May 5, 2008 Author: Beth Salerno
One of the best parts of my life here in Korea has been walking the rice fields and neighborhoods near my apartment at least three times a week. I love being able to mark the change of seasons by what has been planted, how it is growing, or whether it has been harvested.
This part of South Korea has Washington D.C. weather, so gardeners are already putting out their tomato, pepper and basil seedlings. (New Hampshirites cannot do this until mid June unless they provide frost protection!). Every evening, people drive, walk or bicycle to their fields, where they plant, water, hoe, or weed. I am clearly in Korea when people water their plants with the large copper pots used to heat water for tea in restaurants, and when they plant 80-100 hot pepper plants for the hot pepper flakes and paste that turn up in many Korean dishes.
The rice fields have undergone a dramatic change over the past month. What were dry, brown, stubbly fields first turned muddy and black as water began to seep into them from irrigation canals that line every field. Some farmers started before others, so the land turned into a patchwork of dry and damp, black and brown. Now the landscape is brown and silver as the light reflects off blue grey water in the middle of otherwise landlocked fields. Long, thin, bright green stretches divide the fields. I thought these were weeds, but sometimes they are wild herbs, allowed to grow rampant and then picked for soup. Baby rice plants have been growing in plastic tunnels, odd white or black humps in flooded fields. The shocking vibrant green of the baby plants tells me what color the fields will turn next, when the rice is transplanted.
The irrigation systems here are pretty amazing and they must be created, maintained and used cooperatively. Farmers remove plugs from the holes in the ditches, or use pumps to flood their fields. They have to be careful not to flood their neighbors’ fields, nor to siphon off so much water that their neighbor cannot flood his own field. As the fields flood, the water birds have returned. Each evening I can see four or five large white egrets and at least one blue heron. Frogs must be quaking in fear.
At the edges of the fields, apartment buildings creep slowly forward, an enemy far more deadly to the peeping and croaking frogs. Farms and farmers are an endangered species in Korea, as in the U.S. Hard work dependent on the weather bringing little monetary return is not appealing to younger people and they head for the cities as quickly as apartment buildings head for the fields. Except when I am waxing nostalgic, I would not want to be a farmer. But we lose something precious when we cannot walk a neighborhood and smile at our neighbors, ask about their gardens and farms, and buy fresh greenery at the farmers’ market knowing exactly where it came from. We lose something precious when we cannot tell the changing of the seasons in the colors of the field.