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Lament for a mountain

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By Lee Eung-tae

"That mountain used to be my favorite hike." Our friend's words silenced us all. We'd been discussing which mountain to hike this autumn but his words cut through our wandering thoughts about the uncomplicated life where mountain climbing somehow mattered. I understood why he no longer had the heart to hike that mountain. I felt the same way but simultaneously believed we had to climb the mountain, see the ashes and burnt trees, and remember. On the summit of the mountain where once we breathed the scent of green leaves on the wind, the acrid smell of the ash of burnt trees would bring us to realize what we lost in the flames and what we all did to the mountain.

When fire destroyed the forest on the mountain in Miryang, South Gyeongsang Province, last May, the whole country experienced grief and shock and was noticeably terrified by the spectacle of flames swallowing up the woods. Despite all the desperate measures taken to contain it, the relentless fire destroyed an area the size of 2,000 soccer stadiums. Our invaluable natural treasure turned into ashes in a day, leaving indelible scars on the mountain and in our minds. The hellish images of the forest fire were traumatizing: the burning red skyscape, choppers dropping water frantically, the screaming sirens of fire trucks. Even today I shudder when I hear even a single helicopter.

I am at a loss to understand how such a beautiful and grand mountain turned into ashes. So many of us now seem consciously to try to escape the nightmare of the day by turning our backs on the mountain. The initial cause of the fire was not identified but I'm sure it was a manmade disaster. It's said that a suspect who was questioned later killed himself, leaving a note proclaiming his innocence. The official investigation ended inconclusively, leaving the cause of the fire a mystery.

Due to the worsening phenomenon of global warming, forest fires have been rampant all around the world. In the U.S. alone, more than 60 million acres of woods were burnt down this year. The horrific images of fire and smoke on TV brought home to me the responsibility to protect our precious mountain from fire disaster. We used to hike the hill with loved ones, resting at the summit. But we can no longer enjoy the pleasant fresh air because it will take a century for the damage to be repaired.

Global warming aside, most fires are caused by people whether by maliciousness or carelessness. How could anyone, however frustrated with life, believe that arson is the cure? Or why would anyone be so stupidly careless as to drop a cigarette butt in a forest or burn weeds in the dry season? I think all of us must have thought about the dangers of such careless acts a long time ago.

In the aftermath of the forest fire, a lot of accusations were thrown around: the helicopters were obsolete, there were no lanes for fire trucks, the leaves lay too thick. But these issues were buried under other news about the economy and politics.

Now another dry season, when the leaves take on their autumn colors, is upon us. But the mountain burnt by fire remains an ugly black, and hikers will avoid it. I feel now more than ever that all people ought to visit such places destroyed by fire to remind us of the magnitude of what we have lost. I pray that each of us will plant a tree while apologizing to the mountain for our offence against it. Pray that such a tragedy never happens again. Then future generations can enjoy the beautiful mountain as we once did.


Lee Eung-tae (eungtae@gmail.com) is a former high school teacher who taught English for 35 years.





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