually, although younger people show little interest, I am quite used to getting such contact from older people. Many would say: ‘Oh, I wish you were my daughter,’ “ Lee jokes.
A meeting was eventually arranged and Noh was smitten. He soon quit his high-paying job at Shin Wolsong nuclear power plant in Gyeongju and relocated to Jeju for a simpler life closer to nature and his beloved.
“At that time I loved Jeju-do. I even came here five times per month for the landscape and clean air. My father supported me saying, ‘Your happiness is the most important thing.’ Now I am living a really happy life, so I don’t miss anything,” he says.
Bonding them tighter, he says, is their mutual love of Jeju.
“We balance each other. My passion for Jeju nature and her passion for Jeju gotjawal mixes and synergizes, making it stronger.”
594-1 Nokchabunjae-ro, Hangyeong-myeon, Jeju-si
064-772-2488 / jejupark.co.kr
9am-5pm (7pm in summer / closed Sundays)
Adults 5,000 won / Children 4,000 won / 1,000 won discount for cyclists and walkers / 2,000 won discount for Jeju residents
9am, 10am, 11am, 1pm, 2pm, 3pm, 4pm, 5pm
Guided tours take 1 hour and include descriptions of the gotjawal, local flora and fauna, as well as woodland games.
• Ben Noh can provide basic English tours if requested in advance.
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