The Darkening Yard

The travel writer Pearl S. Buck, a favourite author of mine, once wrote, “Many people lose the small joys in the hope for the big happiness.” This profound measure of wisdom has always had an unspoken authority over my feral and fierce subconscious, and what Buck so eloquently identified is no more evident than in South Korea.

Since my arrival in Korea over nine years ago, I’ve dedicated my life to simplicity. Work is a triviality, a necessary evil I both loathe and keep in check. Escaping from the unceasing burn of Seoul’s neon lights and making my way to villages and islands — those obscured by Korea’s towering peaks and divorced from the mainland by jagged bluffs is a remedy for my feeling of urban entrapment. Perpetually searching out the unseen, I’m always trying to find peace in the isolation and tranquility of Korea’s gifted beauty. This travelogue is a record of one of those pilgrimages, one of my excursions to places of placidity and majesty.

A Simpler Life: Our title comes from the Korean poem “A pair of shoes in the yard” by Moon Tae-jun, which has haunted me for many years. The verse speaks of sadness for our life of sacrifice; a sacrifice for lavish consumerism, sanctioned by the overlords parasitically existing off our interest payments. “The darkening yard” is the epiphanic moment in this tale: It is the start of a soul’s meditative journey to inoculate itself from the trappings of the predictable, insipid, bourgeois urban lifestyle — the beginning of a search for the stillness promised in the Land of the Morning Calm.

The national bourgeois-collective here, with their marked concerns for material interests and a saddening apathy of passion, indeed do forego the small joys in search of faster phones and fine cars. The darkening yard is my search for Korea’s simple life, and that search started along the peninsula’s southern coast, nestled among the minute islands where fishing and farming are still fundamental ways of life. Free of the familiar arsenal of franchises polluting Korea’s growing megacities, these communities are sleepy and serene — exceptional places to relish the small joys of life Buck spoke of.

I recently discovered one such island whose inhabitants numbered so few that on the day I spent there I saw no more than ten locals. Oedaldo is charmingly known as the “lovers’ island,” a name sure to eventually draw hoards of tourists to its humble shores. Simple and unassuming hanoks dot the island, with most being run by elderly retirees who have re-purposed the buildings for straggling tourists who sometimes get stuck overnight. Though even with few creature comforts, these places are quite welcoming. If you visit Oedaldo, it’s likely that you’ll be spending much of your time walking the uncut coast-line that gracefully ascends from the murky waters that wrap the entirety of the island.

Purposeful labor, Purposeful joys: As I walked, I was reminded of the fact that far too many people slog, scurry, and sacrifice their well-being in hopes of bettering only the mirage of a meaningful existence. Later, only after decades of labour, in a moment of honest reflection do they discover that what they had was merely shreds of a life: a leased car, an apartment that they do not own, and a short vacation every few years. These things are the yield of a life sacrificed under the backbreaking hum of florescent lights and the glaring eye of a sweaty overseer. As I wandered around Oedaldo, I found I both respected and envied the inhabitants of this fine, little island: Life there is lived by means of toil and the strength of a person’s spirit. Nothing comes easy, as much of their food is either harvested locally from their farms or drawn from the unforgiving sea. Those living on Oedaldo have chosen to embrace the small joys, such as having the Yellow Sea at their feet and the torrid, amber sun on their backs. There may be fewer than a dozen cars on the island, but with everything no more than a 20-minute walk away, cars seemed like an unnecessary distraction — merely a source of noise pollution reserved for laggard, lethargic mainlanders.

These southern islands and undiscovered villages are the places we should be seeing in ads, but are always sidestepped in favour of sparkling fashionistas and tiresome tourist venues. They’re abundant, just waiting for you outside Korea’s capital region, and they’re the closest approximation to what the first travellers must have witnessed when settling this region. Korea is a beautiful place, and breaking free of the noise and light pollution of modernity will unveil it for you.

“I don’t consider myself a nature photographer; in that I am an amateur. I do love nature and it is within me to photograph what I love.”

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