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Friday, December 17, 2010

I can't believe how little I've posted about WWOOFing

You wouldn't know it from the blog, but I've been to visit farmers in Busan four times, in Miryang thrice (I think), in Geoch'ang twice, and in Hwaseong once. I posted the picture pretty soon after the fact, but I've yet to write much about the experiences, mostly because I don't know how to make them interesting.

About a month ago, though, Jade, who works at the Korean WWOOF headquarters in Seoul, sent out an email asking WWOOFers to submit short letters about their WWOOF experiences so that she could combine them into a book. I wrote one. It's a little schmaltzy and I don't entirely like it, but I'll let you have a look anyway:


Wake-up calls at dawn. Vicious ant attacks by day, mosquito swarms arising from the rice paddies by night. Plodding around knee-deep in mud and rotten watermelons. Soybean paste soup with anchovy heads bobbing about. Suffocating dust clouds inside sweltering triple-layered plastic houses. Though a good deal of foreign teachers in Korea choose to spend their vacations at Haeundae [Korea's most popular beach] or in Phuket [the ultimate Korean package tour destination], soaking up the sun, people-watching, sipping cold drinks, and unwinding after several months of hard work, I chose instead to pursue even more of it by visiting Changwon and spend a week at Sweet Persimmon Village. But even if I try to conjure up the most painful-sounding memories I can – perhaps the worst of all was being surrounded by hundreds of trees, tens of thousands of low-hanging persimmons, all of them far too green and bitter to eat – I can’t help but admit that each of them is infused with pleasure and meaning and worth far beyond what I would have found had I just taken it easy.

It seems to me that the people who deserve vacations most are also the ones who are least likely to get them. We all know, somewhere in the back of our minds, that farmers labor year-round, tilling and irrigating, planting at just the right time, weeding and spraying and maintaining throughout the season, waiting for the perfect moment to pick, and then starting again, spring, summer, winter and fall. Even century-old fruit trees require regular, scientific pruning and coercion in order to produce what they’re really capable of – a fact I didn’t know before, but learned in my 10 days working with Mr. Gang and the others at Sweet Persimmon Village. All of this effort is directed towards feeding us, the city-dwellers and travelers and guests of the land, who have an indirect and generally underappreciated relationship with that which sustains us.

I look at WWOOFing as an opportunity to explore and reclaim this relationship, to learn about what I unknowingly require of the Earth, and what the Earth quietly, patiently asks of me in return. I wanted to learn how to listen to the ground, how to give back to it, and how to support the plants and bugs and microorganisms and myriad other lifeforms and systems that make my life possible. It turns out, it’s a lot of work, requiring study, planning, practice, creativity, diligence, dedication, [and] discipline, in addition to incessant bending, stooping, lifting, reaching, and sweating. Thankfully, though, the truth is that the best friendships are forged through work and effort directed at a common goal; even something as mundane weeding under the late afternoon sun, or as filthy as tearing apart a soggy watermelon patch at the end of the season, can bring people of different ages, vocations, skin colors, and nationalities together. Actually, it sort of makes sense - what could unite people better than the work that nobody, no being, can avoid: feeding him- or herself?

That’s not to say that there wasn’t leisure time – on the contrary, when the rains came, when the temperature topped 90 degrees before 10AM, or and [another typo!] when the sun set, we welcomed the opportunity to enjoy a long, slow meal, talk about the environment, about farming, about our homes and our travels, about upcoming events, and about nothing at all in particular. There was no shortage of fresh watermelon (the ones that had successfully dodged our boots) or cold Hite [Korean bear] (our most conspicuous “import”). We spent hours honing our archery skills and teaching each other tidbits of Enlish, Polish, French, and Korean, each release of the bow string and each repetition of a new word helping to build relationships that endure to this very day and now stretch across several continents.

Thank you, WWOOF, for creating the opportunity. And thank you, staff and residents of Sweet Persimmon Village, for opening your fields and homes and tool sheds to visitors from all around the world.

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