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Trees Hold Memories; Forests Are Libraries of Thoughts

I believe trees hold memories, and forests are libraries of thoughts. Groves are an emotional encyclopedia of history with a cornucopia of creatures big, small, flying, and furry that live within them.

Nothing beats a walk in nature. I find myself going outside to ground often. I don’t carry my phone with me, and I don’t listen to music or tether myself to any electronic devices. That would defeat the purpose of getting outside in nature.

I’m clumsy, so whenever I start my walk or hike, my eyes are on the ground, looking for roots and rocks, the small things that may trip me. My legs have to adjust to the terrain and movement. Sometimes, my lungs have to catch up and learn how to breathe fresh air.

Today, I’m walking in a national park halfway around the world. I woke up early and boarded a bus with people who were strangers days ago but who are now woven into the fabric of my favorite memories. The entrance of The Garden of Morning Calm, located in Gapyeong, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea, does a good job of hiding the natural wonder behind its gate.

My priority this morning is to get my first cup of coffee. I can’t be here and take in the five thousand plant species exploding in their fall foliage this tired. After I drink my latte and snap a foggy photo of me and my flower-covered cup, I step into another world. There is no way to imagine this place without seeing the past or without wondering about all the people who have walked this way before me.

Like most places in South Korea, there is no shortage of tourists. Each of us wants to steal a blossom by taking the perfect photo, a memento to help us hold onto the riots of colors and hills we walk on.

And then there was the tree with the faces. The Millennium Juniper stands apart and alone inside the garden near the feather leaf grass and bright red maple leaves that surround it. I can’t help but see the faces twisted and shouting from its trunk. I wonder how much this tree has seen, how many lives walked by, and how many thousands of people made wishes or kept secrets with it so that it had no choice but to reveal its face and cry out, looking for its own recognition past the accomplishment of surviving. It doesn’t understand our awe of its lifespan.

I could hear all those blessings and prayers that had twisted its trunk. I see the Dokkaebi (도깨비) moving about, no longer worshipped but easily seen. I know that Aspen groves are organisms, and this garden, too, is a kingdom. This juniper is probably the monarch and I ask my friends if they see the face looking out at us.

They don’t.

I point them out. There is more than one face peering at us from the tree. They are twisted with expressions that look painful to me or rather skeletal. I don’t hear anyone around me mentioning the faces or reacting to the tree. But the juniper stops me. Asks me to see and listen to its stories. My Korean is terrible. I tried learning Korean for six months, but it kept failing me. I’m glad I feel things, too. I’m happy I see images of life around me that are mist and time-lapsed histories of what was here before I knew this tree existed.

The sadness I feel around this tree makes me want to learn how to free the spirits trapped inside. What song or chant, what drum or rattle should I shake to free them? Or maybe they were put there for a reason. The juniper may have made a deal with the shamans of the past to hold onto these spirits.

Couples are lining up to take pictures with the tree and on the pretty curved bridges in the tall pink grass. They will remember this trip to the garden for different reasons than me. I hope they remember it because this was the place where they said I loved you for the first time.

Me, I’ll remember that tree.

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