The God Tree

My article, reprinted from Jeju Weekly, 04/22/11:

A literary journey

Jeju Writers’ Association makes a Sasam pilgrimage

The village is no more. The only thing left standing is the God Tree.

Once a village filled with life was centered around a 600-year old pine tree which the villagers considered their local deity. At the place where the first massive branches emerge in all directions from the trunk, there is a hollow where water pools and birds come to drink.

The tree’s branches shade three grave mounds, their inhabitants now unknown, and surrounding all is a traditional Jeju-style stone fence.

A central tree figures in many shamanic traditions as a shrine or place for prayers and as a conduit by which spirits can travel between the material and immaterial planes. But this tree was more than that: to the villagers, it was their god.

They prayed to this tree for beneficence and to the spirits and gods of their homeland and of their ancestors. But when the military came in an effort to contain what was considered a rebellion, the entire village was destroyed, and the tree god couldn’t prevent the bloodshed.

Today, only the tree remains.

On April 9, Jeju Writers’ Association set out on a remarkable “pilgrimage in the footsteps of refugees” to visit several poignant sites of the 1948 massacre. Deemed a “literary journey for writers and readers together,” it was intended “for the healing of Sasam,” according to Han Rimhwa, the association’s president.

Many of the writers and poets who make up the membership focus their literary efforts on this period of immense trauma in Jeju’s history and its ongoing dark legacy. Other attendees included researchers, archivists, journalists, photographers, and more.

It was a spiritual journey for all.

Beginning at the Jeju April 3rd Peace Park, where the group had earlier participated in constructing an outdoor poetry and art display for this year’s 63rd anniversary memorial, members viewed a recent addition to the park: the “Remains Shrine” which houses multiple urns of victims’ remains, an altar in their memory, and a replication of a mass gravesite.

This visit set the tone for the 60 or so participants. From there it was on to Haeun and another “Lost Village” in which an 81-year old survivor of the massacre and the only one still living from that time – “the last living historian” – described for the group his memories of this once vibrant village as he led the way through bucolic landscape now empty save for butterflies.

Next was the “God Tree” in the lost village of Guangryeong-ri. Ko Seung Hwan, novelist, told stories of the region.

The walk then led to Sara Village and the Heungyong Temple which, after housing refugees during the time of the massacre, was burnt to the ground. The temple was eventually rebuilt.

Yihodong was the next stop, where accomplished poet Kim Seong Ju told of the death of his parents during this time, and how he, then a 4-year old boy, was taken in by others who were determined that this “Sasam orphan” should survive.

The journey ended at the top of Dodubong, a hill to the west of Coastal Road in Shin-Jeju. The climb to the top took the participants past a shamanic shrine where a female “simbang” or shaman was performing a ritual alone, then past a Buddhist temple where monks could be heard chanting.

At the top, the breathtaking view included both the sea and Mount Halla, as well as many of her “offspring” hills [parasitic volcanic cones, or “oreum” in Jeju dialect]. The peak also overlooked the airport, the site of two mass graves from this same period of trauma – a significance lost on none of those who made this journey.

The group of writers concluded this poignant day with a small shamanic ceremony to the victims and survivors of Sasam – and to the healing of Jeju’s people even now.

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