This past Saturday, October 6th, perhaps what is Jeju Island’s best known and beloved shamanic shrine tree fell due to high winds. I found myself tearing up throughout the day Sunday when I first heard of the incident, as I have been visiting the shrine for almost a decade now. I wasn’t the only one who had a heavy heart. As I knew would be the case, I found the people of Waheul Village to be in mourning on Monday. Locals were engaged in discussions on how to handle the death of the four-hundred year old tree. I had initially rushed out to the village Sunday night. I went back the next morning. I’ve been following people’s relationship with the shamanic shrine for years.
On Jeju Island, shamanic shrines, particularly bonhyang shrines (a class of shrines) serve as a village’s spiritual and historic center. Within, ancestral gods and other deities are relied upon by locals for spiritual healing. Village residents visit such shrines when they are sick, have emotional or financial concerns, or during annual shamanic ceremonies, at which the whole community is present. Waheul Village’s bonhyang shrine is home to a Grandfather God and Grandmother Goddess who have high stature in Jeju Island’s shamanic pantheon. The shrine is one of the few on the island to be designated as intangible cultural treasure. Due to this fact, as well as the beauty of the natural sanctuary, many residents of Jeju Island are familiar with the shrine.
Hackberry trees in Asia typically live longer than their American counterparts. The Grandfather God’s tree, or ‘harubangnang’, was around four hundred years old. It’s doubtful that it would have fallen in the past weekend’s typhoon winds if it had not been damaged prior to the incident.
As the morning sun started to blaze around noon, I headed out to the main road to secure something that didn’t exist in the village on my first visits many years prior–a caffe latte.
A cafe I had visited before wasn’t open, but I was prepared for such disappointed. I find that many of these country-side establishments, generally owned by outsiders, have less than consistent opening hours. It’s not to say that all the gentrifying businesses on the island are that way, holding on to property for the next land value spike–I know many newcomers who work very hard and that seemed to be the case with the ‘wedding-cafe’ I settled on.
I had a long conversation with one of the owners about his company. He and his partners do pre-wedding shoots all over the world. Their work is technically dazzling. Examples of their productions hang on the walls of the cafe; they do shoots all over the island and even had an office in Paris for couples who wish to have their photos done in Europe. While observing a couple pose, I had the thought that the soon-to-be newlyweds from the mainland would never believe that just down the road, elders were mourning the loss of a tree, much like they would a person–a tree that their grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents’ had prayed at.
Next, I moved on to the village and met many of the people I had interviewed and photographed over the years. Quite a lot of debate was going on in the town hall and in the recreation hall for the elders. What to do with the tree? Where to plant a new tree within the shrine? Whether to keep the stump in place, or to remove it? How to regulate traffic to the shrine? And what to do about unwanted visiting shamans from the mainland? How to keep them from sneaking into the shrine with their clients?
Shamans from the mainland sneaking into the shrine might sound a bit strange and outlandish, and it is for locals, too. This would be like being a member of the Methodist Church and having Catholic priests from another region sneak into to your sanctuary to hold mass, all since your town had become a quaint tourist attraction. Imagine they left their rosaries and saint effigies on the altar below the crucifix, meanwhile discarding trash in the aisles between pews. For the residents of Waheul, it is just plain weird. One elderly woman in the recreation hall proclaimed that they used to never have this problem. I recalled that once a few years back, before I left a ceremony held in the shrine, a Jeju shimbang made a point to tell me that the mainland shamans were making a big mess of the sanctuary.
Other people were visiting the shrine, too, and not following local customs. It was one of these ‘tourists’–not necessarily a mainland shaman, but someone from outside of the village who caused a substantial amount of damage to the Grandfather God’s tree some years prior. The person placed a candle against the tree, resulting in a fire. Many opined that the tree could have survived the typhoon if it wasn’t for the incident. The shrine was recently equipped with fire extinguishers and the gates barred.
Later, returning to the shrine, I found volunteers collecting and disposing of items associated with mainland shamanism, such as the aforementioned red shoes and large, colorful pieces of fabric, not of the sort left by locals.
The rest of the day saw a number of people coming to and from the shrine, several shamanism researchers, tv crews, residents from nearby villages and people from the city who wanted to see the massive tree and say their goodbyes before it was carried off. The atmosphere was very much like that of a wake, with those entering the shrine, first expressing their disbelief although they’d already seen images online, then solemnly speaking to one another in soft tones. Most visitors first expressed their regrets. All acknowledged a loss of cultural heritage.
As the day progressed, both inside the shrine and on social media, much conversation turned to issues of development and other changes on the island. Many acknowledged, both in the village and online, that this situation wasn’t like the desecration of other shrines, whose holy groves had been deliberately cut, or other shrines which had been surreptitiously removed by a number of public and private entities for commercial development. Still, the timing of the incident resonated with many, turning their thoughts to the shifting cultural landscape of the island. Just before I left the shrine to the bus stop, a woman from a neighboring village introduced herself.
“What are we going to do about all of this destruction?” She asked, and then jested, “If we reunify with North Korea do you think all these tourists will go there and leave Jeju alone?” She went on to talk about environmental damage, the island’s proposed second airport, and other issues. The people posting on social media, too, seemed to first express their sense of loss, and then put the event into the context of what they were witnessing currently as far as development went.
The loss of the shrine tree isn’t only a personal matter for the residents of the village, but is symbolic loss for people all over Jeju Island.
Below: Some images from a shrine ceremony in Wahuel’s bonhyang shrine.