A Life with the Wind: Lessons from Old Jeju on Climate Resilience

• Dispatch #18 •
Jeju is no stranger to strange weather. The design and architecture of the Seongeup Folk Village reflect the region’s resilience.

The fog painted the horizon and it looked like a grandmother’s vision without glasses. I was in Jeju, a mythical island in South Korea. It was like being in another world. It was cold, too. But what was apparent was the wind, which blew several hats away and gave everyone’s hair a beating. Locals say this is nothing; it could get way worse.

Jeju is known as “The Island of Three Abundance”: stones, wind, and women. The stones are due to the past eruptions of Mt. Halla, and the women are the formidable haenyo, female divers (more about them in another post). The average wind velocity is 3.5 m/s and can go as strong as 4.1 m/s. The wind, including temperature and rainfall, is one of the major decisive factors in the climate of Jeju.

Being in an island that is no stranger to strong winds and typhoons, I think it is worth studying these cultures to show how they were able to live with extreme weather. Jeju in this respect is similar to some other island regions, such as Batanes in the Philippines, Okinawa and other islands in Japan, Hawaii in the US, and many others. While people in the two cities of this island—Jeju City and Seogwipo—live like most people in any other city I’ve been do, apartments and cars and all these things, it was an old folk village designed to preserve old traditions that caught my attention. How different did these people use to live compared to those in megalopolises? Here are some lessons I learned while exploring Seongeup Folk Village:

A woman talks on her cellphone amidst the traditional Jeju houses.
A woman talks on her cellphone amidst the traditional Jeju houses.

1. Work with the weather.

If Jeju had a mother, it would be Mt. Halla, whose eruptions have caused lava to flow as far as the coasts, stopping only when it hit water. Even on some of the beaches I saw, the coastline was dark and reminded me of the black beaches of Vik in Iceland. The rocks, once hot flowing lava, are porous, and you can buy one as a souvenir for about $1.

Porous stones are used to fence off houses.
Porous stones made of lava are used to fence off houses.

It is these rocks that serve as a fence for the houses. But unlike most modern materials that often have to be packed, these rocks are stacked so that there is a hole that the wind can go through, preventing the wall from collapsing or being blown away. Instead of resisting the wind, they design to live with the wind and prevent it from creating a lot of damage. Even the streets are designed with the weather in mind; they are straight yet curved to block the wind.

The rocks are piled so that the wind can go through.
The rocks are piled so that the wind can go through.

2. Build low.

A traditional Jeju house
A traditional Jeju house

The houses are small bungalows. One floor is enough for families. Perhaps one reason is the available material of simple mud, stones, and straw, but another is the practicality. Unlike big cities where people are piled on top of each other, the villages of the old have houses where people can breathe. Of course, there are less people here, but still it’s a great reminder of how pleasant it can be if life was simple. Skyscrapers can make us feel small, invisible, and powerless. Lower buildings can make us feel more connected with each other and that we can shape our environments.

A nice vegetable garden
A nice vegetable garden
Pigpen + toilet. Yup.
Pigpen + toilet. Yup. They say the pork here is really good. I’m pescetarian, thank goodness.

3. Form a community.

One happy and one sad sunflower
One happy and one sad sunflower

There are cities that seem to be designed for exclusivity, but this traditional village is designed for just the opposite. Inclusivity allows for communication among villagers, allowing them to form feelings of belongingness and contribute to their sense of identity. They even used the three poles at their gates as a communication system where different configurations conferred meaning.

The gate is composed of these long sticks of wood that were arranged to convey different messages.
The gate is composed of these long sticks of wood that were arranged to convey different messages—their local communication system.

There are also cultural and historical artifacts in the village that make Jeju distinct. There was a Confucian school and shrine, old fortresses, and other structures that remind you of the cultural activities they used to do, such as folk games and local crafts—these are impressively called “intangible cultural assets” in Korea.

DSC07805
A Confucian school and shrine

 

Near the village were big dol hareubang (“stone grandfather”). Yes, they’re quite phallic. When newlyweds come to Jeju on their honeymoon, they are often led to this symbol. It is present in many places on the island and as small souvenirs. Touch the nose and you get a son. The ear, a daughter.

Dol hareubang
Dol hareubang

Climate change brings about other challenges to this island, however. Rising sea levels pose serious threats to Jeju’s groundwater, agriculture, and fisheries. It will be interesting to see how these resilient people adapt to what could be the new normal.

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