Ten years ago, I lived in a fifteen-floor apartment building that stood under a little rocky mountain, which skirted the edge of my hometown. When spring came, we were able to see the splendor of sun-yellow flowers, violet-pink cherry blossoms, and snow-white azalea blooms covering the mountainside.
In summer, we were soaked in the green-tinted umbrella of tree leaves, and, in autumn, the mountain burned with flame-red maples and orange colored trees. And once the snow began, my town was left in a silence from which nothing could wake us, except for the spring’s vibrant return. In the center of the village, right under the mountain, there was a small space for children to play.
In the center of this area was a large round elm tree stump, often used as a table, surrounded by wooden benched, all of which stood under the protection of a shade-giving wooden structure, which, in summer, was covered by climbing ivies. Beside the benches was a small kitchen garden where mothers in the village could grow vegetable and fruits for their families.
My friends and I used to catch grasshoppers and locusts among the plants and bushes in the garden. No one among us was afraid of bugs. Late in the afternoon, while our mommies watered their vegetables and picked weeds in the yard, my friends and I merrily chased bugs, chatted and played the games that cause children to grow healthily and live happy lives.
At sunset, by the time my dad would come home from work, my mother and I would return home, always waving our hands goodbye to my beloved friends, whom we would leave in our village Eden.
Of all the games we would play in our verdant outdoor play land, I loved “playing house” most. My friends and I would act as if we were a family and prepare for each other delicious suppers of sumptuous flowers and leaves. I always played the mother and my three best friends played my daughters.
The big elm stump was our dinner table upon which we had a flat and square stone as a chopping board, with smaller stones as our plates. We would trot gaily up the mountain’s bounteous trails, gathering crimson red petals, violet pansies and green clovers, and pick foxtail grasses and needle like pines, from which my “daughters” and I prepared our meals. Making our cuisine was the most exciting park.
We made “traditional” Kimchi by grinding and mixing red petals and grasses and stripping the foxtail to get gains, as if trashing rice. Ours was the food of both our dreams and our souls.
One day, while “cooking” and decorating one of our natural concoctions, the youngest of my daughters abruptly said, “Why do we always have plants and herbs for dinner? Are we vegetarians? I feel like I am becoming a rabbit.” I felt, as hey mother, I had to say something to her.
I responded, “Well, let’s have meat then.” To us at that time, meat was something other than plants. So we decided to catch a bee since the youngest “daughter” of mine wanted to have it. I still don’t know why it entered our minds to catch a bee, but somehow the plan had developed.
Knowing bees thrived aplenty in our luxuriant green “home”, we slushed each other, as we sneaked into the flower bushes near our place. Quietly crouching down besides a bee on a flower bud, I smashed a bee within my palms. Everyone shouted for joy and surprise and I felt flattered. Returning to the table, we surrounded the dead bee.
All of a sudden, we all became quiet, realizing that this little bee was dead, killed by our greed and senseless behavior. My second daughter said, “He’s so pitiful.” Gradually everyone murmured with eyes full of tears, “We shouldn’t have killed the bee. We didn’t intend to kill him.”
Feeling remorseful, we decided to hold a funeral for the bee. We dug a hole in the ground and wrapped the dead body in a shroud of white azalea petals and put him down deep into his grave. On the grave mound, we put more flowers. Each one of us prayed for the soul of the bee who had passed away.
With all our young and pure hearts, we knelt and gave our prayers so that the poor bee would hear our sins and we would be forgiven. “I’m so sorry. We were very bad. I feel awful.” “God, Father, please bless him and may he live happily in heaven.” I still think the prayers at that funeral were the purest and holiest ones I’ve ever said.
I realize, now when I reminisce, the most people would not have bothered with so little and trivial a creature as a bee. But my friends and I did care and we took the situation seriously; no one told us we should have; we had simply learned respect for Mother Nature and how to have a conversation with her. One day, on my way home from school, I found some bulldozers demolishing our play area and gardens.
I was shocked and ran to the janitor in our apartment building to ask what had happened. He bluntly replied that the owners of the land were going to build a tennis court and parking lot in the place where we had always laughed and played. Within a month, construction had been completed and our Eden had disappeared.
Moreover, the little rocky mountain that surrounded my village had also been partially destroyed to make room for an golf practice center. A few months later, my family moved and I became separated from my good friends in the old village and also my childhood memories that began there. After that time, I never enjoyed being outdoors nor did I ever “play house” again.
In Seoul, the city in which I have since lived, there are no areas with gardens and fields like the old village where I used to live when I was young.
Instead, high-rise buildings stand here and there and previously brilliant streams and ponds are now emptied and chocking and telling people to preserve nature in this city. To most who live here, Mother Nature exists only in poems or on exotic islands.
But I know, and my friends who played with me would know, that Nature was our friend who had held our hands warmly when we had reached out for her.